There is a growing, unacceptable intolerance toward newcomers in our state and around the United States.
THIS week, we mark the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. In 1975, moved by the plight of Vietnamese refugees, Gov. Dan Evans welcomed 500 of them to our state. His actions laid the groundwork for a vibrant set of services for refugees from around the world. Today, we can be proud that Washington is eighth in the nation for refugee resettlement.
At the same time, as thousands perish or pour out from countries like Nepal and Libya, it is our responsibility to reflect on how Washington can uphold Evans’ legacy.
For the past 15 years, I have worked with and advocated for immigrants and refugees across America. I have seen a growing intolerance toward newcomers, an us-versus-them framing, and a lack of compassion for those from far away who escape war, poverty and persecution.
There has always been a push-and-pull over newcomers to America: The beckoning Statue of Liberty welcoming those “yearning to breathe free” versus the forces of fear and scarcity that have created persistent, historical anti-immigrant sentiment. But as interconnected as we may be in trade, technology and travel, it feels even more difficult to establish the interconnections of human responsibility that go beyond our borders.
Seeking Refuge: 40 years after the fall of Saigon
Editor's note: As the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon approaches, the Seattle Times editorial board admires former Gov. Dan Evans and citizens who welcomed Vietnamese refugees into their homes and lives. That legacy continues, though citizens can provide more direct assistance to today’s refugees. Read more about this project.
Read the column translated into Vietnamese: 40 n?m sau cu?c chi?n Vi?t Nam, hãy v??n lên kh?i trò ‘ch?p m?’
Refugees are driven from their home countries for many reasons. We want to hear from you.
The Bui family pictured in Vietnam before 1975. The family resettled in Tacoma after the Vietnam War.
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We are bombarded every day with tragedies and crises that may, ironically, only inure us to that suffering. Since 9/11, the rise in terrorism and national security fears have added layers of complexity to whom we welcome. Too many Americans fear people based on race, religion or ethnicity, and accepting refugees from certain countries has become extremely political.
Our own sense of national scarcity has also grown, making it difficult to focus on the fact that America is one of the richest countries in the world with a tremendous responsibility to share the world’s burdens.
Most Americans do not understand our complex immigration system or the distinctions among different types of immigrants. Unlike asylees who must arrive in the United States and then apply for asylum, the United States gives approval to accept refugees of special humanitarian concern before they arrive here. Unlike for other immigrants, the approval comes with the provision of some assistance and the requirement to become a legal permanent resident after one year.
Federal, state and local governments, faith groups and nongovernmental organizations join together to support resettlement. Refugees are provided with health screenings, eight months of limited cash assistance, and some employment and language assistance through the successful Limited English Proficient (LEP) Pathway program.
However, federal assistance for refugees has decreased steadily. In 1996, Congress also drastically limited benefits for legal permanent residents, leaving refugees on their own after the initial year. Washington did better than other states, holding true to Evans’ legacy by supplementing some federal cuts with state dollars for food assistance and other aid.
Most of the refugees I know are extremely resilient and deeply grateful for the lifeline they have been given. Still, they struggle with enormous challenges: lack of English, too many years in crowded refugee camps, and severe post-traumatic stress and other mental-health issues.
As a newly elected state senator, I believe we can do more to honor Evans’ legacy. As elected leaders, we need to educate ourselves about the rest of the world, reach out to new constituents in our districts and raise awareness about their unique challenges. We must find ways to increase state assistance to proven programs that support and integrate refugees into our communities. We should partner with local governments and businesses to develop public-private partnerships to leverage state funds, increase naturalization programs and provide incentives for hiring refugees.
At our core, we are a state with a global heartbeat. We ship our technology, apples and seafood all over the world. We border Canada to the north, the Pacific Ocean to the west and have seen people from all over the world make their way to our shores.
As we gladly reap the benefits of this global era, we need to take seriously our global responsibility. It is America that asked these refugees to come and be a part of our society. Now that they are here in our state, let’s commit to breaking down the barriers at home.