Vietnamese Refugees

The Vietnamese comprise the largest population of Southeast Asian refugees to have settled in the United States. With their American-born children, they number approximately 995,000. Most of them come from what was once the Republic of Vietnam, known as "South Vietnam," which had its capital at Saigon. Their government, allied with the United States, collapsed under military pressure from communist North Vietnam in April of 1975.

The first arrivals: As Saigon fell to the communists, some 135,000 Vietnamese fled to America. These were mainly ex-military and government officials, Vietnamese who had worked for the U.S. during the war and their families. Initially, they came to four U.S. military bases in California, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Several national voluntary agencies, under contract from the Department of State, resettled these new arrivals in communities throughout the country and arranged "sponsorships" for the refugees. These sponsorships involved the provision of housing and initial support from interested Americans.

The "boat people": Conditions in the southern portion of the newly reunified Vietnam worsened in the late 1970s, and there also was a drive by the new government to rid the country of its Chinese merchant class. As a result, thousands of Vietnamese and Sino-Vietnamese sought to escape from the country. In addition to the merchant Chinese, these included many Vietnamese farmers and fishermen and their families. No one knows exactly how many thousands of people took to boats, and some estimates are that as many as half of them perished at sea. The successful ones reached refugee camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. From those camps, many were admitted to he United States and other "third countries."

Orderly departure: Reports about drownings and piracy created growing concern in the late 1970s, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) was able to negotiate an agreement under which the government of Vietnam would allow "orderly departure" for some of its citizens with relatives who had resettled abroad. This family reunification program at first enjoyed some success, but those Vietnamese without relatives abroad continued to escape by boat. By the mid-1980s, numerous disputes arose between the Vietnamese government and resettlement countries over eligibility for the program, and this slowed the rate of departures significantly. Orderly departure was finally resumed in 1987.

Amerasians: Since the end of the war, many Americans had been concerned about the plight of so-called "Amerasians," children born in Vietnam to Vietnamese women and American fathers during the war years. Because they were of "mixed blood," the Vietnamese government regarded hem as "bui doi," or "the dust of life." When America offered to accept them as refugees, however, the Vietnamese government refused to allow their departure because they denied discriminating against them a requirement for refugee status. The U.S. Congress then passed a measure allowing Amerasians to be admitted to he U.S. as "immigrants" who were entitled to the same benefits as refugees. Thus began the migration of some 100,000 Amerasians to this country.

Political prisoners: At the end of the war in 1975, thousands of South Vietnamese including former members of the military and former U.S. government employees were sent to "reeducation camps" where most were detained for many years under harsh conditions. Concerned about these former comrades-in-arms and colleagues, the U.S. Government pleaded for many years for their release and permission to emigrate. Finally, in 1988, the U.S. Department of State reached an agreement with the Vietnamese government to allow many of them to leave through the Orderly Departure Program. An estimated 100,000 were released to join family members overseas.

Today: Amerasians, former political prisoners, and family members continue to come to the United States through "orderly departure" and ordinary immigration channels. In addition, US officials are now rescreening thousands of Vietnamese who had been repatriated from Asian refugee camps, to determine if they qualify or US refugee status (the ROVR program "Resettlement Opportunities for Vietnamese Returnees"). In all, compared with the many thousands during the past decades, these numbers are small, and the U.S. Government, which now has diplomatic relations with Vietnam, has expressed its intent to "normalize" this migration through regular immigration channels in the near future.

Where do they live?: The largest number of Vietnamese now live in Southern California, particularly in Los Angeles and Orange County. Large numbers also resettled in the Houston and Dallas areas, the suburbs of Washington, DC, and the States of Washington, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York, and Illinois.