EDITOR'S NOTE: Shortly after September 11, 2001, New America Media editor and author Andrew Lam received a letter from his cousin in Vietnam, posing a simple question: Is coming to America still worth the journey? Following is Lam's response. This letter, originally published by Pacific News Service in 2001, has been updated by Lam, who reflects on his cousin's question, ten years later.
Dear Cousin D.,
Is coming to America Still Worth the journey? Since 911, your question has sprung from many corners of the world, and the answers may trouble the hearts of those who once dreamed of the grandeur of America.
In a way the dust cloud from the destroyed World Trade Center a decade ago hasn’t fully settled. It continues to veil our nation’s once blue and gracious sky. To live in America these days, I’m sad to say, is to accept a new set of norms.
First and foremost is the erosion of civil liberties. Mass deportation of undocumented immigrants who toil on our land has become the new norm, and those without proper papers get swept up in wide sweeping government dragnets, and many sent to detention centers to await deportation. Never mind that they leave husbands, wives, and children behind who lead shattered lives.
Documented immigrants too face unfair treatments. Those who were found guilty of a crime – sometimes a misdemeanor offense – could render you eligible for deportation. A classic case: A construction worker peeing in the street was arrested for indecent exposure. He was sent back to Cambodia, a country he has no memories of since he fled as a little boy. He left behind a wife and several children in the United States.
But the erosion of rights is not limited only to immigrants; it extends to all citizens as well. It erodes slowly but surely at the core. Nowhere is this more obvious than at American airports, where talk of dissent, even in a casual conversation, might likely cause you to be reported. Arrests happen when someone or another mentions the word bomb, even as a joke. Even an accent can land you in jail: A South Asian man was arrested for allegedly making a terrorist threat at Chicago O’Hare airport. What did he do? He purportedly said the word “pump” to the TSA agent who heard it as “bomb.”
My real fear, however, is that it’s the country itself that has become a kind of mega-airport. With the extension of the so called Patriot Act, the U.S. government can probe deeply into private lives, as this new law gives the FBI power to obtain records without a warrant, wiretapping anyone it deems a suspect, an act that overrides the constitutional rights of citizens. In such a new America, one checks one's tongue, one checks up on one’s neighbor, and one’s neighbor does the same.
While America once stood for freedom and democracy, it is not clear what the nation stands for these days. Abroad, two wars are being waged in the name of security but at home, that insecurity defines the general mood of the populace. In the last decades, we have condoned torture in the form of waterboarding, and we kidnap foreign citizens and call it "extraordinary rendition." We assassinate our enemies by using drones in the sky, and we call the killing of innocents who are caught in all of this war against terrorism “collateral damage.” It is yet another new norm – a bitter pill – that we learned to swallow. For more, read here. (or go to newamericamedia.org)