Saigon, 1975: Settling Southeast Asian Refugee Children and Youth in the U.S.

Vietnamese refugees rest as crewmen aboard the guided missile cruiser USS FOX (CG-33) give them something to drink (1 June 1982) via Wikimedia Commons

When Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese government in April 1975, thousands of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos sought asylum in the neighboring countries of China, Thailand, Indonesia, as well as in Canada, Australia, France, and the United States. The U.S. quickly admitted a first wave of 175,000 “boat people” from Vietnam. With domestic and international assistance from the Office of Refugee Resettlement , voluntary agencies, and religious organizations such as the Lutheran Social Services, United HIAS Service, Inc., World Relief Refugee Service and International Rescue Committee, approximately 750,000 refugees were resettled in American cities between 1975 and 1986. The U.S. government placed emphasis on Vietnamese relatives of American citizens, former U.S. employees, and refugees of “special humanitarian concern” to the U.S. In addition, its refugee policy prioritized family units arriving together, so that many were young families with children. An estimated 40% of Southeast Asian refugees who were admitted to the U.S. between 1975 and 1988 were between the ages of 6 and 21. Because the incoming refugee population was relatively young, there was a lot of attention on children and youth.

While there was an outpouring of international and local efforts to aid refugees, several complications arose when it came to distributing assistance to newly resettled refugees in the U.S. First, the involvement of so many aid organizations and local agencies initially resulted in a lack of coordination and inefficiency in distributing aid. Second, the concentration of refugees in coastal cities raised concerns about cities being overburdened, as well as concerns about assimilating Southeast Asian refugees when they remained in predominantly refugee communities. Furthermore, school systems were overwhelmed with the high number of refugee children and the challenge of accommodating their educational needs with limited teachers and resources.

American policymakers and aid agencies tried to address these issues by supporting the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act, which aimed to standardize the process of distributing refugee assistance. The federal government also reimbursed states for child welfare services and educational resources. In addition, aid agencies began to disperse Southeast Asian refugees throughout Midwestern cities and rural areas with smaller, or nonexistent, refugee communities, with the intention of helping refugees integrate faster. However, language and cultural barriers, along with insufficient resources to ease the transition, made this goal difficult to achieve. These challenges prompted calls from practitioners and social professionals to pay more attention to differences in cultural expectations and communication styles, as well as the recruitment of social workers and translators of Southeast Asian backgrounds who could facilitate the refugees’ adaptation to their new environment.

Incoming refugees and the receiving communities held different understandings of family units, childhood, and youth, which raised another challenge related to issues of distributing aid and integration. Clinical psychologists and social workers at the time reported that the Western concept of adolescence differed from Eastern concepts. For example, in Hmong culture the average marriage age was earlier than in Western cultures, sometimes as early as 14 or 15. These differences raised the question of how to categorize adolescents who may have had children of their own, yet were legally considered minors themselves. Young parents needed to support their children, yet were expected to attend school in order to acquire language skills and job training. Thus, they had to make a choice or figure out ways to balance schooling and work. Yet, adolescents with children also benefitted from being categorized as adults, since they qualified for the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

There was also the question of how to categorize refugees who had arrived as adolescents and transitioned into young adulthood. No longer legally children, they were expected to start working as soon as possible to avoid becoming dependent on welfare assistance. As unattached individuals, however, it was more difficult to prove that they were “deserving” of aid, especially when they lacked the educational, vocational, and language skills to demonstrate their potential to become self-sufficient. These factors posed challenges for refugees in these in-between categories to access age-based welfare benefits: they were either “adults too soon” or had “become adults too late,” as psychiatrists observed about Southeast Asian refugee youth in Minnesota. Finally, there was the question of how to categorize Southeast Asian families with “nontraditional” family structures, whether this structure consisted of extended generational relations or families with both refugee and non-refugee members. This proved to be a challenge when dealing with the American welfare system, which favored nuclear family units.

Humanitarianism toward refugees is often presented as potentially encompassing universal needs and surpassing national and cultural boundaries. In the case of children, there have been articulations of a child’s right to a home, family, and nationality, including the [Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1924)](URN Stornig), the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), and later the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989/90). However, these definitions are culturally constructed, as seen in the case of young Southeast Asian refugees whose status as children and youth may have changed once they crossed national borders. These tensions suggest that the categories with which international and local agencies are working can be limited, and they must be continually redefined when refugees move from the international to the domestic context.

The case of resettling young Southeast Asian refugees in the U.S. thus raises the question of how aid agencies and organizations can effectively run refugee programs to meet the particular needs of each incoming group. The integration of Southeast Asian refugees into American communities since 1975 went relatively smoothly, especially for the first wave of Vietnamese refugees. However, subsequent groups of refugees from Southeast Asia faced different challenges after their arrival than the first group of highly educated refugees, partly because most of them came from lower socioeconomic, educational, and vocational backgrounds, and partly because the processes of refugee resettlement in the U.S. were still slowly transitioning from an ad hoc program to a permanent, formalized system.

Factors such as religion, racial prejudices, changing political and economic circumstances in the receiving countries, and concerns about the blurred lines between “refugees” and “economic migrants” can play a large role, in addition to conflicting expectations for age, gender, and family roles. For Southeast Asian refugee migration, in particular, historians have also highlighted the geopolitical motivations driving refugee assistance, such as American policymakers, troops, and donors using humanitarian endeavors and refugee policy as a way to salvage the global reputation of the U.S. as a benevolent, humanitarian power after the Vietnam War. These questions continue to be examined by scholars studying the politics behind refugee assistance, the involvement of international organizations that facilitate or hinder the migration of persons uprooted from their homes, and the perspectives of refugees who have undergone these experiences of displacement and resettlement.

Further Reading

U.S. Policy Toward Southeast Asian Refugees:

Humanitarian Aid and Resettlement:

Short Biographical Note on Contributor

Sharon Park received her PhD in history at the University of Minnesota in 2016 and was a junior research fellow at the Vienna Wiesenthal Institute from 2016-2017. Her research interests include American debates about aid to European and Southeast Asian refugees during the Cold War, the intersections of refugee and welfare policies in the U.S., and the personal narratives of refugee children and youth. Sharon was a participant of the Global Humanitarianism Research Academy 2017.