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Boat People

July 17, 2014

In April 1975, as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong closed in on Saigon, President Gerald Ford called together key officials of his administration and asked them to plan and implement an evacuation of Americans, South Vietnamese who had worked with Americans, and others from Saigon. Ultimately about 138,000 Vietnamese were evacuated, and about 130,000 of them were resettled in the United States.

Resettlement camps were set up at four military bases around the country, one of them at Fort Indiantown Gap, not far from my home town. The refugees were resettled from the military bases to all 50 states. I remember that my little town suddenly had more Vietnamese restaurants than movie theaters.

The Communist Vietnamese government initially engaged in what was called a “velvety transition.” But before long, the government started sending mass numbers of South Vietnamese to “re-education camps,” worked vigorously to stamp out all vestiges of private enterprise, and cracked down on dissent. People began to flee.

Flight escalated to exodus: in September 1978, a ship named the Southern Cross unloaded more than 1,200 Vietnamese people on an Indonesian island. The peak of the exodus was June 1979, when 59,000 Vietnamese people landed on southeast Asian shores – the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and other countries.

Although many of the initial wave of refugees traveled on large ships, southeast Asian nations started refusing landing to those larger vessels, leading subsequent waves of refugees to evade authorities by using small, overcrowded, dangerously leaky boats. The refugees became known as “boat people.”

The United Nations convened an international conference to deal with the refugee crisis, and, in July 1979, the United States and other western countries agreed to increase the number of refugees they would accept. In just four years, 623,000 Vietnamese refugees were re-settled in western countries, the majority coming to the United States, Australia, France and Canada.

I don’t remember any great American popular resistance to accepting Vietnamese refugees, either in 1975 or in the 1979 to 1982 period. I remember public officials expressing compassion – in particular, I remember the Republican governor of Iowa, Robert Ray, remarking to the effect of, “we are all boat people,” invoking America’s immigrant heritage, as well as the desperate circumstances of many of our immigrant ancestors.

In an important respect, our country has changed for the worse since the 1970s. Central American children are coming to our southern border in search of safety. Boys and girls as young as seven years old are traveling unaccompanied 1,500 miles or more to get away from gang warfare and other violence, coming to our border in hopes of saving their lives.

Their numbers are not huge – at last count, 52,000 kids had arrived since the wave began in 2012. That is almost exactly the number of American orphans adopted by American families each year; the total number of adoptions by American families per year is about 120,000. Ironically, many American families looking to adopt travel to the very same countries that these kids are fleeing, especially Guatemala.

The waves of Vietnamese refugees were perhaps more closely and obviously connected to American actions than the Central American refugees are. But make no mistake: American actions in Central America are far from blameless, including specifically as it relates to this refugee crisis. At one time or another, American interests made most Central American countries into banana republics. We installed or backed autocrats, we exploited people and resources, and we sent arms or even soldiers.

In 2008, we enacted a law that provided for an asylum hearing before deportation of any child from a country not bordering the United States. We enacted that law in reaction to child trafficking, one of the most despicable practices every concocted by humans.

But now it has become inconvenient to house and feed children while they wait for their hearings. So the cry has gone up to repeal the 2008 law. The cry has gone up to deport these children now, to refuse them entry at the border, to send them back into the desert they crossed to get here. The cry has gone up: “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?”, as if children need legal justification to flee for their young lives.

Many of the people letting loose these cries wave the American flag, surely one of the most insulting invocations of patriotism in recent history. Many of these folks also invoke Jesus Christ – the same Jesus Christ who demanded that his disciples “let the little children come to me”; who preached that if a man forces you to walk one mile with him, you should walk with him a second mile, and if a man steals your coat you should also give him your shirt.

Other than Native Americans, we all immigrated from somewhere else. “The law is the law” makes a nice slogan, but it also makes a convenient substitute for thought and an excuse for appalling callousness. We are indeed all boat people. Let the little children come to us.

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