Indochinese refugees who fled to the state of Washington two to three years ago are fleeing once again, from economically depressed Seattle to economically devastated Michigan and California, which has more refugees than any other state. The welfare benefits are higher.
Officials in Washington and Oregon, with few available jobs and little local money for welfare, say as many as 2,000 refugees have joined the exodus.
"If I had known it was so bad, I would not have come to this country," said Veunho Saelee, a 40-year-old refugee from Laos who has no job here and no money for rent for his family of four. "I would have just died in Laos."
The sudden migration follows the federal government's decision to cut off benefits to refugees who have been in the country longer than 18 months--despite an initial promise of 36 months of benefits when they arrived. In Washington and Oregon, where the unemployment rates exceed 12 percent, the cutoff has exacerbated a desperate situation of each refugee "competing with 50 unemployed Oregonians for work," said Patricia Rumer, Portland's refugee coordinator.
Rumer said refugee aid officials in Oregon initiated special training for counselors in suicide prevention after news of the cutbacks late last year caused a wave of distress in the refugee community. Seattle officials report a marked increase in reports of wife-beating and heightened racial tension as hundreds of refugees have suddenly appeared at long-established food banks for the poor.
The exodus of refugees from the Northwest has particularly upset officials in Michigan, where the unemployment rate is 17 percent but where relatively generous welfare benefits cannot legally be denied to refugees who decide to resettle there.
Paula Stark, Michigan's coordinator of refugees, said her office had reports of refugees arriving from Washington and Wisconsin. She said "we are very fearful" of the possibility of a major influx.
Greg Hope, a job developer for the International Rescue Committee here, said he was stunned when a refugee friend first revealed his moving plans:
"I'm going to Meechigin," he quoted the man as saying.
"Mexico?" Hope said.
"No," the man repeated, "Meechigin."
Hope said he and the rescue committee's Laotian interpreter Maeseng Saechao "have been to refugee houses where they are loading up the cars." He said they pleaded with the refugees "not to go to Michigan. If you have to go anywhere, go where there is employment." The largest recorded migration to date has involved 1,500 members of the Laotian Hmong minority who have moved from Oregon to California since December. Amelia Torres, of Catholic Charities Inc. in Fresno, Calif., said hundreds of Hmong have descended on that Central Valley city. "It is going to make a severe impact on our welfare system," she said.
Kuxeng Yongchu, president of the Hmong Family Association of Oregon Inc., said he expects the migration to California (as well as to Texas where many clan members have found electronics industry jobs) will continue. "The job situation in California is about as bad as it is in Oregon, but in California there is a market for truck farming a favorite Hmong pursuit and the welfare is better than in Oregon," Yongchu said.
In March, 587,149 refugees from the communist takeover of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos lived in the United States, and 309,000 of them were receiving rent, food and medical support from the federal government, according to Oliver Cromwell of the federal office of refugee resettlement in Washington, D.C. The decision to help ease the federal budget deficit by reducing the promised three years of support to 18 months forced 70,000 of those refugees out of the program. Benefits to Cuban and Haitian entrants into the country also were cut.
When Indochinese refugees began to come to this country in 1975, Washington state attracted an unusually high portion because of its large Asian community and because state and Seattle officials were particularly receptive. In March, Washington had 27,285 Indochinese refugees, third highest in the country after California's 197,131 and Texas' 53,368.
But the cut in federal aid left 10,750 of Washington's refugees (39 percent) without funds, much higher than the national cutoff rate. In Oregon, 5,500 or 32 percent of its 17,068 refugees were cut off.
Keo Vilaysack, 26, and Keopraseuth Aikham, 20, two friendly but somewhat bewildered Mien nationality refugees from Laos, were getting $288 each a month under the federal program when it ran out last Tuesday. They have $35 between them, and the $225 monthly rent on the tiny apartment they share is due.
They sat in an upstairs room of the Seattle YMCA and watched as an instructor with the private non-profit International Rescue Committee showed them how to write a thank-you note after a job interview. "If hired, I will learn fast, come to work on time, and become a loyal employe," the sample note on the blackboard said.
"Every day we walk around Seattle looking for a job, but there is none," Vilaysack said. The committee has advised refugees that their landlords must give them proper notice before eviction, hoping to delay further housing problems as long as possible. When the two young men run out of money or food stamps, "we'll go to some Lao family we know and eat with them," Vilaysack said.
Relief officials said young, single refugees like them may be able to find jobs soon. But Veunho Saelee, the 40-year-old refugee with a wife and two sons, faces a more difficult dilemma. He also has thought of leaving Seattle. "I know people in our building who have moved to Michigan," he said, "but I have no money to move."
His final government welfare check for $531 arrived last month, and his family has nothing but $50 worth of food stamps. The refugees will still be entitled to food stamps, but rent and health care is another matter. Saelee's tiny one-bedroom apartment is part of a 45-unit building in a run-down section of Seattle's Capitol Hill. The 12-by-8-foot living room has an old couch, a small table, two kitchen chairs and a telephone. Posters of Kung Fu superstar Bruce Lee and a photograph of a water buffalo in Puerto Rico decorate the walls. Mattresses fill the 10-by-10-foot bedroom. One is screened off with cardboard so Saelee's 18-year-old niece can have some privacy. His 14-year-old son has one tiny mattress. Saelee and his wife Kexiang, 38, share the largest mattress with their 10-year-old son.
The $225 monthly rent is due now. Saelee's only hope is a stopgap state program that may pay him about half of his usual benefits for the next two months. After that, no more welfare will be available to him in Washington. Mike Auyong, Saelee's landlord, said many of the tenants, almost all of them refugees, have been unable to pay the rent recently. Auyong said he does not plan immediate evictions, "but we only have about a month" before his own debts are so great he will have to take some action.
Saelee crouched on a tiny stool in the corner of his living room and smoked cigarette after cigarette as he described his fruitless search for work. "I go looking for work every day," he said through an interpreter. "In the last week I applied to 16 places, but none of them called me back." Before leaving Laos in 1976, he was a farmer, and at the refugee camp in Thailand he ran a little roadside drink stand. But he has never been able to read or write his own language and English is completely beyond him, despite what he said were 540 hours of classes in the two years he has been here. "If I studied until my hair turned brown, I still could not understand," he said.
"It is not that I am lazy. I am eager to work, but when I go out for a job they say I cannot speak English and I cannot work for them," he said. Saelee said while in Laos he served briefly with one of the Mien nationality armies recruited with CIA money to fight the communists. When the communists won, he left the country to avoid prison camp.
Now, he said, "I would like to ask the U.S. government, if we cannot find a job and the welfare is cut off, please let me go back to my country." He added, however, that he would like the Americans to remove the communists from Laos first.
Refugee officials said Indochinese in the Pacific Northwest have been attracted to states like California because there they can receive some welfare support for their children even if there are two able-bodied parents in the house. Also, California provides general relief to individuals with no other source of income. In cities like San Francisco and San Diego, able-bodied recipients must do some community work and show proof of regular job-hunting to receive the welfare money, a requirement that bothers some older refugees but not younger ones.
Arlene Oki, special assistant to Seattle Mayor Charles Royer, said refugees denied such general relief here may try to sell their food stamps to pay the rent and depend on charity food banks for meals. Jay Keeton, planning and development coordinator for the Central Area Motivation Program, a downtown Seattle food bank, said in the last three months refugees have swamped the food bank's converted firehouse, sometimes crowding out poor blacks and other traditional recipients of free food.
"I get here at 7 o'clock and there are already 50 or 60 people lined up," Keeton said. He said the food bank supervisors have tried to prevent outbreaks of violence by explaining to their long-time customers that Asian refugees are just as subject to poverty and discrimination as blacks have been in the past. But, Keeton said, "It's getting more and more tense all the time." CAPTION: Picture, Veunho Saelee and his wife Kexiang have only $50 in food stamps left, and federal aid reductions have stopped their welfare. AP