Foreign Policy Blogs

How the U.S. Sentiment Towards Refugees Shifted

How the U.S. Sentiment Towards Refugees Shifted

We see images of them all the time: running up from the shoreline after disembarking, walking in large groups across a dusty road, sleeping in clumps in a refugee shelter tent. These are Syrian refugees fleeing a five-year civil war, but look just like images from the 1970s and 1980s when Vietnamese refugees fled a decade-long war.

President Barack Obama announced in September 2015 that the United States would accept 10,000 Syrian refugees over the course of a year. Governors of 31 out of the 52 U.S. states responded to Obama’s resettlement plan by denying Syrian refugees a place in their state.

Nevertheless, the 10,000th refugee successfully reached the U.S. at the end of August 2016. There have been no announcements to increase American assistance. With Donald Trump assuming office on January 20, 2017, it’s unlikely the United States will welcome anyone.

Forty years ago, almost two million Vietnamese refugees resettled in the United States, with no strong reactions to those refugees by local communities. Foreign Policy Association spoke to three Vietnamese-Americans to learn about their journey to the United States and what could have happened to the American sentiment towards refugees from the Vietnam War to the Syrian War. Their statements have been edited for clarity.

Trong Nong, professor at University of Houston

Being the captain of the boat with 22 people is what makes me the most proud in my life. I learned to navigate by using math from school to chart the course. We escaped Vietnam in a fishing boat to Thailand and then we were moved to the Philippines to a refugee processing center. I left Vietnam in February 1980 and arrived in the U.S. by November of that year.

I just saw my life slipping away, since there was no future in the jungle. My family had been forced into a new economic zone and our property and wealth were confiscated. My father was a high-ranking military officer for the South, so he was the enemy of the people. We were put in the jungle and I had to lead my brothers in cultivating the land. My father spent 15 years in a reeducation camp along with all the other officers.

We were lucky to be accepted by the US. A church in North Carolina sponsored me. Others weren’t accepted and had to stay in a refugee camp until they returned to Vietnam. The American policy was to find a sponsor to take in the Vietnamese refugees, not through the government, but through an NGO, usually a church. The refugees had to find churches to take us in, orient us, help us settle, and get us shots. The church that took me in was founded by Vietnamese-Americans in 1975.

I was baptized after I arrived. My family had no religious affiliations, so none of us had any problem converting to Christianity. The people in North Carolina were very friendly. They had fresh memories of the Vietnam War, so they were sympathetic. The Americans who welcomed me probably felt they had a debt to repay because the U.S. just left Vietnam so suddenly. Actually, my supervisor at my first job was a Vietnam War veteran. He understood me.

Since this country is a country of immigrants and refugees, the U.S. should accept Syrians. But there must be a process of doing things, like we had with the sponsoring churches. Having a clear plan would ease the angst in American people. The main difference between the resettlement of Vietnamese and of Syrians is religion. Vietnamese are Buddhist or ancestor worshippers, so we had no problem accepting Christian values. Muslim Syrians might have more trouble.

Tram Ho, internal medicine internist

I was captured when I was ten years old and put in prison because my dad was in the South Vietnam military, so we were singled out and targeted. I was separated from my parents and stayed with my three younger brothers in a cell with close to 70 or 80 other people. We were allowed one hour to breathe fresh air and to shower. There was nothing in the cell except a small toilet and concrete floor. I was in prison for two weeks until my parents paid to get me out.

We were discriminated against and couldn’t advance in society because of the stigma of being the children of the traitor or American ally. My father was put in a reeducation camp after April 30, 1975, like many other military personnel. After he was released, we planned to escape by boat.

I was thirteen when I managed to escape with my father and five siblings. My mother and one sibling stayed behind. After six days and five nights, we made it to Hong Kong and stayed there for six months to fill out paperwork. A Catholic nonprofit organization, USCC, or United States Catholic Conference, sponsored us and I arrived in 1982. We were settled into a halfway house for shelter. There were 50 other people there already, the majority from Vietnam. Two months later, my dad was able to find a job as an auto mechanic and we moved out to our own apartment with two other families.

I had pretty neutral responses from neighbors when I moved to the U.S. I don’t recall whether anybody had negative feelings towards us. We basically stayed home by ourselves and my dad worked two jobs, so we didn’t really interact with Americans anyway. When I started eighth grade, no one teased me or anything, but I also didn’t really talk to anybody because everything was so new. As a teenager, I was uncomfortable and scared.

Refusing refugees is not a new problem and that’s why the wave of the boat people stopped. The Vietnamese refugee wave stopped in early 1985 because the U.S. stopped accepting refugees too. My mom wouldn’t have made it if we weren’t already here. All the camps in Southeast Asia closed and didn’t accept any more Vietnamese escaping.

I feel for the Syrian refugees. Most of them are very nice people running away from hardship and war. But I understand that with the current situation now and the problem of terrorists disguising themselves as refugees, Americans can’t have open arms like they had with the Vietnamese refugees.

Trish Nguyen, senior branch manager at Boat People SOS

My dad worked for an American company and when the communists took over the South, they saw that my family supported the Americans and we were shunned. My dad didn’t work for a political company, so they put him in jail for six months. He was lucky. They kept a log of what our family did and kept tracking us.

We lived in a small town and we were very poor when I was young. We went to the field every day and tried to find something to eat for that day.

My aunt was American and brought my uncle back to the U.S. and we connected 17 years later. They sponsored our family in 1993. The first year when I came to the U.S., I was just trying to survive. I had to start over. I couldn’t go to school because I was working hard to have money for an apartment. My parents never worked and can’t speak English or drive. They live with me and I take care of them. My brother is still in Vietnam and when he asks me to visit, I say I’ll think about it, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back. It’s just bad memories there.

I graduated and am now the branch manager at Boat People SOS Houston. My wish came true and now I can help the people who were once in my situation. BP SOS helps with cases of domestic violence, elderly aid, welfare, human trafficking, et cetera.

There was a language barrier, but I worked hard, studied hard, and learned English. The Americans I met had good hearts, maybe because they had experience already with Chinese immigrants and others. In my opinion, I don’t think the U.S. will close their doors because this country has always welcomed refugees. There’s no reason to reject them. Other governments have never allowed foreigners in the way the U.S. does. God bless America—I can say that.

Kimberly Cooper, Children’s Ministry Coordinator at Trinity Episcopal Church

Trinity Episcopal Church is helping resettle a Syrian family now, actually. They’ve been waiting since 1998. In the early 80s, the church helped a Vietnamese family and again in the 90s. The congregation at the time was very supportive and eager to help. Outside the church, the community is still very comfortable.

I’ve been working in some way with the U.S. refugee program for almost 20 years and I’ve met some of my best friends through that program. I mean, they’ve even babysat my kids. These are Muslims and I trust them.

People are really just confused about the religion of Islam and there is a lot of lumping everyone into one bad corner. I haven’t heard a negative comment, but quite a few people have contacted me genuinely asking me about why I’m comfortable having Muslims here.

A local person running for office in Texas wrote a campaign comment about how it’s not okay to bring more Muslims into the country when the ones that are here aren’t assimilated. And I’m like, what do you mean by assimilation? What do you want to happen? Do you want them to all be white Christians? That’s not really an appropriate request for all Americans.



Aliza Goldberg

Aliza Goldberg is an American journalist based in New York City. Previously, Aliza reported on global news for Quartz, The Economist Intelligence Unit, and World Policy Journal. She has also consulted for Access Now, an international human rights nonprofit, on the changing digital surveillance landscape in Latin America and Asia. Aliza holds a B.A. in English from Barnard College and an M.A. in International Affairs from Columbia University.