At the bitter and chaotic end of the war in Vietnam, in April 1975, America undertook a massive airlift of South Vietnamese refugees out of the grip of the communist conquerors and to a safer, more accommodating place where immigrants of every hue and tongue eventually blend in and become Americans.
On a fine spring morning around that time, Maryland Gov. Marvin Mandel (D) was in his State House office bantering with staff aides when his secretary interrupted to announce a phone call from President Gerald Ford’s State Department.
Mandel was briefed on the airlift of evacuees and asked how many he was willing to accept into Maryland. The governor protested, arguing that Maryland was a heavily unionized state and any such wholesale dump of outsiders would take jobs from Maryland workers and cause resentment.
“Fine, governor,” the State Department bureaucrat said. “Because we don’t want to cause a problem for you, we’ll give you only fifty thousand.”
It wasn’t long before the designated allotment of Vietnamese refugees (the exact number is unknown) were set down, unannounced, in Silver Spring, the Maryland suburb attached to the nation’s capital, to begin new lives in a strange culture with the help of the United States government that had exacerbated the internal war to begin with. Eventually, 500,000 Vietnamese were resettled in the U.S. in cities and towns across the country.
Nobody uttered a peep. In fact, very few people were aware of the newly arrived residents of Silver Spring. And soon, the Vietnamese refugees had established themselves as productive working-class community participants – house cleaners, manicurists, mom-and-pop storeowners – spending their disposable dollars at Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue in Bethesda just like many Americans.
Today, they have faded into the American mosaic, mindful of the past but living very much in the present tense.
At the time, there was no ICE – the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, viewed by many as kind of an American goon squad. But to the point, ICE agents are out front taking the public heat for the real provocateurs, President Trump, Trump’s sockpuppet Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and White House policy minister and speechwriter Steve Miller. Oh, yes, and don’t forget the isolationist marplot, Steve Bannon.
ICE was not founded until 2003. It was established under the administration of President George W. Bush and is part of the Department of Homeland Security, the same agency that oversees airport pat-downs and whose secretary, Kirstjen Nielsen, was picketed recently during dinner at a District Mexican restaurant. That, in itself, is comic enough for a “Seinfeld” episode.
Vietnamese evacuees played another important role in Maryland life and culture.
Steamed blue crabs are a summertime backyard and crab-house pleasure in Baltimore and beyond. Back at the time of the airlift, the crabs pulled from the Chesapeake Bay were considered scrawny, not good for much but soup (or crab sauce for pasta), hardly the heft that fetch top-dollar as primes.
A local entrepreneur, the late Leon Ruthenberg, owner of the original Bo Brooks Crab House on Bel Air Road, had a bright idea. He made a deal with resettled Vietnamese fishermen along the Texas coast to establish a crab processing business to supply a consortium of five Baltimore crab houses with weighty Gulf crabs and hand-picked jumbo lump crab meat. Ruthenberg owned both ends of the water-to-table loop, the production in Texas and the distribution in Baltimore, controlling both supply and demand.
Gulf crabs are the same species as Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and have that same solid succulent taste that today’s mealy imported product from Venezuela and Thailand lack. Ruthenberg and his Vietnamese partners prospered. At their peak, they were flying 1,000 bushels of prime, meaty crabs a day from Texas to Baltimore, and Ruthenberg asked the governor’s office if they could convince Delta Airlines to increase its bushel limit and transport even more.
This is, or, until now, has been, the American way – arrive, work, achieve, assimilate.
Today, the Eastern Shore’s crab processing plants are idle. Maryland lost out in the government’s lottery for seasonal workers, usually the women from Mexico who travel north for a few months to do the low-paying, tedious work of picking crab meat to satisfy summer tables here and across the country. Americans refuse to do the laborious work. And if you’re thinking Gulf or North Carolina substitute jumbo lump crab meat, assume nearly $50 a pound.
The irony – and there usually is one – is that there are thousands of migrants in pens and holding camps who are eager for a chance to pick a crab or clean a house as a start to a new life doing the dirty work that Americans refuse to do for themselves. That’s how every new wave of immigrants begins its climb.
Jobs in America are going begging. Unemployment is at a low of 4 percent, a tick up from the 3.8 percent where it hovered for months. The trucking industry, according to reports, desperately needs an estimated 60,000 more drivers and is paying sign-up bonuses to those who do the grueling work of long-haul driving. The construction business can’t keep pace with the low end of the industry’s job needs. Grass always needs cutting and power mowers and leaf blowers await. The list is long and the applicants too few.
President Trump has spread the vicious misimpression, as he usually does, that Hispanics are clogging the immigration pipeline. Actually, the largest number of immigrants to America are Chinese, followed by mid-Easterners.
Most Hispanics making the long dusty and murderously risky trek to the Mexican border are from El Salvador and Guatemala. They are, in a sense, victims of a U.S. war just as the Vietnamese were. America’s war on the drug cartels in Columbia was so successful that while it cleansed that country of violence it also drove the drug lords and gangs to other Latino nations, mainly Mexico and the others lower on the peninsula. Many of those seeking asylum are victims of drug wars. They are not, as Trump would have us believe, as the 35-percenters do, members of the vicious MS-13 gangs.
Trump has been relentlessly inconsistent in his approach to immigration – from his fear-of-foreigners campaign mongering, blaming Democrats for the border mess and his denial of due process before tossing migrants out. Trump’s latest tweet on the subject urged Congress to “FIX OUR INSANE IMMIGRATION LAWS NOW.”
Earlier he tweeted that Congress “should stop wasting their time” until after the mid-term elections. The sum total of his disjointed ranting and raving means the protests and the issue may be catching up with him. There are still 3,000 children separated from their parents. And a new Reuters/Ipsis poll shows that 52 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Trump is handling the border issue.
Trump has wrapped himself in the pregnable shield of national security. The nation is secure except for all those subversives who drive foreign cars, harbor immigrants, tap out columns on Chinese computers and perform household chores with imported appliances, not to mention those who wear Trump-branded sweat-shop clothing, his and hers.
That covers pretty much all of the threats to national security except undocumented Hispanics who can’t afford imported goods because of Trump’s tariffs. Maybe Trump will ask Vladimir Putin for tips at their July 16 summit on how to deal with seditious American consumers of foreign products.