From the Classroom

Profiles from a Polarized America: Understanding the Anti-Immigrant Immigrant

Democrats should not cater to Latin Americans while ignoring Southeast Asians, says Laotian refugee Von White

Von White does not know who she’s voting for in 2020 –– but she is confident in her belief that it won’t matter who our next president is, because the government hates Asians. As a Laotian refugee, the treatment of Southeast Asians in America has shaped her entire perspective on politics.

When it comes to immigration, White feels like all politicians can talk about is Latin America. Democrats unfairly cater to black and brown voters, she says, while ignoring the plights of Southeast Asians.

“I know that Democrats stand up for blacks, but why do they hate Southeast Asians?” White asked. “The laws are targeted at us.”

It’s not surprising that this belief has made White a single-issue voter.

The youngest of eight, she came from a powerful, wealthy family in Laos, a Southeast Asian country that borders Vietnam and Thailand. Her dad was an army general and head of security for the Laotian royal army, and was thought to be on track to become the next prime minister. In Laos, Von said, the military ran the government.

But when her family heard the American soldiers were on their way out of Laos, they knew it would become too dangerous for them to stay. The Vietnam War was coming to an end, and the communists were taking over.

Her family obtained a letter from Henry Kissinger, then Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to Richard Nixon, asking Congress to let them into the United States. In 1975, they fled to America with no money, and moved into an apartment in Texas with 17 people sharing three bedrooms.

“We had everything in Laos, so our perspective changed completely,” White said. “Life changed completely. The Americans didn’t help us. They put us on a plane, but once we got here, we were on our own.”

Since she first arrived, White said, she has felt an attitude of judgment from Americans toward her home country.

“My American classmates would say, ‘Laos, that’s a poor country!’” White said. “But I didn’t think Laos was poor. I lived in an apartment in Texas, but in Laos, we lived in an 18-bedroom mansion.”

She remembers going to work at 3 a.m. with her parents, who both worked as janitors at various fast food restaurants. She’d get done around 8 a.m., just in time for school. But even school was hard, as nobody in her family knew English other than her dad.

“We always believed in education,” she said. “We knew that the American Dream was real, and we could be whoever we want to be as long as we focused. But we weren’t prepared to leave Laos.”

As she grew up, she felt she and her siblings had “no freedom at all,” and they weren’t allowed to do anything considered American such as date, talk on the phone or go to dances. “We are not American, according to them; we are Laotian,” she said.

White started working in restaurants at the age of 11, then got married to her English tutor, Scott, at the age of 21. Marrying a white American allowed her to get out of the house and claim her own identity as an American, she said.

For seven years, White worked five jobs while Scott went to college and law school. When he graduated, she told him to get a job in investment banking because she was “tired of being poor.”

The plan worked. They finally had enough money for White to get through college herself, and she graduated from the University of Houston in Business Management in 1990. They moved to Bronxville, New York together and had three children, all of whom are now in college.

Currently her husband still works in banking, and White works for herself as a personal trainer. But even though her immigration story is one of success, she still believes Asians have it worse off than other ethnic groups in the United States because they’re ignored when it comes to issues like immigration and racism.

She remembers getting denied entrance into a dress store in Bronxville with her daughter, even though they had an appointment to try on prom dresses (they were only let in once her husband intervened). She also remembers getting told by a college counselor that her son wouldn’t be able to get into an Ivy League because he’s half-Asian.

“A lot of people tell me there’s no racism against Asians,” she said. “But I’ve been pushed, I’ve been hit by mothers –– it’s so terrible.”

That’s why White believes that Americans, especially Democrats, target Southeast Asians in their immigration policies.

“They blame Trump, but it’s not just Trump,” she said. “Obama deported more immigrants than Trump.” (She’s right, according to a report from the Washington Post.)

White cited the 1996 immigration and reform bills as an example of how the law is targeted at Southeast Asians. The bill was passed by former President Bill Clinton to strengthen U.S. immigration laws and enforce penalties for undocumented immigrants who commit crimes while in the U.S.

White is not alone in her criticisms. The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SARAC) has been pushing to get these 1996 laws amended, based on the fact that they broaden the definition of a deportable offense and allow them to retroactively apply to past convictions.

In fact, according to a SARAC report from 2018, over 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans have been deported under these laws, over 13,000 of them for a reason based on old criminal records.

“I’ve read [the bills] 10 times,” White said. “I’ve been angry and pissed off for years.”

That’s why she can’t believe Democrats are fully supportive of minorities.

“When Southeast Asians commit a crime, you deport us, but when illegal immigrants from Latin America commit a crime by coming here illegally, they should stay,” White said. “Why do you make such a big deal about the children being separated from their parents, when you’re separating Asian people from their parents by deporting them?”

The reason, White believes, that Democrats support Latin Americans while ignoring Southeast Asians is because they want more votes –– Latin Americans are willing to vote Democrat, she said, whereas Southeast Asians mostly vote Republican.

She’s right, again. Though a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center shows that Asian Americans are becoming increasingly Democratic, Southeast Asians haven’t quite followed the trend that East Asians and South Asians have in recent years.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found after the 2008 election that there are still more Southeast Asians registered as Republican than Democrat, at 36 percent (though that may seem like a low number, an overwhelming majority of Southeast Asians have no party affiliation at all, as Asian Americans have the lowest voter turnout out of any ethnic group in the U.S.).

White said she believes Democrats mistreat Southeast Asians “because we believe in having more weaponry. We believe in a big army.”

“It’s not because we’re anti-gay or anti-immigration,” she said. “I think our country needs to take time to understand why we’re Republican and work with us instead of hating us and sending us back.”

Of course, not all Southeast Asians are Republican –– her daughter, Charlotte White, is a lifelong Democrat. Though they used to fight regularly about issues related to race, immigration, and affirmative action, recently, she’s tried to disengage from her mother’s opinions.

“I’ve come to be a lot less combative and more understanding of my mom’s worldview,” Charlotte, 27, said in an interview. “Coming from a communist country of authoritarian rule, experiencing the trauma of escaping to America, and being raised by a conservative family is an extremely different set of circumstances than the ones I was raised with.”

This election, there is no candidate Von White believes will fight for real change –– she wants to believe in somebody, but said she does not trust anyone running for office, as she thinks both parties are too busy talking down on each other to discuss actual change.

“They say President Trump is ‘Not America,’ but I hate this statement so much,” White said. “I’m told too often that I’m not American. And both parties lie. I saw the tape of JFK denying the fact that U.S. troops were in Laos. That was a lie.”

Self-education, she believes, is the only way people will be able to fight for real change in this country.

“I’m a product of the Vietnam War, so I’ll always search for the truth,” she said. “I have to be educated in order to fight.”

This story was reported and written through a journalism course on politics and government affairs reporting, and edited by USC Annenberg Professor Christina Bellantoni. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.

Annenberg Media is a student-led multiplatform news media overseen and funded by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Many of the journalists are working weekly shifts in its newsroom, known as the Media Center, to fulfill curricular requirements. Annenberg Media is independent of the university administration. Please direct news tips and press releases to

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