Michigan needs more immigrants

Oct 7, 2013

State Representative Harvey Santana, a Detroit Democrat, thinks we need to make this a more immigrant-friendly state. He believes that could lead to Michigan becoming the leading state in the nation in job creation and economic development. Two weeks ago, something incredible happened that showed me exactly how right that is.

Thirty-one years ago, I wrote a magazine story on a Hmong family that had undergone terrible suffering on behalf of the United States of America. Say Yang Lee was sort of a village headman during what we call the Vietnam War. The Hmong are a minority in Laos, and they helped the Americans during that war. When it ended, the Hmong paid a terrible price.

Say Yang, his wife, and their children fled on foot through jungles in Laos and Thailand. Four of the children died, including their eldest daughter. They eventually made it to Toledo, Ohio, where I did a story on them for a newspaper Sunday magazine, which put their family portrait on their cover.

When I met the parents, they spoke next to no English. They had no marketable skills. I thought their prospects fairly bleak. The only one who stood out was an engaging, gap-toothed six-year-old. But I forgot about them – until last month, when I heard from the family who had sponsored them.

The six-year-old I remembered, Kia, had grown up to become a high-powered sales and marketing coordinator for a California firm. Today, she is an incredibly lovely woman with four children.

Her parents had framed the cover photo and hung it in their home. Growing up, the children had been curious about the man who wrote about them. Say Yang Lee is in his early 70s, and just had a serious liver operation. The family decided it was time to try and find me, and Kia and her sisters did.

Against the odds, the Lees had done very well. The parents had three more children after I knew them. One, Frances, works in a bank in the Detroit suburbs. The baby, Christina, trained as a nurse before becoming an events coordinator for a high-tech Silicon Valley startup.

The patriarch, Say Yang, did learn fluent English. Before he retired, he had become head of maintenance at the University of Toledo. His nine children are scattered across four states and have produced 29 grandchildren.

Virtually all the Lees are doing well. Most have higher education. Say Yang and his wife pressed the older girls, including Kia and her sisters, to marry Hmong men in their teens. They did, but the marriages didn’t last. Kia moved to California and is now happily married to a non-Asian man.

A few years ago, Kia took her parents back to Laos. She and her dad reflected that they might not have survived. ” If it could be summed up in one word, it would be freedom,” she said. “Hmong would do just about anything to keep their culture, their people, alive.” Because of that, she said “it now makes a lot of sense why they fought alongside the U.S.”

Later, I reflected that bringing a few thousand people like the Lees to Detroit probably would be the best way to save the city anyone could imagine.   

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