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A father, his adopted daughter, and America's mixed feelings on immigration

Feb 14, 2018

When I was growing up, we were taught we should be proud to be a nation of immigrants.

Later, as a young reporter, I learned that Americans held complex and contradictory views on immigration, views that all too often could be summed up as: "Immigration was great right up until the boat that brought my ancestors over. After that, it should have been stopped." 

Generally, our leaders were better than we were. When he was running for president, one candidate I covered years ago condemned the idea of a border wall with Mexico. “Rather than talking about putting up a fence, why don’t we work out some recognition of our mutual problems?”

No, that wasn’t Bernie Sanders. It was Ronald Reagan.

But today I want to tell you a story which illustrates something about America and how conflicted we are. I work with a nonprofit agency that has a brilliant chief development officer.

When I first met her, I assumed she was largely Chinese. Later, she told me she had been born in Korea, and adopted by an American soldier — a blue-collar kid from Detroit. She was in line for a top leadership post in a Korean-American organization when her father said he needed to talk to her.

“I did things in Vietnam you don’t know about,” he told her.

She was puzzled. “You mean Korea?” she said.

“No, Vietnam.”

“But you didn’t even get sent overseas till after the fall of Saigon,” she told her dad.

That was true. But the U.S. was still doing highly dangerous intelligence work in Vietnam, and he was part of a covert operations team that they snuck into the country. She still doesn’t know what they did there. Perhaps she doesn’t want to know. But one night, sneaking through a rice paddy, her dad heard the piteous cry of what he thought was a little pygmy goat.

But it wasn’t a goat. It was an abandoned, apparently dying baby.

“I’m taking this baby back,” he said. His commanding officer told him to leave it there. He refused, knowing he risked court-martial. He fully expected that. However, punishing him would have risked exposing what his team was doing. He rushed the baby to a hospital, which told him it was very, very sick.

My stunned friend asked her father “Did the baby survive?”

“Yes,” he said. “She became you.”

When she recovered from the shock, he said he thought she needed to find out before she became a spokesperson for Korean-Americans.

Her father, whose wife had left him while he was in the service, was a great dad. He never remarried till after she had grown up. But when I asked if I could interview him for a longer version of this story, she told me sadly that they aren’t talking these days.

That’s because he voted for Donald Trump because he thought immigrants were stealing American jobs. Even though he actually showed what the real American response to immigrants should be when he plucked that baby out of that rice paddy more than 40 years ago.

Like most of us, he is a bundle of contradictions. That can’t be helped. But most of us do have what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.”

And I wish we still had leaders who’d remind us who we really are.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.