“Qui parle francais?” the consular officer from France’s Embassy in Bangkok called out in 1979 to crowds of ragged refugees newly escaped from collapsing Maoist rule in Cambodia. By the end of the Khmer Rouge’s 1,000-day reign over Cambodia, French-speakers were rare. Every French-speaking member of my wife’s family was executed in the killing fields.
With that simple appeal — who speaks French? — France creamed off the top 10 percent of Cambodia’s 500,000 refugees — those who had been to a French lycee. Fast-forward four decades, these 50,000 immigrants and their children are among the most successful ethnic groups in France.
In contrast, the U.S. largely imported war-traumatized rice farmers with little education. Half a century later, high school graduation rates for Cambodian-American are low — 50 percent. Drive two hours east of the Berkshires to Lowell, home to the second largest Cambodia-American community after Glendale, Calif. Behind the well-run, well-stocked Cambodian markets, there usually is a Vietnamese manager.
I bring this up because if an American consular official were to call out “Who speaks English?” to a crowd of Afghan refugees in Qatar, about 90 percent would raise their hands. The State Department fusses with lengthy procedures and vetting processes. Instead, let’s cut the red tape and say out loud that most of the men and women who worked with Americans in Afghanistan would make great immigrants. This generation needs a Richard Armitage. That U.S. Naval officer broke rules and personally led a flotilla of ships carrying 30,000 Vietnamese refugees from Saigon to Subic Bay, Philippines — 1,000 miles.
A while back, I stopped by the Berkshire Immigrant Center in Pittsfield to ask for advice for my wife. Fresh from Phnom Penh, I asked Lorena Dus, now director of client and community services, about the job situation in the Berkshires. She cut me off: “We are not an employment agency.” Then, she went to say: “I get calls every week from employers who ask: ‘Lorena, who do you have?’”
Why do you think that High Lawn Farm in Lee is largely run by Colombians? How many people in Lee, Lenox or Stockbridge will get up at 6 a.m. and milk the cows? Remember: Cows don’t take weekends off.
Last summer, a Mexican-Honduran-Ecuadorian trio cleaned my house in central Lenox, which I rented out through Airbnb. They worked like clockwork, never skipping a beat: 17 cleanouts in two months. Think of the cash these New Yorkers and Bostonians injected into Lenox restaurants — all made possible by a rock solid cleanout crew.
A few years ago, Bob Broadis, then sheriff of Pitkin County, Colo., explained to me his policy of zero enforcement of immigration laws. He said: “If it weren’t for the Mexicans washing the dishes, cleaning the toilets and taking out the garbage, you would smell Aspen from 50 miles away.” Broadis was reelected five times, serving a total of 24 years.
Last week, my son George was hospitalized overnight for an elbow operation at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield. Over 24 hours, the nursing shifts included women from Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Jamaica. All were very professional, very nice and very fluent in English. Our country’s gain. Their native countries’ loss.
The next time you drive north to Canada, play this game: Tell the Canadian border officer that you are thinking of immigrating. If you are older than 40, that welcoming Canadian smile will flatline. You can visualize wheels spinning in his or her head: “Hmmm, another middle-aged American plotting to freeload off our national health system.”
Face it: For human beings, our most productive years are the half-century between 18 and 68.
A Honduran teenager who walks the length of Central America for the chance to work in the U.S. sounds like a great asset. Immigrant-phobes look at an 18-year-old who has hiked across three countries to get to the U.S. border as a future gang-banger. I see a motivated, ambitious individual — man or woman — with a great future. The U.S. was built by young strivers with dodgy papers, including my forebear James Brooke, aged 21, in 1699.
An Afghan who goes back to Kabul airport after suicide bombers is worth talking to. The U.S. should import Afghan interpreters by the C-5A Galaxy-load.