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Public Service Recognition Week, Part I: For This Political Refugee, U.S. Was Land of the Free, Home of the Berries

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In this series of four blog posts celebrating Public Service Recognition Week, we honor the dedication of USCIS employees who fulfill the USCIS mission of securing America's promise as a nation of immigrants.

By Ben Rubenstein

"I don't have a lot of memories from before I was 7 years old. I don’t remember a playground or riding bikes. I don’t remember much about playing except for one event at a refugee camp in the Philippines. Every Friday night someone would set up a play and refugees would watch. I remember that very explicitly being entertaining, maybe just because they made funny noises and made us laugh. I don’t even quite understand what they were talking about."

Above: Vue’s refugee processing photo in Morong, Bataan, Philippines, in 1983

Thor Vue, a senior procurement analyst at the USCIS Office of Contracting in Williston, Vermont, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after the Vietnam War. His Hmong family was part of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's covert operation known as the Secret War in which the CIA hired thousands of locals to fight communists. After the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army hunted, persecuted and killed veterans of that operation.

Vue’s family fled from their home on the mountainside of Laos to Thailand where they lived for years under protection. When Vue, now 39, was 7, his family was moved to the Philippines where they stayed for months learning English and preparing to come to the U.S. Their diet consisted of rice in a water bowl with a stick of brown sugar. "You cannot break the sugar in half, so you have to just munch on sugar to add flavor. That was our routine diet. Occasionally there was chicken, but most of the time it was just rice water."

Vue has one more vivid memory: on the flight from the Philippines to the United States he remembers his grandmother vomiting. "She couldn't eat the food. I feel bad for whoever was sitting next to her. Our diets were different."

Skinny and malnourished, Vue landed in San Francisco, California, in 1984. His was one of thousands of political refugee-families that were granted asylum by the United States during the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Members of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (an agency that existed before the Department of Homeland Security was created)  welcomed his family and processed his parents, grandparents, and younger siblings together. "We definitely appreciate that INS did that. It definitely helped to keep the family together."

His family made a life in the San Francisco Bay Area and later in Eureka, California. Vue's father had been a blacksmith in Thailand but took up farming. Vue helped him pick blueberries. "I love blueberries,” he said. “The benefit of picking them is you can take one or two."

Vue’s and his family members’ refugee processing photos in Morong, Bataan, Philippines, in 1983

Vue said theirs was like almost any other immigrant family, just trying to get by and do what they could. They lived in low-income affordable housing. "It was not the best but it was something," Vue said.

The residents there were mostly Hmong-Americans. "It was hard to integrate and assimilate into mainstream culture," Vue said.

Despite Vue’s challenge to assimilate, he excelled. Vue is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, earned his Juris Doctor from the School of Law at University of California, Berkeley, and earned his Master of Public Administration from the University of Southern California. Vue always knew he would work in public service to give back, and it just so happens that after some time with the Department of Defense he returned to where his U.S. journey all started, at USCIS. In his current position, Vue provides procurement policy oversight and helps fulfill contracts for immigration support centers, ensuring that other families have what they need to help them through the process.

Vue at the top of Mount Mansfield on July 11, 2015, which has the highest mountain peak in Vermont.

Vue also spends much of his time volunteering. He is part of the Energy Committee for South Burlington, Vermont, which provides the city council with polices to help reduce energy consumption and encourage the use of renewable energy. He is on the Upper Valley Wilderness Response Team, a search and rescue team. Vue volunteers as a board member for affordable housing, working closely with members of county supervisors and the county planning commission. "I'm very sympathetic to affordable housing. That is the environment I grew up in."

Vue's parents still live in California and still farm. They sell strawberries at a local farmer's market. Vue visits when he can, and still sneaks a few berries. "I tell them I have to do a taste test," he said. "I'm the executive taste tester to make sure they are right for the picking."

Author’s note: I apologized to Vue for not knowing much about Hmong culture. He said, "It's ok. A lot of the general population doesn’t know who Hmongs are. There are only about 4 million Hmong worldwide. In the U.S., there are only about a quarter of a million. Most live in Minnesota or California. When someone new asks who I am, I make them guess and they go through the whole gamut - Chinese, Korean, on and on. I don’t expect anyone to know I’m Hmong."