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How Southeast Asian American refugees helped shape America's resettlement system

2020 is the 45th anniversary of Southeast Asian American refugees' arrival in the U.S., still the largest group to be resettled since then.
Image: Cambodian refugees in one of the border encampments established in 1979 on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Cambodian refugees in one of the border encampments established in 1979 on the Thai-Cambodian border.Berta Romero-Fonte

Two days before the end of the Vietnam War, Le Xuan Khoa boarded a plane with his family to start a new life in the United States.

He'd had a comfortable life in South Vietnam. He was the vice president of the University of Saigon and had served as the country's deputy minister of culture and education.

But as the North Vietnamese came closer to claiming victory, he knew he had to leave.

Given his high-ranking positions, he was certain that if he stayed, he would have been sent to a re-education camp where he would have been subject to grueling hours of labor, poor health care and insufficient food. Many people died in these camps, including some of his former colleagues, he said.

Khoa was 47 when he stepped foot in Washington, D.C., where he settled with his wife and four children.

He landed his first job in America as a cashier at a 7-Eleven, a far cry from his positions in Vietnam.

“Before coming to the U.S., I told my children, ‘Don’t be surprised if I have to start with menial jobs in the West because we need to adjust to a new life in the U.S., and we have to start very low in order to come up later,'” he told NBC Asian America.

Khoa was one of 123,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The year marked the beginning of the mass migration of Southeast Asian refugees following the end of conflicts the U.S. had been involved in in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

The Southeast Asian American refugee community this year is observing its 45th anniversary in the United States, where they remain the largest group the country has resettled since then.

Image: Cambodian refugees in one of the border encampments established in 1979 on the Thai-Cambodian border.
Cambodian refugees in one of the border encampments established in 1979 on the Thai-Cambodian border.Berta Romero-Fonte

Unwelcomed refugees

When Southeast Asians began arriving in the United States, they were met with hostility and racism.

“The general sentiment of Americans was that they didn’t want Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. because of this very long and unpopular war,” said Sam Vong, curator of Asian Pacific American History at the Smithsonian Institute and former assistant professor of Asian American history at the University of Texas, Austin.

According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), a civil rights group, refugees were viewed as voluntary migrants,and were expected to quickly become economically self-sufficient and independent. Many were resettled in impoverished neighborhoods and were surrounded by gang violence, racial tension and poor schools.

This experience was common for many refugees, but it wasn't the case for everyone, Vong said.

Khoa described adjusting to his new life with no complaints. He and his family were assigned a sponsor who gave them a place to live for a year, and his stint at 7-Eleven only lasted for a couple of months.

He eventually began working at SEARAC in 1979 – which was called the Indochina Refugee Action Center at the time – as a consultant before becoming its first Southeast Asian director.

The organization, established by American professionals, aimed to help the U.S. government design refugee policies and programs because it had limited experience in resettling Southeast Asians, according to SEARAC.

Creating a unified refugee resettlement program

When Southeast Asian refugees began arriving in the U.S. in 1975, the country's resettlement process was conducted ad hoc by the State Department and voluntary organizations.

And without an understanding of their problems and needs, many were considered a burden to American society, Khoa said.

So he focused on shifting the narrative around Southeast Asians from hostility to support by redefining the community as political refugees rather than economic migrants. He worked with Congress and the media to educate the public about why they fled their countries and why the U.S. should receive them, according to SEARAC.

Eric Tang, author of "Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto," noted that refugees suffered trauma from war and from the experience of living in refugee camps.

Cambodian refugees, the majority of whom began arriving in the U.S. in the early 1980s, had come out of a genocide that claimed some 2 million victims, Vong said. He added that many Cambodian and Laotian refugees had also been displaced multiple times from their home countries.

“You can’t just expect refugees to just pick up their lives and start rebuilding their communities right after three months,” he said. “It takes some time to find a job, to get adjusted to their new environment, to relocate family members. And that requires both social support, financial assistance, and any other kind of community resources to help people get back on their feet.”

A historic moment came in 1980 with the passage of the Refugee Act, a bipartisan bill that the Indochina Refugee Action Center's founders helped draft, Khoa said, that formalized the country's resettlement procedures. It established a goal of helping refugees achieve economic self sufficiency within three years, Vong said. The act also raised the ceiling for annual refugee admissions from 17,400 to 50,000 from 1980 to 1982.

SEARAC in March commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Refugee Act and credited it for the resettlement of more than 1.1 million Southeast Asian Americans in the United States.

Le Xuan Khoa’s legacy

Image: Le Xuan Khoa receives an award at the organization's "Thank You America: Two Decades of Refugee Resettlement" gala in 1998.
Le Xuan Khoa receives an award at the organization's "Thank You America: Two Decades of Refugee Resettlement" gala in 1998.Courtesy of the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center

Quyen Dinh, executive director of SEARAC and the daughter of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in 1980, credited Khoa for the America she and more than 1 million other Southeast Asian refugees have experienced, where refugees see their families grow by having children and sponsoring other family members through family reunification.

“It was his leadership that led to the formation of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, streamlining the resettlement of not just Southeast Asians but all refugees since the 1980s,” she said in an email. Khoa retired as SEARAC's president in 1996, but remained an adviser to the organization.

“Decades later, his legacy lives on in our organization's mission to build and mobilize this, and the next, generations of advocates so that those most impacted by inequity in our communities are the ones calling for change,” Dinh said.

CORRECTION (May 18, 2020, 11:00 a.m.ET): An earlier version of this article misstated Le Xuan Khoa's contribution to U.S. legislation dealing with refugees in the 1980s. He did not help draft the 1980 Refugee Act, but he was involved with the Refugee Assistance and Protection Act of 1987.

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