Friday, August 8, 2014

The Parallels Between the Responses to the Vietnamese Refugees of the 1970s and the Central Americans of 2014

In "This is not America’s first immigration crisis", former Washington Governor (1965-77) Daniel J. Evans reminds  us that the influx of refugees from Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975 caused a great deal of public concern at the time.  The crisis mentality is similar to what the nation is experiencing today with the publicity surrounding the recent flow of migrants from Central America.  Concern with the Vietnamese  refugees contributed to congressional passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which although humanitarian in certain respects also generally required individualized asylum determinations and took other steps to regularize (i.e., limit) the flow of refugees to the United States.  It is noteworthy that the story of Vietnamese immigrants is often pointed to as an immigrant success story in contemporary discussions of immigration.

Evans educated this Californian about Governor Jerry Brown's initial response to Vietnamese refugees being brought to the Golden State:

"Soon a wave of Vietnam refugees arrived in the United States and were housed temporarily at Camp Pendleton, Calif. As Washington governor, one morning I heard a radio report that Gov. Jerry Brown of California wanted no Vietnamese refugees to settle in California. One of his senior staff even attempted to prevent airplanes loaded with refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base."


Brown's initial response sounds errily similar to the reaction of some Murrieta, California citizens in response to the detention of Central Americans in a facility in their town.

Fortunately, the Governor's views on immigration appear to evolved over time.  As David Siders of the Sacramento Bee reported a few weeks ago,

"In 1975, his first year in office, Brown was scolded publicly by the Ford administration when he worried publicly about the impact Vietnamese refugees would have on a state that at the time grappled with an unemployment rate of more than 9 percent.

Brown said at the time that his concern “is the priority to be given unemployed Californians.”

“We had better look to the needs and aspirations of those who are here,” Brown said. “We can’t be looking 5,000 miles away. There is something a little strange about saying, let’s bring 500,000 more people when we can’t take care of the 1 million we have who are out of work.”

Brown’s rhetoric reflected not only the faltering economy, but his own political ambition: He would go on to run for president the following year, the first of three unsuccessful campaigns. In a populist appeal, Brown called on Washington to create one job for an American for every job made available to Vietnamese refugees.

By 1979, though, Brown’s tone had softened.

“We are a country of refugees and immigrants,” said Brown, who convened a state task force to help coordinate aid for the refugees. “It is now time for us to provide a role in the protection of life. … This is a scandal to Vietnam and a scandal to humanity.”


Today, in his second term in office, Governor Brown has signed some impoirtant legislation sensitive to the treatment of immigrants, including the California TRUST Act, a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to be eligible for driver's licenses, and a bill that allows undocumented immigrants to be eligible to practice law.

Hat tip to Pamela Wu!


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