No More Room for Refugees

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Only Indochinese with special ties will be admitted

Since Saigon fell to the Communists in 1975, more than 1.2 million people have fled Indochina, most of them risking perilous journeys overseas in rickety fishing craft. Horrified by the plight of the boat people, a number of countries in Asia and the West liberalized their immigration policies to accommodate the flood of refugees. American policy has been one of the most generous: as of March, 589,000 of the homeless had been resettled in the U.S., compared with 593,000 for the two dozen other nations accepting refugees. Last week, however, Washington announced a more restrictive policy.

Starting May 1, refugees will be eligible for resettlement only if they have close relatives in the U.S., if they worked for the American Government or pre-Communist regimes in their countries, or if they can prove they are political dissidents. In an explanatory message to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, the State Department argued that the U.S. does not have "an unlimited capacity to absorb all of those who depart their homeland in Indochina."

The decision to narrow the portal stems largely from a growing antirefugee sentiment in Congress that has been fueled by popular resentment of the boat people in the face of a declining U.S. economy and shrinking social programs. The Administration hopes that under the new policy those admitted will have marketable skills or relatives who can provide aid, thus easing the burden that refugees impose on already strapped welfare programs. Refugees are currently entitled to up to 36 months of public assistance. Last year 67% of Indochinese immigrants were dependent on public funds; this year the figure rose to 71%.

American generosity toward refugees in the past prompted charges that the U.S. was cynically encouraging a brain drain from Viet Nam. According to Derek Davies, editor of the Hong Kong-based influential weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, the U.S. refugee program has acted as a "pull factor," bleeding Viet Nam of skilled workers. American officials deny this. They point out that although many of the first refugees were professionals and educated civil and military officials, later boat people have been broadly representative. Said a U.S. diplomat in Bangkok: "There are more than enough 'push factors'—forced resettlement, political reeducation, collectivization—to account for the refugee flow."

The U.S. action follows adoption of stricter refugee policies by Asian countries. Thailand last year declared that Laotians and Vietnamese would be considered illegal aliens instead of refugees and sent to austere detention centers. Since the switch to this "humane deterrent" policy, the number arriving in Thailand has been significantly cut.

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