When it comes to immigration, noted professor and political scientist Dr. Sophal Ear recalls a statement on Indochinese refugees made by former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. “He was basically saying that America is a nation of refugees,” Dr. Ear says. “His point was, everybody who has come to the United States was essentially fleeing from something. This country is made up of people who had to flee and to set up new lives. I see supporting immigration reform and immigration in general as part of the legacy of this country, the continuation of our origin and a duty and responsibility for everyone who’s here.”
Dr. Ear knows and lives that belief himself, paying it forward by sponsoring other Cambodian immigrants who have won green cards through the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program, which randomly selects up to 50,000 applicants from among countries with low rates of immigration to the United States. “Even after winning the green card lottery, they needed sponsors to finance them, to say that they’d be financially responsible for them,” says Dr. Ear, who has sponsored six individuals thus far. The first two now live in San Jose, California, and are each attending community college. “They see my life and they think, ‘OK, Sophal has gone on to college and then he has a successful academic career. Of course, we’ve got to go to college, get our degrees, go through this same path,’ ” Dr. Ear explains. But he says they’re already success stories. “They’re swimming in the water which is America. They’ve succeeded at sustaining themselves, and helping their own families back in Cambodia.” Most recently, Dr. Ear sponsored a family of four that’s now opening their own small business, a doughnut shop, in Yuba City, California.
Immigration policy matters, because to whom much is given, much is expected.
Dr. Ear arrived in the United States at the age of 10 after fleeing war-torn Cambodia by way of Vietnam and France. He initially considered a career in international development, but after working for the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme in East Timor, and a private equity fund, Dr. Ear decided to earn a PhD. and enter academia. “It’s been kind of a random stumble,” he chuckles. Some of his other “stumbles” include delivering a TED talk, serving as a Fulbright Specialist and as a term member on the Council on Foreign Relations, and publishing several well-regarded books on aid and foreign policy in South Asia. Dr. Ear’s father died in a labor camp before the family could escape Cambodia. When he and his mother finally arrived in the United States, they were refused asylum because they had spent time in Vietnam and France first. They were able to obtain permanent residency after Dr. Ear’s mother married a U.S. citizen. His brother, meanwhile, who had stayed longer in France, was almost prevented from uniting with his family in America. “He was under 18, but was soon to be 18,” Dr. Ear says. “There was a window of time that he could still join us.”
His family’s refugee experience helped inspire Dr. Ear’s research, which focuses on the efficacy of foreign aid and international development barriers in post-conflict countries. He’s spoken at the Oslo Freedom Forum and the World Economic Forum, and has served on the boards of several nonprofits. He also advises the Faculty of Development Studies at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and was elected to a three-year term on his local town council, in Crescenta Valley, California. As a parent of four young children, Dr. Ear has taken up public education as one of his causes as a council member.
“Immigration policy matters, because to whom much is given, much is expected,” Dr. Ear says. “It’s obvious to me that I benefitted from immigration policies that allowed me to come to and stay in this country. It’s opened up all kinds of opportunities for me.” A country like the United States sees significant economic benefits from immigrants. “It’s like the renewal of its blood,” Dr. Ear says. “It’s important to think about the needs of your country in terms of bringing in people who have skills, who have knowledge to contribute.”