In her first book, “We Are All Suspects Now” (Beacon Press), released exactly four years after Sept. 11, Tram Nguyen tells the personal stories of immigrants whose lives have been affected, often tragically, by the political aftermath of this historic date. Exploring the post-Sept. 11 tension between civil liberties and national security, Nguyen traces changes made to immigration, asylum and criminal policy and looks at the detrimental effects those changes have had on thousands of immigrants, from those who have been detained and deported to those who have lost their jobs, their housing and their businesses.
Nguyen, executive editor of Colorlines magazine, was one of the speakers at the Nonprofit Assistance Center (NAC) Fifth Annual Technical Assistance Resource Conference. With her research from her book, she presented a workshop on Homeland Security versus immigrant rights. In the workshop, she discussed the importance of hearing directly from immigrants, and to bring their experiences to the front and center.
Q: This book is a collection of stories of immigrants from around the country. How did you find the families to talk to?
A: I found them through community organizers and immigrant rights lawyers who provided contacts with the people they were working with. For instance, the family in the beginning of Chapter 1, who go to visit Mohammad Akram inside detention, I was able to accompany because of the NYC group Desis Rising Up and Moving. Many other folks at organizations around the country were invaluable in providing me access and guidance to finding people whose stories exemplified the issues we were talking about.
Q: Was it difficult to get immigrants to talk about their experience?
A: Because of the help I had in establishing trust, I didn’t find it especially difficult to get people to talk about what happened to them. In fact, everyone was very forthcoming and anxious to share their experiences. Even someone like Sadru Noorani, who doesn’t come out looking that good (he helped hundreds of people register during Special Registration in Chicago), was very open and honest with me about his role and regrets.
Q: As a Vietnamese American, did immigrants feel more at ease talking to you?
A: I think it did help that I am an immigrant and a former refugee. I didn’t make my background a big part of our conversations, but in a couple of incidents, interviewees bonded with me about similar experiences — Bobby Khan and I had several talks about his experience as a political prisoner in Pakistan and my dad’s imprisonment in Communist Vietnam. I also had a memorable moment talking to Sadru Noorani when he shared an Urdu saying: you make a hole in your boat when you come. I ended up using that in the conclusion, because it resonated so much with the experiences of Vietnamese refugees, some of whom literally broke their boats so as not to be sent back.
Q: What has been the response to the book? Any surprises?
A: The response to the book has truly surprised me. I think the timing of the book’s release has been helpful – it came out September of this year and, with that four-year distance from Sept. 11, I think we are at a moment where there is an opening and a need to be reflective and to take stock of the events that came about during the domestic war on terror. I’ve also been surprised at the depth of anti-immigrant sentiment. At the same time, there’s much more lack of awareness about post-Sept. 11 issues of civil liberties and immigration and racial discrimination than I realized.
Q: Do you have hope for a turn in our nation’s policies?
A: It does seem dismal, and to be realistic, I don’t think that the kind of scapegoating we see at home will change without a change in U.S. military policies abroad. Things are very volatile right now, and could get worse definitely — the specter of another terrorist attack remains, and policies like the Patriot Act would pale in comparison to the type of security state that could result. In the face of these monumental challenges, I think we do have some opportunities to push for sane and humane solutions — and they would have to be long term solutions that include effective, non-abusive law enforcement practices at home and ending preemptive military actions abroad, at the very least. These opportunities, that do give me a glimmer of home, come in the form of the rising dissent toward the use of torture and secrecy in military prisons like Guantanamo; or in the growing skepticism toward this Homeland Security bureaucracy that scares us silly with color-coded alerts but does little to actually protect people in the face of real dangers like Katrina.