A Letter of Welcome: The Plight of the Indochinese Refugees

Authored by Laura Baker

Correspondence from Joshua Eilberg to the Honorable Herbert E. Harris. 3 February, 1977. 241-cms105, Box 3, Folder 24, Item 2. Center for Migration Studies, New York, New York.

On February 3, 1977, Joshua Eilberg sent a letter to Herbert E. Harris welcoming him to the Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, and International Law for the 95th congress. Shortly thereafter, the subcommittee held hearings on May 25th and June 2nd of 1977 regarding H.R. 2051. The legislation, proposed by Representative Hamilton Fish, concerned the first wave of Indochinese refugees who had fled their homelands at the culmination of the Vietnam War (Desbarats 1985, 4; Zucker 1983, 174).

The United States was ill-prepared to process the refugees who numbered 150,000 at the time of the hearings. The United States requires refugees to reside in the country for two years as they pursue a change in their citizenship status. However, the current law allowed for a maximum of 5,100 visas in a year. As Representative Hamilton Fish informed the committee at the outset of the first hearing failure to enact H.R. 2051, at the rate of 5,100 visas per year, it would take twenty-five years to adjust the status of all the Indochinese refugees (95th Congress 1977).

Regardless of education or work history, without a permanent change in status, the refugees were ineligible for a variety of professions. They faced roadblocks to settling into American society. Without this status change, refugees were subject to a state’s laws limiting employment within various trades and occupations. Professions often limited to citizens and permanent residents include: “accountants, architects, attorneys, barbers, chiropractors, cosmetologists, dentists, embalmers, engineers, manicurists, midwives, nurses, opticians, optometrists, pharmacists, physical therapists, physicians, practical nurses, podiatrists, psychologist, teacher, and veterinarian” (95th Congress 1977, 103).

Ultimately, the bill would progress no further because of other pressing legislative concerns (Zucker 1983). The failure of H.R. 2051 meant that limited employment and financial opportunities continued to plague the Indochinese. The mental strain of their continual lack of permanent citizenship caused anxiety and fear, whether from a cultural barrier, families torn apart, or the threat of deportation hanging over their heads (95th Congress 1977, 103).

Eventually, congress wrote a new legislation, H. R. 7769, which Representatives Harris and Eilberg both cosponsored. They signed this new bill into law on October 28, 1977 and it is known as Public Law 95-145.

At first glance, this blog post started with an artifact, a letter of welcome. Yet, this letter has layers of meaning if only one seeks the answers. “By utilizing the Vincentian construct of Social Justice practiced through the lens of transparency,” and placing this letter into proper historical context, a voice is granted to the Indochinese refugees (Angel, n.d., 6). The hearings held on H.R. 2051 included testimony from various appointees and elected officials, yet never once did the refugees receive a platform to speak for themselves.

References

Angel, Christine M. n.d. “Information Representation through the Vincentian Lens of Transparency: Providing the Under and Misrepresented with a Voice within Our Cultural Heritage Records.” https://docs.google.com/document/d/17eeppiUga1OcrF_NfYl0Z7Z94Z948i_muSNnzFBuYHs/edit

Desbarats, Jacqueline. 1985. “Indochinese Resettlement in the United States.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 75 (4): 522-38. https://jerome.stjohns.edu/login?url=https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=12974332&site=ehost-live

Hohl, Donald G. 1978. “The Indochinese Refugee: The Evolution of United States Policy.” The International Migration Review 12 (1): 128-32. Accessed March 10, 2021. https://doi-org.jerome.stjohns.edu/10.2307/2545636 

95th Congress. 1977. Hearings Before the Committee on Immigration, Citizenship, and International Law of the Committee on the Judiciary, 95th Congress; First Session on H.R. 2051; Indochina Refugees – Adjustment of Status, May 25 and June 2, 1977, Serial No. 7. Washington, D.C. : U.S. Government Printing Office. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/pur1.32754078876632

Zucker, Norman L. 1983. “Refugee Resettlement in the United States: Policy and Problems.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 467 (1): 172-186. Accessed March 9, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1177/0002716283467001013.

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