With the Vietnam War officially ending April 30, 1975, one way the United States responded to the cessation of hostilities was to enact humanitarian based immigration reform. The 1975 Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act was signed into law less than a month later on May 23. This bill allowed refugees from Southeast Asia to resettle in the country. As the U.S. prepared to return its military personnel home, consideration had to be made for the many natives that had aided the U.S. war effort. With the Americans gone, these allies would be vulnerable to retaliation from the North Vietnamese government. Provision for financial assistance was included in the bill for these new arrivals who often had only the clothes on their backs and, if they were lucky, a suitcase. $455 million was allocated to facilitate the resettlement of these refugees. Considered political refugees, many were granted permanent residence status.
If these refugees did not succeed in reaching evacuation points where airlifts were designated, many eventually fled by boat or even attempted to walk across the country to safety. These were the people newspaper headlines called the “boat people”. As their situation became more desperate, they were willing to risk dehydration, starvation, attack by pirates and drowning if their boat capsized or sunk. Hope of reaching safety was greater than their fear of the dangers they would face on overcrowded, small vessels attempting to cross the vast ocean. Those that were captured were imprisoned in concentration camps for “re-education”.
President Gerald Ford took a strong leadership stance in support of this legislation. He faced direct opposition in congress by naysayers who, in their conditioned state of xenophobia, naturally reacted with fear of a future wave of immigrants. Once again, the emotionally stirring, but non-factual, political propaganda of how immigrants would lower wages and become a burden on society was shot down by the forward-thinking humanitarians who understood the truth. Immigrants, throughout American history, have proven to be hard working, law-abiding people that make a positive contribution to society.
The gringa says, “Way to go, President Ford! You may have often tripped and fell in your soup bowl, but you stayed strong and true on the path of leadership.” The gringa is thankful that President Ford was not an irrational xenophobe. The gringa is proud of a president that did not use a false representation of a group of people to pander to his electorate. Certain people in the nation’s current political spotlight could learn a lesson from Ford’s socially evolved decision to support this immigration reform.
About 200,000 Vietnamese and Cambodians eventually made their way to America’s shores as a result of this bill. They arrived at one of four entry points: Camp Pendleton, California; Eglin Air Force Base, Florida; Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania; and Fort Chaffee, Arkansas. The Arkansas base aptly referred to their duty as “Operation New Life”. Although the gringa is certain all military stations performed their duty as honorably as Arkansas, I will use Fort Chaffee as a snapshot of U.S. history with regards to this legislation.
Within seven months of the May 2 commencement of “Operation New Life”, over fifty thousand refugees had been received at Fort Chaffee. May 4, 1975, just two days after the first new arrival, the Vietnamese newspaper Tan Dan began publication. As autumn approached, the refugees began to enjoy the benefit of a bilingual radio station. The local community college created English classes specifically with the new immigrants in mind. It seems that, as a whole, Arkansas did America proud in its welcoming spirit. The gracious people of Arkansas even went that proverbial extra mile and organized an Independence Day celebration with a rodeo as a way of introducing these war weary people to what it means to be American.
As the immigrants learned what it was to be American, they seemed to relish in a freedom that had previously been denied them. This resulted in some interesting occurrences in the practice of their liberty. June 20, 1975, eighty Vietnamese had a demonstration about all the things that were frustrating them in their new homeland. Two days later there was a counter protest by 600 refugees expressing their gratitude for all America had done for them. The gringa is amused by this. However, not all was bon-bons and roses at the fort. There were tensions among some of the refugees toward a group of refugees that were government officials. As a result of these hostilities, Provost Marshal reports indicate the possibility of related violent crimes. However, despite any difficulty, the 325 babies that were conceived by these new immigrants at Fort Chaffee indicates they moved on from the horrors of war and embraced their new life with gusto.
As the immigrants began to mingle in their new communities, media accounts reflected the reaction of a polarized community. There were the xenophobic racists who continued in their belief that the immigrants would rob locals of opportunity and jobs. But, the gringa is thankful that there was an enlightened populace who reacted with hospitality and charity, assisting the newcomers with education and cultural assimilation. The fact that many of the Indochinese who arrived in Arkansas even married some of the locals is a testimony to the spirit of tolerance and acceptance that prevailed in Arkansas.
In Arkansas, alone, researchers estimate that the local economy experienced a boon of several million dollars as a result of this immigration policy. So much for the naysayers arguments of how immigrants are an economic burden on society. They may need a little help in the beginning, but, once successfully maneuvering a traumatic cultural adjustment, society benefits greatly from the contributions made by immigrants.
As our nation considers immigration reform in the future, I hope many will recall the success that was realized in Arkansas. The gringa looks forward to the day when all the xenophobes in the U.S. outgrow their irrational fears and ignorant belief in political propaganda. The gringa is ready for these fear-mongering xenophobes to put on their big girl panties and their big boy briefs and quit being scaredy-cats in their little-people pants and little-people minds.
Immigrants are just people looking for a better life. The way things are going in the United States, who knows, one day the shoe could be on the other foot. America could begin to fall down in shambles, it seems it’s already begun. Terrorized Americans could start to flee in droves. If Americans want compassionate welcomes as immigrants looking for a better life, they should take a good hard look in the mirror and see if they really deserve such treatment.
As for the propaganda spewed forth from politicians pandering to a voter base they are hoping to mobilize? Fact check everything they say. When you fact check, go to unbiased sources, such as Census records, rather than statistics put together by organizations with political ties. As the scales of propaganda begin to fall from xenophobic eyes, the truth will be revealed that the majority of immigrants eventually adjust and become productive contributors to their community. And they manage to do this without becoming murderers and drug slingers. Chances are those are the very horrors they were trying to escape. Many are trying to escape a life of instability and vulnerability most Americans cannot even conceive of in the isolated, privileged country we call home. Of course such people will arrive with needs that need to be met with compassion and charity. But that doesn’t mean they will be permanently dependent. History and facts prove that the majority of immigrants emerge from a period of transition as people who have succeeded in gaining employment and education. The potential of what they can contribute in the future far outweighs what it costs society to receive them and help them through a brief period of adjustment. The gringa says, “Just give them a chance. Quit being so scared.”
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