High expectations

Other 4-year-old boys were skinning their knees on American playgrounds when Ricky Le sat aboard a makeshift bamboo raft with his uncle in 1981. They were fleeing communist Vietnam in the middle of the night.

Now Le, 33, is the executive director of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation (CDCD) and one of a small number of immigrants who work on Capitol Hill. He calls the job the “fulfillment of the American Dream.”

“From an early age I understood that, to my parents, America was where we came to start a new life,” Le says in an interview on Capitol Hill. He wears a pressed shirt and designer watch, and his jet-black hair is neatly styled.

Le’s father was in the South Vietnamese army, and soon after its defeat in the mid-1970s, he realized that he would be forced to raise his family under a communist government, which Le said his father found stifling. He decided a better option was to risk capture and funnel his family out of the country to the U.S.

“I just remember me crying and my uncle telling me to be quiet because the Communist patrol might spot us,” Le says of their midnight voyage. “We finally got on a [bigger] boat and we drifted out to sea. Water was rationed, so we had a water bottle and everybody had two turns to drink out of the water bottle cap. They gave us a pinch of salt to keep us from dehydrating.”

For Le’s father, who did not speak English, the promise that the U.S. held was worth the risk and trials that the escape posed.

“America was freedom to my family,” Le says. “America was democracy, and it was ingrained in me from a young age that I have to take advantage of opportunities here in the United States, because this is why we came here.”

That also meant higher expectations for Le. He remembers his parents telling him: “We didn’t come here for you to be average. We came here for you to take advantage of all the opportunities that America offers.”

At first, starting a new life was hard.

“I still remember the feeling of learning English,” he says. “That feeling of fear and not knowing what somebody is saying to you … never left me.”

Le proved a quick learner, though, and with help from his high school teachers, he applied for scholarships and grants and was accepted to the University of California, Santa Cruz. He studied political science, and while there, landed an internship in Rep. Zoe Lofgren’s (D-Calif.) Washington office. After graduation, he returned to the Capitol to take a job as her scheduler and staff assistant.

At Lofgren’s prodding, Le went on to study law at Santa Clara University. Shortly after graduating, he came back to D.C. to work with Lofgren, who chairs the CDCD.

Le, who became a U.S. citizen in 2001, and several other congressional aides born abroad say they make up a small minority of the approximately 10,000 staff members on Capitol Hill.

The idea of public service can be unappealing to immigrant families because it initially does not afford them a great deal of financial success. But lawmakers could do a better job at trying to recruit immigrants, Le says, because it would offer them a deeper insight to the growing population they serve.

“I don’t want to glorify my story; I just think that having individuals that work on the Hill from diverse backgrounds — they see the United States government and the lives and the work in a different light than somebody else,” Le says. “You bring your own personal experiences to the job on Capitol Hill.”

It’s not that people born in the U.S. don’t appreciate the freedom they’ve been given, Le says. It’s just that “once you have to earn it, I think there’s an added appreciation to becoming a U.S. citizen and the freedoms it brings,” he says.

Lofgren agrees.

“Sometimes Americans by choice appreciate the freedoms and opportunities we have a bit more than Americans who grew up with them,” she says. “What a country we have, where a young man can go from being a refugee to the Capitol.”

Despite being raised with a disdain for the government of his native land, Le wants Vietnam to play a predominant role in his children’s lives. And so did his father, who, before he died in 2005, asked to be buried in Vietnam.

“We told him that his family’s here and we wanted to pay our respects to him here,” Le says. “But he said, ‘No, I want to be buried next to my mom. That way you guys will have the desire to come back to Vietnam and not forget your ancestry.’

“And you know what? He was right,” Le says. “I’ve been to Vietnam a couple of times since his passing. And I would like to teach my kids about their history and ancestry. I want Vietnam to play a huge role in their lives.”