Amerasian Homecoming Act – 25 Years Later

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.

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31 comments

  1. […] apparently remains. Amerasians are children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women. They face severe persecution and discrimination in Vietnam, and Vu still fears return to his native land. If Vietnam ultimately agrees to the Trump […]

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  2. […] Amerasian Homecoming Act – 25 Years Later […]

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  3. I worked this project as a volunteer in the DC-MD area. Recruited abt 35 volunteers from NASA to also help. Working with families, teaching the adult abt 23 yr olds how to get along in US. I still have my album of photos. There were 3 charity agencies that ran the program in my area. Catholic Charities, ?, ?. Took the kids ( typically the amorasian, and two more young kids fathered my Viet father) bowling, picnics, Halloween trick-o-treating,etc. Tutored in HS math so son could work at Mercedes Benz repairing. He had repaired motorcycles in Vietnam. Mothers usually had waiting jobs cleaning hotel rooms. As I remember, rent & food paid for a yr. There were 3 “professional women” said to be in our grouping. I tutored ones son as he did not want a Viet tooter to know.

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    • Interesting – thank you for sharing this. I worked with Amerasians in Philly in the early 1990s. Take care, Jason

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  4. I am an Amerasians was born in Vietnam 1967 and I came to the US in 1987. I have hear over and over through 40 year. Yes, we were the Amerasians was born in wrong time and wrong placed, they were not wanted us in there Asian community, they racist and discrimination. Thanks y’all help and support our Amerasians program to came to the United States, also thanks for the program ODP “Order Departure Program”and AHA “Amerasian Hone come Act”. My story is very long so it take me a long time to finished to write my story signed 1997. I finally finished and available now online. Sorry I couldn’t help but this book can help me with the voice speaking out there to help many other like me. Be careful as your wishing, I have found my father by my self searching, but he is refused to see me, due to his other family’s. I don’t want to interrupt his family, it maybe come usly to their divorce, they are aged now is about over 70 year old, just let them go peace of mind. And we are just moving on, that is my opinion. Bests of luck to y’all searching. Here is my book name “ What Endures” An Amerasian’s Lifelong Struggle During and After the Vietnam War”

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    • Thank you for letting us know about this, and for sharing some of your story. Take care, Jason

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  5. Hi Jason,

    Thanks for a great article. Is the AHA still active? An Amerasian still living in Vietnam who refused to leave several years ago now has a change of heart and would like to begin her quest. If the AHA is still active, where would this person start the process?

    Thank you much
    -My

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    • I think it is not, but I do not know, sorry. You might do some internet research and find an answer, or maybe you can find a lawyer who knows more about that. If all else fails, you can hire a lawyer to research the question. Take care, Jason

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    • Hi My Nguyen, the Act is still active although the Consulate Office in Vietnam keep on denial visa for Amerasians. Our group, Amerasians Without Borders, is trying to help all Amerasians still remaining in Vietnam right now. We have been in the congress offices asking for their help. Send us an email with your Amerasian friend contact information. We will contact her. The first step is she needs to do DNA test. Our group provide free DNA test for all Amerasians in Vietnam. We use the DNA test to prove to Congress.

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    • Hi My Nguyen, the Act is still active although the Consulate Office in Vietnam keep on denial visa for Amerasians. Our nonprofit group, Amerasians Without Borders, is trying to help all Amerasians still remaining in Vietnam right now. We have been in the congress offices asking for their help. Send us an email with your Amerasian friend contact information. We will contact her. The first step is she needs to do DNA test. Our group provide free DNA test for all Amerasians in Vietnam. We use the DNA test to prove to Congress.
      By the way, my email is gouldthunder@aol.com. The group founder is Mr. Jimmy Miller.
      We don’t have a website because our lacking of helper, but you can find us on Facebook.

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      • Hi, Kieu Gould,

        I was on gedmatch today and noticed that a couple of matches had your e-mail address attached to them. I had one who shared autosomal DNA with me and another who shared “X”. I thought that pretty interesting. Now, that I’ve read the article above, it makes sense.

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        • Same here

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          • My GEDMATCH page had 3 matches associated with your email address.

            Not that it is important, but I am African American.

      • My reply was directed to you.

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      • Your email also connected myself to you through Gedmatch

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      • I was also on GEDMATCH & saw that you administer the DNA kits for 4 people who are DNA matches for me.

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      • Hi there

        I also genetically matcb you on Gedmatch. I think sometjing like a 3rd cousin.

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  6. How does Minh live today? How did he get along with the american society,is he married?I’m half Thai,and half German,living in Munich/Germany.I read your article and it touches my heart. I know what racism means,but that he survived those hard years sounds to me like a wonder.my best wish for you,Minh,and all who supported and rescuet minh!

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    • I don’t know how he is doing, sorry, Jason

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      • He living very well everyone.hes very happy with his family he did get marry.

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        • And i forgot to say i will not tell anyone where his lives phone nuber and anything else if you want his contacts

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  7. The use of the above Amerasian photo is used without asking me permission and mentioning my name.
    Robert Mulder

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    • I took the photo from a public domain website. If the photo is copyrighted and it is yours, let me know and I can take it down.

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  8. Hi, great article. I am just curious…how long did the AHA act extended for? Till what year is what I’m trying to ask. My father might have gone through this process as well, but I am just curious about the date (He came to America in the 90s (I want to say around 1990-1992).

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    • Thanks – I do not remember when the program ended. I was working on such cases between 1991 and 1993, so your father probably came during a time when the program was still active.

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  9. I was asked to find “Minh”. I hung around Bar #5 and offered the street urchins a reward to bring him to me. I am the person who made the arrangements to have him “detained…..I have nothing else to say……. Bruce Malesk, former Director of Operations, Indo-China Consulting Group……

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  10. This photo is taken from my wesite without my permission.I will ask my union lawyer to take measures.
    robert mulder

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  11. Dear Sir

    According to the testimony of my foster mother (Mrs. Le Thi Bich – my natural aunt), in 1967 my natural mother, Mrs. Le Thi Nam, worked in room service at the U.S. military base at Phuoc Ly village, Da Nang. My mother knew and loved my father, named Michael (Called Mai Co in Vietnamese). At that time, my father was an officer in a brigade of U.S. Marines. My father’s unit provided supply and transportation for the military base at Phuoc Ly hamlet, Hoa Vang District, Da Nang City. When my mother was three months pregnant, she lost contact with my father. After I was born, my mother also went missing during the chaos of war.

    Please help me to find my father.

    I sincerely thank you and best wishes

    Best regards

    LE THI VAN

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  12. […] boys, Ho Chi Minh City, 1988. From “The Asylumist.” Permission […]

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  13. We have been robbed of our hard earned money filing different things through the immigration services and without prevail because they say if we didn’t establish his paternity before he was 19 that it dosnt even matter. If anyone can help guide me to some kind of resolution it would be much appreciated. He has suffered long enough!!!! Please help

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  14. My husband is Ameriasian,we have been together for 13 years and for at least half of these years we have tried to get his citizeenship,because of his past coming from the horrible conditions in Vietnam and becoming addicted to drugs when he was 19 he served some time in jail he is now under order of deportation and has 4 kids,he has changed his life completly and we did establish paternity of his biological father and he is still a man who is rejected by both the us and vietnam. I am sad to say that he suffers from depression and feels that he dose not belong anywhere. I couldn’t believe after all the proof that we found and even had his dad sign an affidavit with his moms story that my husband is being punished for his horrible upbringing.

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