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South Vietnamese families are transferred to US chartered planes on March 27, 1975.
Nick Ut/AP

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The US needs to meet its moral obligation to Afghan refugees

Refugee policy after the communist takeover of Vietnam offers many lessons.

Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the US took in more than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees in less than a year, a policy the government desperately needs to learn from as it deals with the impact of withdrawing from Afghanistan.

With the Taliban regaining power, thousands of Afghans are poised to flee a regime that’s expected to be not only more repressive than the previous government but also more hostile to US allies in the country.

Already, roughly 88,000 Afghans are estimated to have applied for special immigrant visas (SIVs), an immigration channel open to individuals who worked with the US government as well as their family members. In addition to people pursuing SIVs, other Afghan residents are expected to apply for refugee status if they’re able to do so.

Earlier this week, the Pentagon announced that the US intends to resettle 22,000 Afghan SIV applicants in the coming weeks, though the number of people trying to leave is expected to be much larger. According to a July New York Times report, 30,000 Afghans were fleeing the country on a weekly basis earlier this year.

As was the case following the Vietnam War, many experts see the US as holding a responsibility to provide safe harbor for people whose safety has been threatened by a conflict the country engaged in for the past 20 years.

“There was a sense that we had a moral obligation to help people out after failing them during the Cold War,” says Phuong Tran Nguyen, a history professor at California State University Monterey Bay and author of the book Becoming Refugee American. “I think this is what we’re seeing right now, this same parallel.”

Afghan families attempt to board aircraft at Kabul’s international airport on August 16, 2021.
Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

In bringing Afghans to the US — refugees and those with SIVs — the government needs to streamline its vetting processes to quickly move endangered people to safety. Nguyen notes that to be successful, resettlement should focus on preserving community while acknowledging the trauma that people have endured, instead of pushing assimilation.

Although there are notable differences between the two conflicts, some of the dynamics the US is navigating now are similar to those that existed when Vietnamese refugees were resettled in the 1970s. Nguyen spoke with Vox about the Vietnamese resettlement process; the xenophobia and political backlash that refugees experienced at the time; the logistics of resettling people in various communities; and the lessons the government can take today from how its approached this issue in the past.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Li Zhou

Comparisons have been made between the withdrawals of the US from Afghanistan in recent days and the fall of Saigon. Could you talk about any parallels that you see between the two?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

I think there’s a lot of comparisons to be drawn — the first of which is, I think, you have two regimes that lasted for 20 years. Although in the case of Vietnam, the US had a really strong military presence for only 10 of those 20 years. But those regimes just rapidly collapsed once international troops were withdrawn.

There was a lack of morale, there was a lack of munitions, lack of cash, a withdrawal not only of US forces but resources as well.

[There’s also a parallel in the] kind of chaotic nature that we’ve seen on television and social media, the images we’ve seen of people trying to get out as quickly as possible ... the inability for whatever reason of the US to be able to evacuate people in a timely order.

Displaced families fleeing violence take shelter at a makeshift camp in Kabul on August 14.
Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
South Vietnamese refugees from Hue and the northern provinces wait for the government to relocate them on March 28, 1975.
Dang Van Phuoc/AP

I think what’s more important, from my perspective and my research, is looking at getting [Afghans] into this country and where they’re going to be resettled afterward.

My study is about Vietnamese refugees and understanding how refugees are different from immigrants. One is that their conditions of departure were involuntary, whereas immigrants left of, mostly, their own free will. But also it’s the perception and social conditions that existed at the time.

During most of the Cold War, 80 to 90 percent of the people we defined as refugees were trying to flee communist countries. And so we had a special political and moral motivation to [admit] them into this country. Political, because the US wanted to show how bad communism was. So by admitting people fleeing communist countries, we could show that the US was winning the Cold War and people were voting with their feet to indicate that this was a better choice. They would rather put their lives at risk and flee than live under communism.

But also because the US was actively involved in a lot of these countries that fell, there was a sense that we had a moral obligation to help people out after failing them during the Cold War. And those conditions applied in the case of Vietnam, especially, because of that 20-year commitment.

And I think this is what we’re seeing right now, this same parallel, that we have a moral obligation to, as Viet Nguyen says, move heaven and earth. And Michelle Goldberg stated just as much in different words in the editorial page of the New York Times: that our first priority should be to get people out. And I think that is a big deal that needs to be talked about more.

Li Zhou

What was the initial policy for bringing Vietnamese refugees and other Southeast Asian refugees to the US in the 1970s? And what lessons can the US take from its strengths and shortcomings?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

Refugee policy, in general, has always been a very ad hoc process where we just kind of deal with it as we go. [Author’s note: President Gerald Ford established a task force dedicated to resettling 130,000 refugees from the Vietnam War in the months after Saigon fell.]

I think the lesson that we learned from Vietnam is that [evacuating 130,000 people] was not going to be enough. That was just the tip of the iceberg. There are 2 million Vietnamese Americans in the United States today. And that doesn’t include Vietnamese people who left the country who wound up in other places like Canada or West Germany. So we have a huge diaspora of people who left during the Cold War.

I know it’s difficult because it’s a political lift, not just a bureaucratic lift, to be able to get people out and resettle them. At the moment, we only have about half a billion dollars allocated to refugee resettlement, and it’s going to have to be a lot, lot more.

They have to find a way to really make sure that governors and local politicians take as little of a hit as possible. And that’s kind of the political angle that’s really hard to bypass. But the good thing about it is that a lot of this resettlement is not necessarily done by government officials. It’s done through churches, charities, and other voluntary organizations, which create, hopefully, what I call in my book, a sponsorship bubble, where people are exposed to, obviously a segment of the United States that’s much more welcoming to them.

We have to convince people — especially after the narrative that the Biden administration and the administration during the Vietnam War advanced that these people were not willing to fight for their own country.

The baser and more xenophobic elements of our society use that to their advantage to say, “Well, why do we want them in our country, then,” which was the kind of arguments that were used when Vietnamese entered this country as well.

Li Zhou

Do you feel like the political climate toward refugees has shifted more favorably since the ’70s?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

I don’t know if it’s any different. I think one of the most famous facts that gets regurgitated over and over following the Vietnam War is the Gallup poll in May 1975, that indicated 54 percent of Americans opposed the resettlement of Indo-Chinese refugees. And so people assume that America was kind of anti-refugee. But if you put that into context, that’s actually an improvement from the 1930s and ’40s, when 70 percent of Americans opposed the resettlement of Jewish refugees into the country. I don’t think there was ever going to be a majority of people who absolutely favor this.

The question is where we are at historically. So if we can get it to even 40 percent [support], that’s kind of a good number, historically speaking.

Li Zhou

Could you walk through what the resettlement process looked like for Vietnamese refugees?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

I can tell you what happened with the first wave, which is, I guess, a good way to anticipate what might happen with this wave. If it’s anything like 1975, they’re getting airlifted to US military installations nearby or installations operated by US allies. From there, they’re getting clothed, fed, and the most important part is being vetted.

And I think that is, you know, politically fraught territory. If there are enough people that want them in, fine. But ... you have to be able to anticipate the backlash as well. And what happened in ’75 was that people were fleeing for their lives, but the US was still treating them like immigrants. [They were] doing background checks on them and asking really trivial types of questions to see if they were fit to be in the United States, as though this was a kind of immigration processing facility.

More than 3,000 refugees from South Vietnam were relocated to a tent city at Crote Point on the Guam Naval Base.
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

After that, in 1975, after all these processing procedures were taken care of, and [people] passed their vetting, they were then relocated to four military bases in the United States. That would be their last processing place before they were going to be resettled in the United States. That was the Cold War process. I think what’s going to happen instead is [Afghan refugees] are going to be processed overseas. And once they’ve passed all the vetting, they’ll be flown to the United States. Hopefully, the Biden administration can bypass that and get these people out as quickly as possible.

Li Zhou

What happened after refugees were fully processed?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

In 1975, people ended up in these four military bases, Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and then Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. Voluntary organizations working with the United States government [were] trying to find sponsors.

People don’t necessarily have family or friends; they didn’t have a job that was already waiting for them beforehand. They were not already set to go to school here. Because those are the usual sponsors that bring immigrants into this country: job, family, or school. And so these ad hoc sponsors get set up, sometimes they are families within the church organizations, voluntary agencies, sometimes they are employers. [Author’s note: Today, refugees don’t need “sponsors,” but many organizations effectively take on the role of helping refugees establish themselves in different communities.]

There’s a desire to get people out of the camps and resettled as quickly as possible. And there’s the other end of it: where refugees — especially those who don’t know anybody in the country, don’t know the language or the culture — they want to stick together as long as possible. There were stories in 1975 about a lot of refugees refusing to leave the camps if they couldn’t be joined by other people in the camp who either were family or they claimed were family. So, you know, there were some places and businesses that had success relocating large amounts of people.

In Arkansas, there were chicken factories that were looking for a lot of low-wage workers, and a lot of Vietnamese people got resettled working in chicken factories or in the fishing industry in Louisiana. And then eventually, what’s going to happen after these people get resettled is they are going to be pressured — if it’s anything like the ’70s — to become as economically self-sufficient as possible. To not be on welfare too long, to learn English as quickly as possible, which is what happened to my family.

My family is not part of the first wave; they’re part of the second wave, infamously called “boat people.” And when we got resettled within the United States, we didn’t really have a choice. You wait to see if somebody in the United States is willing to take you in and bring you over, and you become essentially like an adoptee. And there was one famous refugee who in his memoirs, he called his sponsors, Father and Mother No. 2. Because it was almost like that kind of very paternalistic relationship.

We’ll take you in, they find an apartment for you, they furnish your place, you know, help you out with groceries and food for a few weeks, and make sure that you’re doing all right before they leave the nest or you leave the nest. And we wound up in Binghamton, New York, stayed there for about six months or so.

My father decided we needed to leave because, as I said earlier, the emphasis [is] on getting refugees to be economically self-sufficient. The state of New York wouldn’t let my father go to school and work at the same time, whereas the state of California would. And so he and a lot of other people engaged in secondary migration from their initial resettlement spot to places like California, to places like Texas, where communities already existed, where they could actually open a business because a lot of people don’t necessarily speak English. So that’s the kind of process we can expect.

Li Zhou

When your family was moved to Binghamton, was that location something you had a say in?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

We didn’t have family members in the United States already; those who have family members, obviously, will get reunited with them. So no, we didn’t have a say. The United States wanted to make sure people had as little to say as possible, or it would have taken forever to evacuate the refugees. And that’s probably what’s going to go on right now: In order to get more people out, they have to make sure the refugee camps don’t get overcrowded, so that they can bring the next wave in. Otherwise, they have to keep opening up more and more refugee camps.

And the refugee camps are not meant to be a permanent place of residence for the next steps in the process. And so, no, they didn’t have to say; that’s why we ended up ending up Binghamton. That’s why refugees ended up all over the place, but because of secondary migration, especially because of the presence of ethnic economies, people were able to move — either because by moving, they’d be able to start a business of their own, because there was finally a customer base for what they had to sell. Or they could be the customers themselves and get the goods and services they needed.

A Vietnamese family, relocated to the US, sit on a stoop outside their home in the West Philadelphia on June 1984.
Leif Skoogfors/Getty Images

Li Zhou

Could you talk about some of the biggest challenges that Vietnamese refugees faced? And are there areas where you think the government should have done more to address those challenges?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

For people that I interviewed, I tried to bring a theoretical angle: What did it feel like to lose your country, and this and that? Were you worried about the war? But for most people, it is much more personal than that. Yeah, you’ve lost the war, you’ve lost your country, but most importantly, you’re going to be separated from your families forever.

What the US could have learned from the ’70s is to try to minimize the amount of disbursement that happened. It’s inevitable that people won’t all be located in California and New York, but if they can help it, to try to make the process as minimally traumatic as possible. So people aren’t staying in some remote area, without any sign of an Afghan community. And to really make assurances and make good faith efforts to reunite families. It’s going to be a long time before some people are reunited with their loved ones, because these people aren’t going to be able to get out anytime soon. Some might be jailed. And some might not survive this process.

I think the main thing is just making sure that people have an opportunity to build community, to have a little less of an emphasis on assimilation. And to assume that forgetting the past, just thinking forward is going to be enough to deal with the PTSD.

Li Zhou

Why do you think arguments to justify refugees still rely so much on the idea that they are model citizens who contribute to society, rather than just focusing on the moral responsibility to help people?

Phuong Tran Nguyen

I think part of it is the war scenario, that refugees are leaving countries that the US was at war with. And there’s this necessity of differentiating refugees from the people the United States was fighting. And I think most Americans are unable or unwilling to make that differentiation.

So when people come from Vietnam, there’s a good chance that they’ll encounter people who assumed that these are the people that the US was fighting in the first place. So there’s that kind of immediate, imminent threat element at stake right there, where there’s that need to differentiate folks.

And [the government] spent, you know, lots of political and cultural capital over the years, talking about the threat this nation posed to us, to US interests and freedom. And now you’re bringing people of that same country over, and you have to explain, “Oh, no, it was actually a civil war instead, and we’re bringing the people who are on our side, our friends. And so it’s a whole new ballgame.”

And, you know, this country has a very, very long history of xenophobia. ... It’s a shame that we have to kind of engage in these battles and that we can’t go beyond it. But the reason we can’t go beyond it is because the anti-immigrant side is still there. As long as there’s a side that’s resistant, you still have to fight them.

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