Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Bhutanese Americans advance despite immigration rhetoric

The farmer from the Himalayan country of Bhutan seemed to be about 60 years old, with long, leathery fingers that looked strong enough to crush stones — yet he struggled to grasp an American No. 2 graphite pencil.

My assignment was to tutor him for the written portion of his U.S. Citizenship test, not an easy task when the refugee student cannot read or write in English. As I tried to demonstrate the movements to form the letters A, B and C, he looked as helpless as an innocent plucked out of the 18th century.

And I thought to myself, “How could this man possibly get a job in Portland?”

I’ve been thinking about my Bhutanese student lately from that Immigration and Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) class last year, amid presidential candidate Donald Trump’s mantra to deport 11 million immigrants for allegedly taking American jobs.

A President Trump, fortunately, could not deport the Bhutanese living in Portland. He could not because another Republican — then-President George W. Bush — granted permanent visas to nearly 80,000 Bhutanese in 2007 so they could flee the murderous regime in Bhutan for freedom in the United States. One thousand would settle in the Portland area.

“We fled a country where people lived in terror of the king, the army and police,” said Chhabi Koirala, a Bhutanese civil engineer who spent 18 years in a fetid refugee camp in Nepal.

Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, including claiming that Mexico is sending its “criminals, drug dealers and rapists,” has escaped the attention of some Bhutanese, and perhaps my former student. Koirala explains that many of his countrymen are so relieved to be living in the United States, a U.S. presidential election is just background noise — but for Koirala and others tracking the race, the noise is ominous.

“What Donald Trump says about immigrants is hateful, divisive and racist,” said Koirala, who worries about Trump affecting Oregonians’ attitudes about employing Bhutanese.

Few ethnic immigrants in Oregon history — from the Italians and Jews who settled southeast Portland in 1900 to the South Vietnamese who came to Washington County in the 1970s — have come with fewer transferable skills than the Bhutanese.

The Bhutanese began work in menial Portland jobs for which employers have a hard time filing and retaining workers: Janitorial, housekeeping, service industries — jobs few Trump (or Clinton) supporters would want. These immigrants seized their humble opportunity.

“When a Bhutanese gets a job, they never quit, unless there is a really big reason such as discrimination because of their language and culture,” Koirala said. “A majority of Bhutanese are in the same jobs they first got (eight years ago) and have now been promoted to better positions with higher salaries,” he added.

Make that taxable salaries. The Bhutanese are not part of the underground, under-the-table economy many illegal immigrants have no choice but to work in. The Bhutanese are either documented permanent residents or U.S. Citizens, and their employers pay payroll taxes and the workers pay income taxes.

These Himalayan newcomers have an extra incentive to respect their neighbors that native-born Portlanders do not — about the only trigger that could get a Bhutanese’s permanent visa revoked is if they commit a crime. Virtually none have. Their crime rate is comparable to a monastery of cloistered Tibetan monks.

“When people are freed from a prison-like country and come to a free country like the USA, they take the positive opportunity to build their future,” Koirala said. The Bhutanese even take that one step further. Few even get minor violations such as DUIIs or fighting with a friend, even though many are depressed because of the cultural shock, the language barrier and trauma.

Streets populated by Bhutanese refugees would be among the safest in Portland. They would also be among the last place the IRS would need to look for violators.

And in an irony of modern American economics, my Bhutanese student — who could not read or write any language, much less English, much less understand the federal tax code — might have been paying more in taxes for years than a graduate of the Ivy League’s Wharton School of Business, Donald Trump.

Mark Kirchmeier is a reporter for the News-Times.