The Amerasian Homecoming Act, which passed into law in December 1987 and went into effect a few months later, began with a photojournalist, a homeless boy in Vietnam, and four high school students in Long Island, New York. Twenty five years later, almost 100,000 people have immigrated from Vietnam to the U.S. as a result of the AHA.
First, a bit of background. One of the great tragedies of the Vietnam War is the story of the Amerasians–children of U.S. servicemen and Vietnamese women. There are tens of thousands of such children. In Vietnam, they were known as “children of the dust” because they were considered as insignificant as specks of dust, and many (if not most) suffered discrimination, abuse, poverty, and homelessness. Although the fathers of these children were United States citizens, the children did not qualify to immigrate to the U.S. The situation was complicated by the absence of diplomatic relations between the government of the United States and the government of Vietnam. Ten years after the war, the situationo for the Amerasians seemed hopeless. A 2009 article from Smithsonian Magazine describes what happened next:
In October 1985, Newsday photographer Audrey Tiernan, age 30, on assignment in Ho Chi Minh City, felt a tug on her pant leg. “I thought it was a dog or a cat,” she recalled. “I looked down and there was [Le Van] Minh. It broke my heart.” Minh, with long lashes, hazel eyes, a few freckles and a handsome Caucasian face, moved like a crab on all four limbs, likely the result of polio. Minh’s mother had thrown him out of the house at the age of 10, and at the end of each day his friend, Thi, would carry the stricken boy on his back to an alleyway where they slept. On that day in 1985, Minh looked up at Tiernan with a hint of a wistful smile and held out a flower he had fashioned from the aluminum wrapper in a pack of cigarettes. The photograph Tiernan snapped of him was printed in newspapers around the world. The next year, four students from Huntington High School in Long Island saw the picture and decided to do something. They collected 27,000 signatures on a petition to bring Minh to the United States for medical attention.They asked Tiernan and their congressman, Robert Mrazek, for help.
Mrazek began making phone calls and writing letters. Several months later, in May 1987, he flew to Ho Chi Minh City. Mrazek had found a senior Vietnamese official who thought that helping Minh might lead to improved relations with the United States, and the congressman had persuaded a majority of his colleagues in the House of Representatives to press for help with Minh’s visa.
Minh came to the U.S., where he still lives. but once he got to Vietnam, the Congressman realized that many thousands of Amerasian children were living in Vietnam, often in terrible conditions. Congressman Mrazek resolved to help these children. The result was the Amerasian Homecoming Act, which went into effect in early 1988.
The AHA allowed Amerasians to come to the United States as lawful permanent residents. They are not considered refugees, but they do receive benefits (such as financial assistance and housing) normally reserved for refugees. In an important way, the law was quite succcesful–as a result of the AHA, approximately 25,000 Amerasians and about 70,000 of their family members immigrated to the United States.
However, the law was not a success by all measures. For one thing, not all Amerasians in Vietnam learned about the AHA, and so many people who might have qualified to leave Vietnam were unable to do so.
Another problem was fraud. One type of fraud involved people who claimed to be Amerasian, but who were not (there was no easy way to tell who was an Amerasian, and many decisions were made based on the person’s physical appearance). However, the more pervasive problem of fraud involved “fake families.” These were people who attached themselves to the Amerasian immigrants’ cases in order to come with them to the U.S. In many cases, the Amerasians agreed to this fraud because the fake families would pay the Amerasians’ expenses. Without this assistance, the Amerasians could not have afforded to immigrate. The extent of the fraud is unknown, but a November 1992 GAO report found that in 1991, about 20% of applicants were rejected for fraud. By 1992, 80% of applicants were rejected for fraud.
A final problem–though perhaps this is not a problem with the AHA itself–is that many Amerasians had a tough time adjusting to life in the United States. A 1991-92 survey of 170 Vietnamese Amerasians found that some 14 percent had attempted suicide; 76 percent wanted, at least occasionally, to return to Vietnam. As one advocate put it, “Amerasians had 30 years of trauma, and you can’t just turn that around in a short period of time.”
Of course, Amerasians did far better here than they could have in Vietnam, but given their difficult lives back home, the adjustment was often not easy. According to the Encyclopedia of Immigration:
In general, the Amerasians who came to the United States with their mothers did the best in assimilating to American society. Many faced great hardships, but most proved resilient and successful. However, only 3 percent of them managed to contact their American fathers after arriving in the United States. By 2009, about 50 percent of all the immigrants who arrived under the law had become U.S. citizens.
Now, Amerasians host black tie galas to celebrate their success as a unique immigrant community. And even in Vietnam, where they were vilified for many years, negative feelings towards Amerasians have faded.
Finally, on a personal note, my first job out of college was for a social service agency that did refugee resettlement, and so I worked with Amerasians (and others) for a few years in the early 1990s. Of the populations we served, it seemed to me that the Amerasians had been the most severely mistreated. Many were illiterate in Vietnamese and spoke no English. They were physically unhealthy, and they had a hard time adjusting. Twenty five years after the AHA, it seems that Amerasians are finally achieving a measure of success in the United States. Their long journey serves as a reminder that persecuted people need time to become self sufficient. But the Amerasians–like other refugee groups–are well on their way to fully integrating into American society.