SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Assemblyman Tyler Diep remembers what he saw as a wide-eyed 8-year-old boy arriving in San Diego with his mom and dad from their native Vietnam in 1991.
“Clean. Quiet. Big, compared to Saigon.”
His parents had waited eight years to be allowed to come to America. They spoke no English when they settled into their first apartment near San Diego State University. They had no money, no job, nothing other than aspirations of attaining their piece of the American Dream. They could not have made it without a little help from the government in their home.
Last Monday, Diep, now 36, was flying from John Wayne Airport for another work week in Sacramento when he read a Washington Post report detailing the Trump Administration’s latest plan:
“Immigrants here legally who use public benefits—such as Medicaid, food stamps or housing assistance—could have a tougher time obtaining a green card under a policy change … that is at the center of the Trump administration’s effort to reduce immigration levels.”
A freshman legislator, Diep represents an Orange County district where 20 percent of voters are Vietnamese-Americans. He’s also a Republican. Although his party is withering in California, Diep is not quite a unicorn. There is one other Vietnamese-American Republican state legislator in the country, in Massachusetts.
Diep doesn’t carry many bills and rarely gives floor speeches. He is not a back-slapping, blustery sort of politician, and definitely is not long on words. But he does know where he came from, and felt he had no choice other than to stand up to the Twitter president. So he tweeted to his 1,451 followers:
Predictably, there was blowback.
“We can’t afford it. That’s what’s wrong.” someone using the handle Fire CalTrans tweeted back at him.
And there was this from @SD_TaxFighters: “Sooo, if I decide to immigrate to your country of origin (Vietnam?), I can go on welfare for several years? Sounds great! Why did you leave?”
Diep shrugged off the reaction, feeling no loyalty to defend a White House policy that “seemed so anti-immigrant.”
“I remember our welfare check was $800 a month; $500 went to rent, $100 went to paying back the airline ticket, and $200 for groceries,” he said. “I don’t remember that there were food stamps, but there was welfare and Medicare.”
His parents enrolled themselves and him in an English class. Though he cannot say for sure, the course almost certainly was government-funded. It took him six months to become proficient. It was harder for his folks, but they learned. They got off welfare in about two years, and stayed on government-funded health care for a little longer.
In Saigon, his mom had been a teacher. Here, she does nails. His dad had been a journalist in the old country. Here, he worked as a bilingual instructor at an elementary school, a printer, and, in recent years, for General Dynamics NASSCO in San Diego, where he helps build Navy ships that defend his United States.
They had one more child, a daughter, and bought a home in Lemon Grove. Diep’s sister is finishing up at San Diego State University, a taxpayer-supported university. Diep went there, too.
Today he represents constituents in a county—once the throbbing heart of California conservatism—that just gave Democrats a registration edge. And he represents an immigrant community, Vietnamese-Americans, that also has been drifting further from the GOP.
To regain relevance in a rapidly diversifying state, the party is going to need leaders like Diep.
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He is a Republican because of the GOP’s emphasis on personal responsibility, and because traditionally it has shunned socialism. Having lived in Vietnam, he wants no part of anything that smacks of socialism.
In the Assembly, he is a moderate. Because of his childhood experiences, he has no problem with safety-net programs including Covered California, this state’s version of the Affordable Care Act for health coverage. Until last week, he had not chimed in on President Donald Trump and his policies.
“I’ve been staying quiet for a while, but it gets to a point where I don’t know if this type of policy is going to stop,” Diep said. “It seems like every day there is more and more stuff coming out targeting immigrants, even the legal ones. “
Diep’s story is not unlike that of many who came here from Vietnam. Pirates killed one of his uncles who was trying to escape Vietnam by boat. Other aunts and uncles made it here. They and his many cousins all got their start in their new land by getting a government hand. For that, Diep makes no apology.
“That is the America Dream,” he said. “You come here and don’t have anything. As long as you are willing to work hard and seize the opportunity given to you, then you can do well in this country. Your background or place of birth doesn’t matter.”