By Guest Contributor: Quyen Dinh, MPP (Executive Director of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center)
I grew up poor but never knew just how I poor was until I hit middle school.
In elementary school, my day started with getting breakfast from the cafeteria window, where I got to choose a cereal box along with a small carton of milk from our cafeteria lady, Angie. She had short curly silver hair and always happily provided us our breakfast, along with a great smile.
For lunch, I lined up with the rest of my classmates to get lunch from Angie, too. Each of us carried a small envelope with our names on it.
I didn’t realize, though, that my envelope was different from the other students. While other students had money in their envelopes with cash to pay for the weekly price of school lunch, mine was empty. Instead, my envelope had my name on it along with five checked boxes for every day of the week – Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday –that I was able to receive free lunch.
On days I didn’t have breakfast at school, my favorite cereal of choice at home was Kix. Along with Kix, I remember growing up with a healthy supply of cheese, packaged in huge bricks in cardboard-colored paper. My refugee parents who had arrived to the United States as survivors of war from Vietnam had no idea what to do with so much cheese.
As I got older, I realized that I was a free lunch kid, and that through food stamps, my parents were able to make sure that no one ever went hungry in my family of six.
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In middle school, our free lunch program changed. Free lunch kids had to get to school early to pick up our blue laminated vouchers. When we lined up for lunch, free lunch kids stood in line with our blue vouchers, and we started to get looks from friends who didn’t need these vouchers. I became aware that I was different. That I was poor.
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This story of growing up on free lunch programs, food stamps, and WIC is not just my story alone, but that of the more than one million Southeast Asians from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam who found refuge in America after fleeing war-torn countries, oftentimes with nothing but the clothes on their back.
Today, even after more than 40 years of being in the United States, Southeast Asian American families continue to face challenges of poverty. According to the US Census, 11% of Lao families, 13% of Vietnamese families, 14.9% of Cambodian families, and 16.3% of Hmong families live below the poverty line.
Because of high rates of poverty, our communities rely on government assistance programs such as SNAP (previously food stamps), Medicaid, and housing assistance.
In fact, my childhood and life today was made possible because of all of these benefits.
It was Medicaid that allowed me to be fully immunized and ready for school. I remember spending full days at the doctor’s office just to get checked-up, but I thought all kids had the same experience. It was Medicaid that allowed my brother to be admitted to the hospital when he had an asthma attack. That allowed for another younger brother to get treatment after a high school football game for a torn meniscus.
It was Section 8 housing assistance that provided a roof over my head. That allowed me to grow up in integrated neighborhoods in both Orange County, CA, and San Jose, CA. That allowed my dad to save enough money to eventually buy a home for our family.
It was food stamps, Medicaid, and housing assistance that allowed my brothers and me to grow up as American kids when our refugee parents were doing everything they could to make ends meet for us.
Today, the Trump administration seeks to define people like me and my parents as “public charge” offenders – i.e. immigrants who were using excessive governmental assistance programs that would make my parents unworthy of receiving a green card if they wanted to apply for one.
Granted, my family would have been safe from the new “public charge” proposal because it doesn’t apply to those with refugee status like my parents.
However, this delineation should not exist. All immigrants to this country, whether refugee or not, should have the right not just to arrive but thrive by building healthy families through the use of governmental assistance programs.
Our America should allow all those seeking the American dream to access the resources they need to build that dream. But today, this new “public charge” proposal advanced by the Trump administration turns its back on our country’s global humanitarian leadership by revoking the ability for contributing immigrants to access those resources if they want to apply for a green card.
The decision between feeding your children through SNAP or getting a green card is one that immigrant families should never have to choose to survive. This choice is only being proposed by the Trump administration because they don’t believe in the America in which I believe or in which I grew up.
The America of my childhood allowed me to be a recipient of SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, and public housing. The America of my childhood believed these supports would allow me to transform into the person I am today. The America of my childhood provided resources that allowed my family the opportunity to live and build our American dream through hardship and resilience. And the America of my childhood created who I am today — an executive director of a national nonprofit organization. The America of my childhood built my family – who are now homeowners, business owners, educators, nurses, and social workers.
My America did not reject those in need when they needed support the most.
My America I believe in today does not think that I, nor others like me, should be punished because of our poverty – conditions I did not create but was born into. My America rejects that I should have grown up feeling ashamed or marginalized because of my poverty.
As a beneficiary of America’s governmental aid, I will stand up for the right of all who seek the American dream to be able to access the same resources to make that dream a reality.
Together, with immigrants, refugees, and Americans, we denounce a proposal that rejects our America.
Our America is proud to welcome all, protect all, and allow all families with the opportunity to transform their dreams into reality.
Our America celebrates the resilience that immigrants bring to this country, and our America protects their human right to live and thrive with dignity.
Quyen Dinh is the Executive Director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC). Originally formed in 1979, SEARAC was founded by a group of American humanitarians as a direct response to the refugee crises arising throughout Southeast Asia as a result of U.S. military actions. Today, SEARAC is a civil rights organization that represents the largest refugee community ever resettled in America. It works to empower Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese American communities to create a socially just and equitable society through policy advocacy, advocacy capacity building, community engagement, and mobilization.
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