In the essay “On Being a Refugee, an American – and a Human Being,” Viet Thanh Nguyen defends the presence of refugees in American society. Nguyen published “On Being a Refugee…” shortly after 2016, the year the global refugee population rose to an all-time high of 65.6 million people (20 People). It was also the year the United States elected President Donald Trump, whose campaign trail rhetoric frequently dehumanized refugees (Warnock 8). Writing to readers who were thus likely aware of the refugee crises, Nguyen strove to counter the inflammatory language being used by, among others, the President of the United States. To do so, he offers a timely and sympathetic recharacterization of refugees as a population vulnerable to prejudice, yet deserving of refuge. In his essay, Nguyen establishes American responsibility for the Vietnamese refugee crisis and credibly disputes the discrimination levied against refugees. He also invokes his family’s experience fleeing the Vietnam War, emotively persuading readers to sympathize with those forcibly displaced from their homelands. Using these rhetorical strategies, Nguyen urges the US to be more inclusive towards refugees.
Nguyen compellingly rationalizes American responsibility towards refugees by exposing the contradiction between US culpability in many refugee crises and its purported national ideals. He reveals how the combativeness of American foreign policy often “played a role in creating refugees,” ranging from bombing much of Vietnam to “destabiliz[ing]” Central American countries “through supporting dictatorial regimes,” which caused “drug wars” (Nguyen). He reasons that because American involvement precipitated many refugee crises, a “debt” towards refugees should be paid in the form of resettlement (Nguyen). Nguyen also quotes the Statue of Liberty’s famous welcoming words to show that it is in the US’ ethos of equality and opportunity to accept even those who are “poor” or “tired.” Consequently, he laments the US’ failure to bear responsibility for refugee crises as a divergence from its national values. His argumentation is persuasive in its bluntness – Nguyen challenges American society to live up to its ideals by accepting refugees.
Having established the moral and causational reasons America should accept refugees, Nguyen contends that immigration laws are often discriminatory, and should therefore be corrected. For instance, he points to how nineteenth century anti-Chinese sentiment manifested in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (Nguyen). Citing the eventual overturning of said law, Nguyen argues that fears concerning foreigners are frequently “irrational” and later disproven. In addition to rebuking anti-immigration legislation, Nguyen’s example vindicates pro-refugee sentiment, persuading readers to agree with him and what he portrays as the right side of history. Furthermore, Nguyen continues his critiques against immigration law by contrasting US acceptance of Vietnamese refugees against its rejection of Haitian refugees in the 1970’s. Nguyen identifies this double-standard as a consequence of “racial politics” in which “model minorities” were given precedence. He thus exposes American treatment of refugees as both hostile historically and racially inequitable in contemporary times. By highlighting how US policy inherits a legacy of anti-refugee prejudice, Nguyen reveals the troubling biases embedded in immigration law. Appealing to the reader’s sense of justice and rationality, he convinces readers that the US should strive for greater equality when enacting legislation pertaining to refugees.
To advocate American acceptance of refugees, Nguyen reinforces his arguments with personal credibility. Leveraging his identity as a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, he dismantles the allegedly meritocratic arguments used to bar refugees from the US. Referencing not only his own success, but that of his Harvard-educated brother as well – Nguyen establishes his family as just one example of how refugees contribute significantly to American society. Yet he also maintains that even those who do not achieve spectacular professional success deserve a place in the US. Nguyen equates ordinary Americans with their refugee counterparts, maintaining that if the average American could not be deported for being average, then neither should the average refugee. He invites readers to relate to being an average American, allowing the notion that mediocrity should not warrant deportation to reassure and resonate. Moreover, by likening average Americans to refugees, readers are encouraged to relate to refugees in supporting equal opportunity. Through acknowledging the anomalous quality of his success, Nguyen uses his credibility in advocacy of equality, contending that Americans and refugees alike deserve opportunities in the US.
Additionally, Nguyen draws heavily from his personal experience to inspire compassion for his cause. He invites readers to relate to his struggles and – by extension – the struggles of refugees in general. For example, Nguyen recalls his own deeply traumatic childhood memories of fleeing the Vietnamese War, writing that his family “walked 184 km to the nearest port” to escape, and his brother still remembers the “dead paratroopers hanging from the trees.” He also describes himself “howling as [he] was taken from [his] parents” to be “sent to live with a white sponsor family,” an indisputably “scarring” experience for a four-year-old (Nguyen). These descriptions help readers visualize the horrific circumstances refugees are seeking refuge from, stirring sympathy for the latter’s plight. By consistently using first-person pronouns like “I” and “my”, he shares painful experiences with the reader as if in private conversation. The candid tone allows readers to intimately understand a struggle they may be unfamiliar with. Through evoking his own powerful emotions such as anguish, Nguyen invites readers to empathize with refugees, predisposing them to accept his reasoning on why the US should be more inclusive to refugees.
While the essay is consistently persuasive, featuring effective deployment of the aforementioned rhetorical strategies, Nguyen’s reasoning could benefit from more evidence when he attempts to redirect xenophobic anxieties. He observes that “the average American, or European” may perceive their job security threatened by “refugees or immigrants,” thereby recognizing the prevalence of such aversion (Nguyen). Nguyen concedes that there is indeed “an economic plight” fueling the fears of the “middle class.” However, he merely asserts in response that “the real culprits” of this widening inequity are “corporate interests and individuals” instead (Nguyen). Nguyen’s lack of evidence weakens his attempt to divert the economic aspect of anti-refugee resentment. The inclusion of socioeconomic statistics indicating disproportionate wealth concentration among said corporations – as well as the individuals at their helm – would have strengthened the believability of Nguyen’s counterargument.
By establishing American responsibility towards multiple refugee crises, beginning to deconstruct anti-refugee prejudice, and appealing to the reader’s sympathies, Nguyen successfully advocates the existence of a place for refugees in American society. Countering the vitriol being espoused, Nguyen characterizes refugees as equally deserving of opportunities as any other American. Defending refugees in general allows his humanitarian argument to be easily contextualized to exigent crises like the Syrian War, or undocumented Latinx immigrants at the southern border. His empathetic rationale not only persuades readers but also lays the rhetorical foundation for Americans to advocate humane refugee policies, challenging the nation to treat vulnerable populations with the dignity they deserve.
“20 People Are Newly Displaced Every Minute of the Day.” UNHCR, UN Refugee Agency, www.unhcr.org/globaltrends2016/.
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. “Viet Thanh Nguyen on Being a Refugee, an American - and a Human Being.” Financial Times, Financial Times, 3 Feb. 2017, www.ft.com/content/0cd9f69a-e89e-11e6-967b-c88452263daf.
Warnock, Amanda. “The Dehumanization of Immigrants and Refugees: A Comparison of Dehumanizing Rhetoric by All Candidates in Three U.S. Presidential Elections
” Purdue e-Pubs, Purdue University, 2019, docs.lib.purdue.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1428&context=purc.