An immigrant's story


My wife and I first met Veng Preap on a sultry fall day when we walked into the offices of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on a busy street in the center of Siem Reap, near the Angkor Wat complex in Cambodia. We carried a letter from a friend of his in Washington and a pile of World Bank books on international development that Mr. Preap's friend suggested for him.

Veng Preap, not his real name to protect his privacy, took us everywhere to see the Angkor monuments and spent evenings speaking with us about his life and such subjects as civil engineering and Buddhism and his views toward organized religion. He showed us the large computer maps he had made as part of the effort by UNESCO to preserve the Angkor complex.

On our final day in Siem Reap, I spoke with Mr. Preap about coming to the United States. My wife and I were bowled over by his abilities, especially his rich English vocabulary, for someone who had never left Cambodia. We discussed sponsoring Mr. Preap for a year of study in his specialty, geographic information systems, a highly valued skill for producing computer-based maps. Less than a year later, he arrived at Towson University, its first Cambodian student.

He is still in this country nearly 10 years later, and his contribution to the United States has been substantial. He has seized opportunity after opportunity for public service.

His life here shows what a talented immigrant can contribute. But at the same time, his American experience is sending another clear message: how easily our government can overlook such a gifted person. It is a message that Congress should heed as it considers new immigration legislation.

Mr. Preap has been waiting on line five years and counting on government approval of the first step toward getting a green card to realize his dream of becoming a permanent resident and citizen. It is not the fault of government immigration workers. Congress never provided the funds to carry out legislation passed in 2000 that was intended to ease the immigration process for those like Mr. Preap who had entered the country legally, and there was a flood of applications.

Mr. Preap did not have to stay in this country beyond the original year we planned together. But how could such a hugely able person return to impoverished Cambodia, especially when a long-standing dispute between UNESCO and the corrupt authoritarian government had idled him for a year? The Khmer Rouge killed his mother and sister when he was 7. The current government allowed his wife's property to be stolen.

Mr. Preap considers himself an American even without the necessary documents. He relishes speaking English. While growing up in Cambodia, he pursued his desire to learn English often by studying alone and by candlelight for fear of being arrested or worse because such studies were banned. At Towson, he insisted on living in a dormitory with American students rather than in an international enclave.

Over the past few years, he has earned a second bachelor's degree in geography at Towson and a master's in computer science at Strayer University. He has volunteered for more than six years to teach computers to poor Americans and foreigners. He worked for the Voice of America broadcasting to Cambodia. He helped film a documentary on the tsunami disaster. And he helped prepare a giant map for the rotunda at the National Museum of American History showing the various kinds of voting machinery in the nation's election districts.

All the while, he has paid taxes on his limited income.

Mr. Preap is a skilled computer teacher. The community center where he volunteers has asked him to come two nights a week because it cannot find teachers with his ability. The Internet runs job offers for his skill in geographic information systems.

People speak in the abstract about immigration, and much of the discussion is about the need for more farm and restaurant workers. But here is an example of a hugely talented, hard-working immigrant being needlessly thwarted by our government. Mr. Preap cannot take a job and settle down because our immigration system won't let him.

Not only are we not taking full advantage of skilled talent among the immigrants, but we may be on the verge of causing more disappointments, by the millions. The huge number of immigrants who have come out of the shadows to demonstrate for the right to become citizens may find a long, long waiting line. The system is just too cumbersome and underfunded.

Unless the Bush administration and Congress provide new resources, it is all too likely that broken borders will be replaced by broken promises.

Stephen Nordlinger is a former Washington correspondent for The Sun. His e-mail is

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