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When Refugees Lead

When Refugees Lead: A Conversation With An American Lawmaker

As part of our series ‘When Refugees Lead,’ we speak with Kathy Tran, a refugee from Vietnam who became the first Vietnamese-American elected to Virginia’s state legislature last year.

Written by Tania Karas Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Kathy Tran was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in November 2017. Courtesy of Kathy Tran

Kathy Tran was devastated by the 2016 presidential election in the United States. Having spent her infancy in a Malaysian refugee camp after her parents fled Vietnam, she arrived with her parents in the U.S. as refugees in the early 1980s, when she was two years old.

Now 39, she has spent much of her career working with refugees and immigrants. She started as an intern for the International Rescue Committee and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, then spent 12 years at the U.S. Department of Labor. More recently, she worked on workforce policy at the National Immigration Forum, an advocacy organization.

After President Donald Trump’s election ushered in an anti-refugee administration, Tran decided to enter politics. In November, she was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, becoming the first Vietnamese American – and one of the first Asian American women – in the state’s legislature.

Refugees Deeply: How did your family’s experiences when you first came to the U.S. influence your approach to refugee and immigration policy?

Kathy Tran: My dad was a dentist in Vietnam, and my mom was fluent in English and French. They came here with empty pockets, and we didn’t have strong social networks. The International Rescue Committee helped to resettle us to Los Angeles.

“The role of work as an entryway into American society and part of your integration into the community – that’s what motivated me.”

Growing up, I saw the troubles refugees have in terms of the role of language. My dad had a hard time finding his first job; either he was told he was overqualified or he just didn’t have the English-language skills. That stayed with me. Then I saw him get a job as a dental technician. His first boss was Mr. Sam – we’ll always remember that. My dad was able to open his own dental lab and later got his professional license in the U.S. and became a practicing dentist. He was able to mentor others, and became a small business leader.

The role of work as an entry into American society and part of your integration into the community – that’s what motivated me. I also saw how communities form, and the strength of communities and social networks.

Refugees Deeply: How do you see the role of government as well as local communities in facilitating integration?

Tran: When we’re thrown into chaotic situations that are completely unknown and foreign, the ability to survive, to figure out how to provide for your family – it’s just the primal need. At the same time, we all need a little bit of help. It’s heartwarming how a community can develop and welcome the stranger.

The other piece is for our government services to work for our most vulnerable communities – but to recognize that, for a lot of refugees, the government in their home countries may have been a very difficult presence. So it might not be natural for them to reach out [for help] in the way we might expect them to.

Refugees Deeply: What do you think the U.S. is getting wrong, and what do you think it’s getting right on integration for new arrivals?

Kathy Tran at seven months old with her mother in Pulau Bidong refugee camp in Malaysia. (Courtesy of Kathy Tran)

Tran: A lot of refugees have professional experience, with backgrounds where they’re highly trained and educated. We need to be thinking about how to break down barriers, whether it’s an English-language skills issue or the high cost of getting a license or authenticating work experience from abroad.

We need more funding for adult English-language classes at the federal and state level. Organizations such as Upwardly Global are doing really amazing jobs helping to map out the pathway to getting professional licensure in certain occupations in specific states. In some cities and states, the mayor or the county has an office of integration that helps immigrants and refugees navigate this landscape. This includes brokering partnerships with employers around internships and apprenticeships that take into consideration English-language barriers and such.

There should be recognition, from purely a workforce perspective, that refugees bring a lot of talent, and we just have to figure out ways to unlock that talent. That’s good for their families, and it’s also good for our economy.

Refugees Deeply: Was there anything in your background as a refugee and immigrant that drove you to run for office?

Tran: The outcome of the presidential election really devastated my husband and me. I was due with my fourth child on Inauguration Day in January 2017.

“My kids, all four of them, needed to understand that both their father and I are going to do everything we can, that we had to stand up right now and fight for these values.”

After the 2016 election, it became very clear that those values my parents risked our lives for to come to the U.S. – hope, opportunity, freedom – were under threat. My husband has family that escaped anti-Semitism at the turn of the century and passed through Ellis Island in their process of immigrating in America. We gave our daughter a name to reflect our values: Elise Minh Khanh. Elise is inspired by Ellis Island; Minh Khanh is Vietnamese for “bright bell,” and that was inspired by the Liberty Bell. Her name means to ring the bell for liberty and champion opportunity for all.

When I made the decision to run [for office], I spent a month in absolute worry and terror about what’s happening to our country. My kids, all four of them, needed to understand that both their father and I are going to do everything we can, that we had to stand up right now and fight for these values.

Refugees Deeply: President Trump has talked about providing aid to refugees where they are, as more cost-efficient than resettling them. How does your family history influence your feelings on the responsibility of the U.S. to provide both aid and refuge?

Tran: I think it’s a complete moral failure to expect people to just live in terror or to put their life on hold in a refugee camp awaiting either their country’s situation to be resolved or resettlement. What if nobody wants to take you in? That’s taking away people’s future. At least for my family, what gave them hope was how could they create a better future for themselves and for me.

I think we have both a strong moral and an economic imperative to continue to have a welcoming approach to those fleeing horrific situations. There are places across the U.S. where the native population isn’t able to keep up with the workforce needs. We have places where there’s active recruitment to resettle refugees … to help meet those new corporate needs, to sustain the economy.

Refugees Deeply: What are some of your goals in office on shaping immigration and refugee policy at the Virginia state level?

Tran: I’m one of the first Asian American women and the first Vietnamese American to be elected to Virginia state government. So I have a legislative strategy, but also a responsibility [as an immigrant] in terms of lifting up these perspectives and experiences. I want to make sure that we are as welcoming and inclusive as possible as a state.

In the [Virginia] House, I introduced a bill to create an office of immigrant assistance. That bill died, unfortunately, on a partisan basis. So I’m thinking about my legislative agenda for the next session. There’s an office of career services that focuses on the refugee resettlement program, which refugees can only participate in for a limited time [but] after that they still need support navigating services. We want to make sure we’re offering opportunities to connect with community-based and faith-based organizations and others that are already providing good support for our immigrants and refugees.

I also introduced a bill that would have prohibited state and local entities that collect data on religious beliefs and identity from ever sharing that with the federal government. We have heard a lot of rhetoric from this administration about creating a Muslim registry. That bill got bipartisan support but also died in subcommitttee.

Refugees Deeply: Most refugee policy, including the number who will be resettled in a particular year, is devised at the federal level. But if the federal government isn’t open to taking refugees, what can cities and states do to shape policy?

Tran: States don’t control the number of refugees that can come in. However, for those that are still being resettled, and for refugees who are here, you have to think about … what their ongoing needs might be.

Establishing an office for immigrant Americans or an office of immigrant assistance is a statement that we welcome immigrants and refugees; that we want to have a point of contact for you, that we want to work with trusted leaders, that we want to work with community and faith organizations to support you. We want you here. We are going to help you succeed. That’s a clear value statement.

A state sets its budget. A budget is really a policy document. It’s how you’re going to fund your policy priorities – funding English-language services and training that help people with experiences from abroad enter work here successfully, so they don’t have to start on square one. For our schools to promote things like prior learning assessments or to give credit for work and academic experience abroad so that you could move toward a U.S. degree much more quickly. There are so many ways that states can be supportive.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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