The history of Vietnamese Americans is a fairly recent one. Prior to 1975, most Vietnamese residing in the United States were wives and children of American servicemen in Vietnam or academia. Records show a that a very sparse group arrived to work in various menial jobs during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including future Vietnamese politician Ho Chi Minh. However, their numbers were insignificant. According to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization services, only 650 Vietnamese arrived from 1950 to 1974 (as immigrants, excluding those who came as students, diplomats or military trainees.) The Fall of Saigon on April 30, 1975—which ended the Vietnam War—prompted the first large-scale wave of immigration from Vietnam. Many people who had close ties with the Americans or with the then Republic of Vietnam government feared the promised communist reprisals. During the spring of 1975, 125,000 of them left South Vietnam. Generally highly-skilled and educated, they were airlifted by the U.S. government to bases in the Philippines and Guam, and were subsequently transferred to refugee centers in the United States.
South Vietnamese refugees initially faced resentment by Americans following the turmoil and upheaval of the Vietnam War. A poll taken in 1975 showed only 36 percent of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. However, President Gerald Ford and other officials strongly supported Vietnamese immigration and passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, which allowed Vietnamese refugees to enter the United States under a special status. To prevent the refugees from forming ethnic enclaves and to minimize their impact on local communities, they were scattered all over the country. Within a few years, however, many had resettled in California and Texas.
A second wave of Vietnamese refugees began in 1978 and lasted until the mid-1980s. South Vietnamese —especially former military officers and government employees—were sent to Communist "reeducation camps," and about two million people fled Vietnam in small, unsafe, crowded fishing boats. These "boat people" were generally lower on the socioeconomic ladder than those in the first wave. Vietnamese escaping by boat usually ended up in asylum camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, or the Philippines, from which they were allowed to enter countries that agreed to accept them.
Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980, reducing restrictions on entry, while the communist Vietnamese government established the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in response to world outcry, allowing people to leave legally for family reunions and for humanitarian reasons. Additional American laws allowed the children of American servicemen and former political prisoners and their families to enter the United States. A peak in Vietnamese immigration was in 1992, when many individuals in communist reeducation camps were released or sponsored by their families to come to the United States. Between 1981 and 2000, the United States accepted 531,310 Vietnamese political refugees and asylum seekers.
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