America's refugee program in Southeast Asia is truly at a crossroads. Since the fall of Saigon the United States has resettled more than 740,000 Vietnamese, Laotian and Cambodian refugees. Another 700,000 have been resettled in other countries around the world.
The tragic plight of the "boat people" motivated an extraordinarily generous U.S. response in the 1970s. We promised Thailand and others that if they would only provide temporary first asylum for the refugees, we would assist in finding a more permament solution, including resettlement in the United States and other third countries. We kept our word.
We are now coming to the conclusion of that worthy humanitarian project. In Thailand we are now admitting primarily the Cambodians who fled the brutality of the Pol Pot government. Our refugee officials are returning to the tough cases that were put off earlier, some involving Cambodians who are suspected of being the persecutors in Cambodia rather than the persecuted.
That is the first of two key decisons that now confront us: what should be done about the 10 percent of the Cambodians in Thailand who may have been associated with the Khmer Rouge? U.S. law makes such persons clearly ineligible for admission. Virtually all Cambodian applicants deny any connection with the Khmer Rouge. The problem is in determining the truth.
We have established a thorough screening process staffed by experts knowledgeable in Cambodian history and geography during the Pol Pot era. I personally witnessed this process recently, and I found it to be fair and reasonable. Initial interviews could sometimes last as long as two hours. There are two levels of review available. What must be avoided is the interjection of "politics" into these often very technical decisions. The United States has no commitment to a policy of "100 percent admission," and a rejected applicant, after exhausting all of the legitimate and available appeals, should not be subsequently approved for admission simply because someone later finds that decision to be "politically expeditious."
The second key decision is whether to begin the processing as refugees of some 240,000 Cambodians who had been living in camps along the Thai-Cambodian border until recent Vietnamese attacks drove them into "evacuation sites" a few miles inside Thailand. These "displaced persons" have not been registered as refugees by the United Nations; they are not regarded as refugees by the Thais, nor are they regarded as refugees for resettlement by the other principal resettlement countries, Canada and Australia.
We should not encourage their registration as refugees. First, in so doing, we would almost ensure that there would be no future chance for an independent and democratic Cambodia, since the potential leaders for such a government who had survived Pol Pot would have been long since resettled elsewhere. Second, any announcement that the United States had begun processing the 240,000 displaced persons would serve as a powerful "magnet," attracting Cambodians from all over that country to the border. As one Thai official told me recently, "If you take them (the displaced Cambodians), you will have 3 million Southeast Asians in the United States -- they all want to go and they are not refugees."
Finally, I believe that a decision to process an open-ended number of Indochinese for resettlement here would lack full public support, would take refugee admission numbers from other important refugee situations, and would inevitably and irretrievably undermine public support for maintaining a generous U.S. refugee policy.
Proposals have been advanced that we should provide dirct American aid to noncommunist resistance forces fighting along the border. I strongly disagree. What is sorely needed is an educational structure and a full instructional effort in the Cambodian camps. The school-age children need a complete education, and adults need training in administrative skills.
I would certainly support forms of American aid that would be funneled through the United Nations Border Relief Operation, an effective agency through which we already provide humanitarian aid. Direct military assistance, however, would be most unfortunate and inadvisable. It would only reinsert the United States into a conflict that requires a political, not a military, solution. It would also provide any of those who would receive the "lethal aid" with a strong and familiar claim to refugee status based on their "military" association with us. The democratic ASEAN nations of Southeast Asia are providing military aid -- for the struggle is being played out in their neighborhood. Our most useful role now is to provide humanitarian assistance.
It is time to adopt a two-pronged approach to future resettlement activities in Southeast Asia. First, we should continue to provide refugee status for all of those who involved themselves and threw in with us and who have suffered persecution because of that association. Second, those Indochinese who have family in the United States should now use the normal immigration process. This last group should then step into the same line of priority as other family reunification immigrants have done all over the world.
The fact that our once massive refugee resettlement program is winding down does not mean that the "out-take" of Indochinese from Southeast Asia will cease. More than 500,000 immigration petitions are currently on file for relatives of Indochinese already residing in the United States. Many displaced Cambodians and Laotians in the Thai camps have family members in the United States who may file similar petitions if they have not already done so.
The reputable voluntary agencies, with their experience and expertise, can be particularly helpful to the nation in smoothing the transition to an immigration program. They can urge and assist the Southeast Asian refugees to adjust from refugee to immigrant status to, finally, full citizenship. As legal immigrants, and as citizens, the former refugees can then begin to petition for the admission of their relatives as immigrants -- again with the assistance of the voluntary resettlement agencies.
We have kept our promises and our commitments -- moral, financial and political -- and we shall continue to do so. Yet the time has come -- 10 years after we set out to address a refugee emergency, and did -- to weave Indochina back into the established and regulated fabric of our longtime and consistent policies of legal U.S. immigration.