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Remembering When Southeast Asia Refugees Dominated Discussions


Well, let's prepare to roll with the punches of a new year by learning lessons of history. In these final days of 2015, we have three tales of the past.


Each relates to dilemmas of the present, and that includes today's tale of refugees.

MONTAGNE: Amid fierce debate, the U.S. plans to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Older Americans recall when the U.S. absorbed a much larger number of refugees from war.

INSKEEP: They fled Vietnam after the U.S.-backed forces there were defeated in 1975. Historian Erika Lee researched those refugees for her book "The Making Of Asian America."

ERIKA LEE: After the fall of Saigon and the end of the wars in Southeast Asia, we resettled 1.2 million refugees. Minneapolis-St. Paul, where I live, welcomed the last group of refugees as recently as 2008. So we are still seeing the effects of that war 40 years after.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to think about what was different between the Vietnamese example and the refugee debate now. And I suppose one difference was that there must have been some national agreement that the United States had to be involved in that world and that it had a duty to protect its friends.

LEE: Right, a very clear situation of these are our allies. We had just been in the country with them. We all remember those very dramatic photos of April 30, 1975, with the lines of refugees filing outside of the embassy in Saigon desperately trying to board the helicopters and then leaving by boat in any way that they could. I do think though that one of the things that we see now is what the media called compassion fatigue. By the 1980s, as the refugee crisis continued and it seemed like the numbers were not ending, the media started talking about maybe we're admitting too many refugees.

INSKEEP: Were there social tensions because of Vietnamese refugees being spread across much of the country?

LEE: There were. So the policies really tried to placate some of the anxieties. So instead of allowing refugees to be resettled in concentrated pockets, the policies promoted a disbursement of refugees across the country. It's one of the reasons why Minnesota, which had not received very many refugees beforehand, is now the Hmong capital of the world partly because of the will of social service organizations and churches and nonprofit organizations.

INSKEEP: But did that strategy work?

LEE: To some degree, but one of the things that we also saw was that the refugee resettlement programs in the 1980s were happening at the same time as some economic downturns, some fatigue about the Vietnam War. It seems like Americans wanted to just forget about Vietnam. But then we had Vietnamese and Southeast Asian refugees in our schools and in our communities. Some of the children had only lived in refugee camps for extended periods of time and had little formal schooling. So there were great needs, and with the increase in spending on social services came some anti-refugee, anti-immigrant sentiment as well.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about security though because we have this modern debate about Syria and people are concerned about letting Syrians into the country. And the question is explicitly asked what if somebody's a terrorist in there? What if somebody's an Islamist, is against United States and sneaking in that way? Was that concern raised with the Vietnamese boat people, as they were sometimes pejoratively called in the 1970s, that some of them might be communists?

LEE: Not Communists. But over the decades, as some Southeast-Asians and the Hmong community, there was an ongoing desire to overthrow the Communist government and return it to a non-Communist government as before the war. There was a highly-publicized case where the recognized Hmong-American leader, general Vang Pao, was actually arrested and charged with terrorist activities. He was later absolved of those cases, but it's always a tension in terms of any homeland ties that certain groups have whether they're immigrants or refugees versus how well are they integrating into the United States. So I think that the asylum cases and the policies that we have in place now are - certainly after 9/11 are very finely tuned to determine those cases at the outset.

INSKEEP: Erika Lee is the author of "The Making Of Asian America." Thanks very much.

LEE: Thank you.


INSKEEP: And tomorrow, we'll hear another lesson of history that informs our struggles today. It's the story of a president straining to manage a long-running threat to the United States. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.