For Burmese in Queens, Trump travel ban is personal

By Luca Powell

Winning the U.S. visa lottery last year changed Ye Lin Htet’s life.

In Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, Htet had just graduated from university. The lottery win was a surprise: more than 20 million people apply every year, competing for just 55,000 visas.

So Htet, 22, accepted the visa and traveled to the U.S., unsure of his finances, his English and his future.

By December, he was renting a room in Elmhurst for $600 a month. He found a job at a bubble tea shop in Midtown Manhattan called Gong Cha. And he was hoping to bring over his relatives, particularly his 14-year-old brother Wai Yen.

Then in January, the Trump administration announced the expansion of the “travel ban,” adding Myanmar, also known as Burma, as well as Muslim-majority countries of Sudan, Eritrea, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania and Nigeria. The ban, which initially included Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen, imposes strict travel restrictions on residents of countries on the list.

In a statement, the Department of Homeland Security said that the six new countries had “failed to meet a series of security criteria, demonstrating that they could be a risk to the homeland.”

The new ban went into effect last Friday, defeating Htet’s hopes for reuniting with Wai Yen.

“The plan when I got here was to call my family over,” said Htet. “My parents were fine to stay, but it’s my little brother who we wanted to come to improve his education. Now, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

His frustration is shared by others in New York City’s burgeoning Burmese community, most of whom live in Northwest Queens. That community numbers at least 6,000, according to the American Community Survey. Like many minority groups with limited English proficiency, Burmese New Yorkers are not easily reached by the Census and their exact population size is hard-to-count.

A confusing inclusion on the travel ban list

“How come Burma is on the list?” said Moe Chan, a New Yorker who runs a Burmese community news group on Facebook. “Many of us do not have a clue. The administration says this kind of policy is supposedly banning potential terrorists, however we have never seen Burmese terrorizing the world. If you have found one, please let me know.”

Chan says the ban is political, with diaspora communities like his in Queens caught in the crossfire. Many Burmese began migrating to the United States as refugees, escaping persecution by a military junta that ruled the country until 2015.

Saw Eh Wah was one of them. He said he was forced to flee to Malaysia more than six years ago, and was resettled in Queens by the United Nations.

Wah, 36, doesn’t want to criticize the ban, in part because he doesn’t understand it, he said. “We were brought here by the UN,” said Wah. “If they want us to leave, we will leave.”

Saw Eh Wah fled Myanmar as a refugee and was resettled in Queens by the United Nations. Eagle photo by Luca Powell

In January, the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that Myanmar’s current government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, must take action to block genocidal actions by the military against the country’s Muslim Rohingya minority in the northwest Rakhine state. In 2019, 5,000 Rohingya were resettled in the US, according to the Refugee Processing Center, an arm of the Department of State.

Scot Marciel, US ambassador to Myanmar, said the new travel restrictions have “zero to do with Rakhine.”

Opponents of the ban aren’t satisfied with the ban’s vague justification.

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents Elmhurst, Jackson Heights and Woodside, called the new policies “discriminatory and baseless.”

“It does nothing to make our country safer, it is only stoking fear and tearing families apart,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Eagle. “This administration owes the Burmese community and all American people an explanation as to why this expansion now includes a ban on immigration from four countries making up over 25 percent of tthe entire population of Africa, as well as two countries in Asia, all of which have significant Muslim populations.”

The view from Queens

While 90 percent of Burmese in Myanmar are Buddhist, the community in Queens is largely made up of Baptist Christians. On Sundays, families from Elmhurst, Woodhaven, Sunnyside and Jackson Heights gather for hours-long services at the Myanmar Baptist Church.

Many in the congregation said they waited years to get their visas. Myo Aindra Maw said she started the process in 2003. It took her 15 years to get a green card along with her husband, Naung.

Maw, who goes by Aindra, said she made the move in search of better social services for her 7-year-old son, who struggles with a speech delay.

Aindra, 41, has hypertension, and she said private insurers in Burma declined to cover her when she was pregnant with her second child. In a crowded ward of a public hospital, she gave birth prematurely to a son who soon died.

“Most people who want to come here are in my situation,” Aindra said as her son scrambled around her in the church pews. “I came here for the sake of my son. A public education here is like a private one there.”

Aindra’s brother, Myo Thant, was one of the few who said he saw this coming and actually supports the measure.

“We brought this upon ourselves,” said Myo, 36, who has been living in New York for 17 years. Myo wears an army surplus jacket with the collar popped. He drives full-time for Uber, making $200 a day, he says. On Sundays, he drives around Glendale in the church van, collecting the congregation from their homes for the 12:30 service.

“[Burmese] people come here on a tourist visa and they stay here illegally,” Myo said. “And the refugees that are here abuse government aid,” he charged, saying some buy groceries with federal food stamps and resell them at a profit.”

“I don’t feel like Trump is being racist,” he said. “I’m on Trump’s side. I agree with him on immigration.”

His sister Aindra also said she didn’t want to criticize the president.

“When I’m here, I’m trying to be a good citizen, for this country and for my home country,” she said. “Sometimes God gives us troubles to overcome.”

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Source : Queens Daily Eagle

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