Dear Mr. Attorney General:
Congratulations on your recent confirmation. I wish you well as you maintain the rule of law that protects the country you and I both hold dear. We share similar beliefs and values, that include supporting our military and the veterans who risked their lives to protect freedom and democracy, celebrating vital natural resources, and maintaining fiscal responsibility. While I do not know you personally, your daughter graduated from my high school a few years before me, and your ability to continually win the widespread support of Alabamians is commendable. Thank you for your service to Alabama, a beautiful state and home to many people I love.
As you move from the state to national stage, I want to relay the story of my family, to keep in your mind as you fight for justice in the years ahead. I want you to have a face for those you have represented and now are charged to protect.
In 1977, my family relocated to Mobile, Alabama, which you also call home, after two years of working as chicken laborers in Arkansas. This was the only labor available for refugees, and though the work was grueling and hard, my family was thankful that we were saved in the fall of Saigon because of my father’s work with the U.S. Navy. This compassion for those who were allies of the United States during the Vietnam War helped my family avoid imminent death.
You have said that your critics have portrayed you unfairly, and I hold hope that this is true.
It was by the faith of God and loving Catholics that we were able to rebuild our lives in those first years. I am sure you have the empathy to imagine the struggles of getting by when English is not your first language and you don’t understand the long traditions of the south. We learned how to say “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am.” We made fried chicken and tea. My family members took jobs in service industries that had long hours and little pay, but it was all they could get, despite holding higher degrees. We did our best to assimilate and learn American traditions and language. I believe this is a focus of yours – that immigrants learn to assimilate. (I’d say we did well: I forgot how to speak Vietnamese entirely, and my sister and aunts and uncles communicate now solely in English.)
We also didn’t take federal “handouts.” (Maybe this is a trend among our community. As you know, there is a vibrant Vietnamese community in Bayou La Baitre and Mobile, and after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, many of those affected in the seafood industry rebuilt their shrimping businesses without federal assistance.) While we were far below the poverty level, we never accessed food stamps (now the State Nutritional Assistance Program), and CHIPS (the Children’s Health Insurance Program) didn’t exist when I was a child.
Had it existed, perhaps my parents would have been able to afford to take my brother to the doctor when he first complained of a headache. Unfortunately, they did not, and he passed two days after Christmas in 1981 of an aneurysm. I was three years old. He was seven.
My father went back to school at the University of South Alabama to earn higher degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering (and eventually served as a naval engineer). My mother paid his tuition. She took several humbling jobs as a server and as a nanny for several affluent families in Mobile. This meant that I hardly saw her, and she missed every meaningful moment of my life growing up.
But I understood. She was working for our survival. We had to persist.
When I was 8, my aunt, who also worked as a waitress, caught pneumonia. She didn’t have health insurance (this is before the Affordable Care Act) and supported her child off of her Waffle House tips (certainly not her hourly wage). Taking time off from work also meant not making rent in the trailer park where she and my uncle lived. The pneumonia progressed, and days later, she died.
But we persisted. We played by the rules we were learning.
So well, in fact, that when a neighbor shot our family dog when I was 10, we let it go. This neighbor had threatened my family several times. “Get out,” he’d said. “Don’t let your pets near me.” He shot our dog in the middle of the night. I found Scruffy’s body on the way to church, and in tears, I asked my father, what can we do? He said, “Nothing. We are lucky it is only the dog.” Before that moment, I had never seen my proud, military father scared.
As debilitating as that was to experience, perhaps as a father yourself, you can fathom the hurt my father must have had to tell his daughter that he was helpless in protecting the lives she loved. Maybe this illustrates what racial intimidation means. My family rarely interacted with our neighbors after that.
But we did persist.
My father taught me the importance of voting (and I’m proud to say that the VFW on our street never once made my father feel unwelcome when voting). I learned to be civically engaged through the help of the YMCA’s Youth in Government program. I advocated in mock government systems for equality and education, issues dear to me. Several times growing up, I had to move schools or apply for magnet schools, to access better education. That area of Mobile we called home suffered immeasurably in the ‘80s. Stores closed. People moved. Military bases were shut down.
We didn’t move. We learned to keep our head down. We persisted.
That didn’t stop teenagers from murdering my uncle when I was 31. This time it wasn’t race. It was a crime of opportunity, preempted by the failures of Mobile’s economy and access to social mobility. Teenagers, who had just been released from juvenile detention after threatening their own father with a gun and with little hope for much advancement in our neighborhood, killed my uncle in broad daylight in a botched burglary attempt.
Could this have been stopped?
Maybe. It was 2009, more than 30 years after we called Mobile home. If we could go back in time and improve the education systems, the economic and healthcare opportunities, the justice and rehabilitation process, the proper registration and access to guns, would my uncle still be alive? Would my aunt? My brother?
Could my family’s history be different?
I am thankful for my parents for fighting for my education, for working the long hours that helped our family survive. Through their sacrifice, I achieved that true American success story that you and I both celebrate
As a senator for all these years, you know as well as I that Alabama is one of the poorest states in the Union, and this has not changed in my lifetime. It suffers from one of the worst economic and education records in the United States. It is not because the people of Alabama are not willing to work. Like my own family, many Alabamians celebrate a strong work ethic.
It is because they live in a system set up to limit opportunities – through unfunded education systems, through economic policies that do not promote small business growth or raise the minimum wage for those who toil in these jobs, through families who are unable to access the knowledge and resources for equitable healthcare and family planning. Most often, people blame race or laziness. I argue it is our system.
I am thankful for my parents for fighting for my education, for working the long hours that helped our family survive. Through their sacrifice, I achieved that true American success story that you and I both celebrate, Mr. Sessions.
However, not all families, and certainly not the families of those suffering from unimaginable poverty and racial inequity, are able to do that. They may be too busy working to put food on the table and clothes on backs to consider accessing the best health and education for their children. They may fall ill themselves.
I pray each day for my family’s continued ability to make ends meet and live in homes they’ve built. My parents, after retiring from years of service to the U.S. Navy and working in menial jobs, rely on both Medicaid and private health insurance to cover their medicines. Alabama is their home, and while I, too, love the bay, the oak trees in Spanish moss, our Azaleas, and the revelry and tradition of Mardi Gras, I recognize there are places in this country with better opportunities and treatment of women and minorities.
You are now serving in a position that will uphold the laws that protect the most vulnerable across our nation, families like mine.
For this reason, I pray for you, too, to hold this post with dignity, compassion, and most of all, hope for bettering humanity. You have said that your critics have portrayed you unfairly, and I hold hope that this is true. As a Christian, I also believe in forgiveness and know that while we all make mistakes in life, mistakes should not be our legacy.
My best wishes to you and yours, to our home state, and to our shared country –