Much of the emigration from South and Southeast Asia can also be traced to a series of laws passed in response to the Vietnam War and the fallout from the West’s fight against communism.
Like global conflicts before it, the Vietnam War forced America to confront a serious refugee crisis. The United States had been slow to develop a refugee policy during World War II, and afterward Congress designed the Displaced Persons Act of 1948 to help Europeans who met restrictive credentials—namely, non-Jews and non-Catholics. As the immigration historian Mae M. Ngai has pointed out, over the next two decades America’s refugee policy worked on something of “an ad hoc basis” and was often in conflict with international law.14 By the mid-1970s, as governments in South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos fell and displaced thousands of people, many Americans, including Members of Congress, opposed proposals to allow them to settle in the United States. When U.S. immigration agencies finally began admitting Southeast Asian refugees, they were quickly confronted by a wave of people in need of help.15
In 1975, responding to the refugee crisis, Congress passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, setting aside $405 million for a two-year evacuation and resettlement program to assist refugees from South Vietnam and Cambodia.16 Congress quickly amended the law to clear the way for thousands of refugees from Laos.17
For the rest of the 1970s, the crisis in Southeast Asia only worsened as a second wave of refugees began fleeing the region. Chinese families escaped Vietnam; Cambodians fled the autocratic and murderous Khmer Rouge regime; Laotians streamed into Thailand. In total, more than 100,000 people in the region fled for their lives. The U.S. government, still struggling with the scope of the crisis, responded by admitting more than 20,000 additional refugees and opening up residency opportunities and access to social services.18
When the 96th Congress (1979–1981) convened, the Indochina refugee crisis remained at full boil. The United States agreed to accept another 15,000 Indochinese refugees over the next year, but the flow of refugees into camps in Thailand, Hong Kong, and other parts of Southeast Asia far surpassed the trickle of asylum-seekers being resettled elsewhere.19
To address the refugee crisis, the 96th Congress formed the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy and tasked it with developing a blueprint for comprehensive reform. Congress eventually created a new office—the Coordinator for Refugee Affairs—and moved many of the refugee programs to the Department of Health and Human Services. It capped the total number of refugees at 50,000, limited the administration’s parole power, and required the President to confer with Congress when raising the annual quota.20
The Refugee Act of 1980 was the country’s most comprehensive refugee legislation and overhauled many of America’s humanitarian policies. With new accountability systems in place and federal funding to match, Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino of New Jersey proclaimed it was “one of the most important pieces of humanitarian legislation ever enacted by a U.S. Congress.”21
As in previous conflicts abroad, U.S. soldiers serving overseas occasionally fathered children during the Vietnam War. When reports surfaced in the early 1970s that these children, known as “Amerasians” because they were born to an American parent, were being shunned in South Vietnam as bui doi (dust or trash), certain Members of Congress took up their cause. On May 21, 1971, Hawaii Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink introduced H.R. 8462, providing special entry visas for Amerasians in South Vietnam, but the bill never made it out of the Judiciary Committee.22
Increasing media coverage and lobbying pressure led to improved awareness, but it was not until 1982 that Congress passed the Amerasian Immigration Act, allowing Amerasians to immigrate to the United States under a nonquota visa using the family reunification provision.23
The program, however, required eligible children to enter the States from a country with which the United States had diplomatic relations. This precluded Vietnam, but it included countries with substantial Vietnamese populations, including the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand. The bill also prevented the parent or any half-siblings from immigrating to the United States under the same conditions. President Ronald Reagan signed the bill in the fall of 1982, noting it acknowledged “the rightful claim of Amerasian children to American citizenship.”24
The bill struggled to make much of an impact. Few people took advantage of the program, since most of the qualified participants were still children and were unable to locate sponsorship in America. Critics of the measure called it nothing more than an empty gesture.25
Congress revisited the issue of Amerasian immigration in 1987 with new legislation that assumed no documentation would exist to prove American parentage and cleared the way for the child’s immediate family to enter the United States as well. The children would be counted against Vietnam’s immigration quota, but a provision introduced by Robert Mrazek of New York ensured that they would receive refugee benefits, such as cultural and language training.26 While the House Judiciary Committee blocked Mrazek’s bill, he managed to have it embedded in the omnibus continuing appropriations act.27
By 2009, according to the Amerasian Independent Voice of America and the Amerasian Fellowship Association, 75,000 Amerasians and their immediate relations had come to the United States in the decades following the war, while a few hundred stayed in Vietnam. But only around 2 percent ever reunited with their biological American parent.28
14Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004): 234–236.
15Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1991): 154–156; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 325, 340.
16Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, Public Law 94-23, 89 Stat. 87 (1975); Stephen W. Stathis, Landmark Legislation, 1774–2002: Major U.S. Acts and Treaties (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2003): 294–295; Chan, Asian Americans: 156; David M. Reimers, Still the Golden Door: The Third World Comes to America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992): 179.
17Public Law 94-24, 89 Stat. 89 (1975); Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, rev. ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1998): 461–462; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 329, 340; Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 296; Chan, Asian Americans: 156; Public Law 94-313, 90 Stat. 691 (1976).
18Lee, The Making of Asian America: 340; Chan, Asian Americans: 161; Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: 452, 454; Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 179–180.
19Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 181; Chan, Asian Americans: 157.
20Roger Daniels, Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life (New York: Harper Perennial, 1990): 345; Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 195–196.
21Adam Clymer, Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography (New York: William Morrow, 1999): 314; Stathis, Landmark Legislation: 307; Chan, Asian Americans: 161; Reimers, Still the Golden Door: 196; Lee, The Making of Asian America: 341–342.
22Sabrina Thomas, “The Value of Dust: Policy, Citizenship and Vietnam’s Amerasian Children,” (PhD diss., Arizona State University, 2015): vi, 43–44, 47, 51; Congressional Record, House, 92nd Cong., 1st. sess. (17 May 1971): 15248.
23Thomas, “The Value of Dust”: 44–45, 68; Amerasian Immigration Act, Public Law 97-359, 96 Stat. 1716 (1982).
24Chan, Asian Americans: 163; Ronald Reagan, “Remarks on Signing a Bill Providing for the Immigration of Certain Amerasian Children,” 22 October 1982, in American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=41904 (accessed 19 April 2016).
25Thomas, “The Value of Dust”: 112–113.
26Ibid., 185–186; Chan, Asian Americans: 163.
27Thomas, “The Value of Dust”: 188–189; Public Law 100-202, 101 Stat. 1329 (1987).
28David Lamb, “Children of the Vietnam War,” June 2009, Smithsonian Magazine, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/children-of-the-vietnam-war-131207347/ (accessed 1 June 2016); Thomas, “The Value of Dust”: 176.