From Bangladesh to the United States: An Advocate’s Story
By Laboni Hoq, Litigation Director
My immigration story has shaped my work — and my whole life — in profound ways.
My family immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh when I was two years old, after my father was awarded a post graduate scholarship to study at U.C. Davis. At that time, he was already a full faculty member at a university in Bangladesh, but jumped at the opportunity to further his professional standing with a U.S. degree. He also wanted to offer my sister and me the invaluable benefits of the superior educational opportunities we would have in the U.S. However, he envisioned our time in the United States as temporary.
My father’s hope was always to return to Bangladesh after he completed his education, so that he could contribute to the fledgling democracy being built there. As a student and faculty activist, my father played an active role in the fight for Bangladesh’s independence. The opportunity to leave came in 1975, just four years after Bangladesh had gained independence from Pakistan. He felt it his duty to return to his native country to help build the norms and institutions that would allow its citizen to achieve the goals of social and political equality they had fought so hard to obtain.
My family spent two years in Davis, California and another seven years in Pullman, Washington where my father received his Ph.D. in Microbiology. During that time, my mother began postgraduate studies as well. I have extremely fond memories of those years, growing up in relatively small college towns with residents of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds, many of whom were drawn there from abroad like us. During those years I felt no particular stigma with being Muslim, at least not relative to my friends who also were from minority, non-Christian faiths. I fear that is not the case for other young children in our current post-9/11 political environment, where hate incidents against Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian youth are at an all-time high.
Towards the end of my father’s studies, the political situation in Bangladesh had deteriorated quite a bit, and the prospects for returning to the lives we had before seemed bleak. There had been a coup, and the new president instituted martial law. The state-run university in Bangladesh from which my father was on academic leave issued him an ultimatum, asking him to return to his post immediately, or be dismissed from his job. Those were difficult days for my parents. They had to choose between following their initial plan to return to Bangladesh and resume life there, despite concerns with the political climate, or finding a way to stay in the United States. I have distinct memories of hushed and heated conversations my parents had about this dilemma late at night, after I was supposed to be sleeping. I also overheard discussions my father had with friends and colleagues who knew the situation in Bangladesh, and the advice they were offering him to help make this difficult decision.
Ultimately, my parents sat down with my sister and me for a series of “family meetings,” which were reserved for the most grave of discussions. They told us they were inclined to try to stay in the U.S., primarily so my sister and I could continue to pursue our education and have more secure and prosperous lives than we could back in Bangladesh. We were both doing well academically, had made friends, and put down roots. Particularly as girls, the opportunities for us in Bangladesh even under the best of times would pale in comparison to the educational and career opportunities we would have in the U.S. For us, to the extent we had a real “vote” in the decision, my sister and I voted to stay. It was the only life we had ever known.
In hindsight, the decision for our family to stay in the U.S. seems like an obvious one, despite the unexpected hardships we would suffer as a result of not having a clear path to citizenship status for many years to come. But it was a tortured decision, particularly for my father, who had to forego his dream to return to help rebuild his motherland and resume his social status as a key player in that project.
The following years were difficult ones for our family. My father was not able to secure a permanent academic job in his field, and other jobs in his profession were elusive, for reasons I now understand were at least in part due to race and national origin discrimination. My mother continued to pursue her education and then entered the workforce for the first time in her adult life to help support the family, while simultaneously raising two teenage daughters. We moved several times, sometimes in the middle of an academic year, depending on where the job opportunities took my parents. Although we were not “undocumented” in a technical sense, I remember feeling deeply uncertain about whether we would be able to stay here, even though my sister and I had lived here almost our entire lives. I also remember my parents paying large sums of money to immigration lawyers in hopes of securing long term immigration status. Overall, this was a time of great uncertainty, and it shaped my own career choices in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Eventually, my parents were able to secure permanent residence for all of us. I became a citizen while I was in college. Though our immigration history feels like it came from another life, every time I hear stories of our brutal immigration enforcement regime, I can’t help but think of my family’s own situation.
My family’s immigration story is a lot less traumatic than millions of others, including many of those who are undocumented. We were privileged in many ways. Though my parents had heavy accents, they could speak English fluently, and had the means to access lawyers to help them navigate the legal system. They also had short-term legal status, and were never worried about being deported in the inhumane ways we hear so often about these days, where families who have been living here their whole lives are ripped apart without even a modicum of due process. But I still harbor those memories of the uncertainty and fear associated with my immigration status as a child. I have internalized those feelings, and they have helped build my moral compass and professional calling.
Laboni Hoq is the Litigation Director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. She leads the organization’s civil rights impact litigation, with the goal of empowering immigrant communities to enforce and expand legal protections, and achieve systemic change in favor of greater social justice.