Opposition to Syrian refugees reveals a familiar pattern

The hesitance by European countries to accept refugees fleeing the war in Syria may be troubling, but it is not unusual. Every time the refugee issue comes up, receiving nations will likely put up a fuss, even rich countries (or maybe even, especially rich countries).  A comparison with how Vietnamese refugees were received in the U.S. shows that history of inhospitality has a way of repeating itself.

When the Vietnam War ended in April 1975, U.S. President Gerald Ford wanted to admit up to 150,000 Indochinese fleeing the advancing communists. He requested $507 million from Congress, and three senators from both parties, Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.), Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) introduced a bill to authorize, generously, “such sums as may be necessary” to provide humanitarian assistance to the refugees.  They called it “the right thing to do.”

But that sentiment was not universally shared. The Gallup Poll reported a majority of 54 to 36 percent of Americans opposing the settlement. Just like what’s being said of Syrian refugees now, jobs and the economy were cited in opposition to settling Vietnamese. The New York Times reported that then California Governor Jerry Brown “protested loudly that he did not want them taking jobs from Americans.” He proposed that Congress amend the refugee bill to provide “jobs for Americans first.”

Even immigrants were unsupportive. The same story quotes a Polish-American woman as saying, “My parents emigrated, someone had to sponsor them. Still, charity begins at home. Keep the Vietnamese in Vietnam.”

In a June 1975 survey by Harris Poll, 62 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “The Vietnam refugees will take jobs away from Americans at a time when unemployment is up, and that is wrong.” Only 28 percent opposed, with 10 percent “not sure.” Aren’t we hearing the same being said in Greece and Hungary?

Along with economic reasons, some even tried to malign the refugees, or at least a segment of it. That is happening now, with people saying that the Islamic State is sending terrorists to Europe disguised as refugees.

Well, back then, as tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees are gathered in a tent city at Eglin Air Force Base, in adjacent Ft. Walton Beach, Florida, members of a 12th grade psychology class said they feared the refugees would attempt to convert them to Communism, reported the New York Times in another story.

A real estate agent in nearby Valparaiso said the same thing. “How do you know we’re not getting the bad guys?,” he asked, foreshadowing Donald Trump. “You can’t say for sure. Nobody can, and Lord knows we got enough Communist infiltration now.”

Finally, cultural differences are often cited. In the case of Syria, the refugees’ religion is brought up often, unfortunately dovetailing with claims by Muslim extremists that the West is waging war against Islam.

But, well, that can’t be it, because that happened to the Vietnamese too.  “They can’t speak English, and they will be on welfare” was a common complaint. In 1977, two years after the war ended, President Jimmy Carter proposed to admit 100,000 Indochinese refugees from the camps of Southeast Asia.

The American public wouldn’t have it. A Harris Poll survey of 1,510 adults showed a vast majority, by 62-27 percent, believed “we had too many problems resettling Vietnam refugees here.” By a 5-to-3 margin, they thought “many Indochinese refugees just (couldn’t) adapt to living in this country.”

How has all that opposition been working out?  Jerry Brown’s protestation to the contrary, California now hosts one in three Vietnamese-Americans.  The latest U.S. Census’s American Community Survey says the “welfare” thing may be true: Vietnamese-Americans are more likely to receive SSI (8.1 percent), cash public assistance (3.9 percent) or food stamps/SNAP benefits (10.1 percent) than the population at large (4.0, 2.5, and 9.3 percent, respectively).

However, the rest of the complaints have not panned out. ACS data show that a robust 13 percent of Vietnamese-American speak English only at home, and of people who use Vietnamese at home, 40 percent speak English “very well.”

Vietnamese-Americans have roughly the same employment rate as the population at large, and 9 percent are self-employed in their own businesses, compared to 6.5 percent for all Americans, indicating we’re really good at creating jobs.

Just looking at my circle of friends, we pay loads of taxes as janitors, machine operators, Uber drivers, engineers, lawyers, pharmacists, teachers, and of course manicurists. Locally, the growth of Little Saigon was an economic boon for the county and the cities it is in.

What has been happening illustrate a recurring pattern:  In the short term, people don’t want to bring in refugees, but in the long run, the infusion of new blood helps the receiving nation.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Engagement Editor Julie Gallego at jgallego@voiceofoc.org.

  • billy strikero

    The current Syrian refugees are of the upper-crust in their society. Watch and listen how they dress and speak. These refugees are not in tatters, implying that they possess some wealth, and you will not hear “Me No English” coming out of their mouths. They speak adequate English.

    These refugees possess education and profession back in their homeland. Therefore, they are seeking a new land for safety, and they want to apply knowledge and skills to become able citizens. However, the difficulty lies in differentiating Syrian refugees from the rest of their Arab brethren seeking economic asylum.