CHILDREN are fleeing strife-torn Central American countries and crossing the border into the United States. Congress rants about border security yet cannot agree on any reform legislation. Barbed wire-topped walls to keep people out work no better than the Berlin Wall did to keep people in.
But this is not the first immigrant crisis in America.
On April 30, 1975, Saigon fell and the long war in Vietnam finally ended. Vivid television news clips showed throngs of Vietnamese attempting to catch the last helicopter lifting off the American Embassy in Saigon.
Soon a wave of Vietnam refugees arrived in the United States and were housed temporarily at Camp Pendleton, Calif. As Washington governor, one morning I heard a radio report that Gov. Jerry Brown of California wanted no Vietnamese refugees to settle in California. One of his senior staff even attempted to prevent airplanes loaded with refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base.
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I was appalled and furious, and stormed to my office determined to take action. When I arrived, I found that my staff had already heard the news and were just as offended.
Many U.S. citizens vehemently opposed giving haven to an enemy we fought so bitterly. But these were innocent people fleeing the excesses of a new regime.
Ralph Munro, who later became Washington’s secretary of state, was then a young staff member and I asked him to go to Camp Pendleton and invite Vietnamese refugees to come to Washington to settle. I added, “If you see Gov. Brown, ask him to reread what it says on the base of the Statue of Liberty.”
We then found sponsoring families to aid refugees during their early stages of resettlement. Hundreds of Washington state residents responded. Many churches and community organizations offered to assist.
Ralph spoke to the refugees from the camp’s loudspeaker system, inviting them to come and settle in Washington. Hundreds responded. I suspect many thought they were heading for the nation’s capital.
On a sunny May morning, my wife Nancy and I drove to Camp Murray to greet the first plane load of new Washington residents. Several buses pulled up to the reception center and families began to emerge into their new home state. The group gathered, I was introduced, and I welcomed them all to the state of Washington. I expressed to them my hope that they would find new opportunity here and described some of Washington’s great diversity to them. They were then paired with their sponsor families and entered a new life bringing only the clothes they wore, their talents and a fierce determination to succeed.
President Ford asked me to serve on a presidential advisory committee on Vietnamese refugees. At the opening meeting he eloquently stated, “Most, if not all, of us are the beneficiaries of the opportunities that come from a country that has an open door. In one way or another, all of us are immigrants. And the strength of America over the years has been our diversity …
“The people that we are welcoming today … are individuals who can contribute significantly to our society in the future. They are people of talent, they are industrious, they are individuals who want freedom, and I believe they will make a contribution now and in the future to a better America.”
In September, my assistant Esther Seering told me that a baby was born into one of the Vietnamese families I greeted at Camp Murray. In honor of their new beginning in Washington, the parents named their new son Evans Nguyen. I was astonished, honored and curious to meet my new namesake.
His parents were Chuong Huu Nguyen and Xuan Hoa Pham, otherwise known by their Americanized names of Colin and Mary Nguyen. They soon found jobs, moved into a modest home and devoted their lives to the education of their children. Nancy and I gathered with their family each year for a Christmastime celebration, attended school events and watched with pride as each child graduated with honors from Liberty High School near Renton.
All six of their children graduated from the University of Washington, several received graduate and professional degrees, and all are now highly productive members of our Washington state community. We still join for a yearly celebration with a growing number of their next generation.
The Nguyens are a stellar example of the success of our Vietnamese immigration program. Washington state has the third-largest Vietnamese population in the U.S., behind California and Texas. I’m exceedingly proud of the volunteer sponsors, support organizations and legislators who welcomed these productive new citizens to our state.
But that was 40 years ago. What should we do today about immigration?
First, receive the children fleeing from repression in Central America the same way we welcomed refugees from Vietnam 40 years ago.
Second, the U.S. House of Representatives should debate and pass its version of an immigration bill, which the U.S. Senate has already done. It is unconscionable to delay just because the issue is politically uncomfortable.
Then the House and Senate should meet promptly in conference to attempt to reach agreement on a comprehensive reform proposal.
Third, Congress should adopt rules that would allow highly educated foreign students to remain in the United States after graduating from U.S. colleges and universities, instead of requiring them to return home. These bright young graduates could help fill increasing worker shortages for high-tech jobs.
Fourth, our foreign-aid program should add a mini-Marshall Plan for Mexico and Central America. After World War II, the Marshall Plan reinvigorated a devastated Europe and helped immensely to create a peaceful and prosperous continent.
If the U.S. helped Central American nations build strong, free economies and working democracies, and treated Mexico as a true economic partner, the surge northward of desperate refugees would slow to a trickle. It would be an investment far more productive than a barbed wire-encrusted barrier that screams “STAY OUT.”
We cannot forever huddle fearfully behind high gray walls. That is not the America I know. Instead, let us celebrate our diversity that makes us strong.
Daniel J. Evans was governor of Washington state from 1965 to 1977 and U.S. Senator from 1983 to 1989.