No, Joe Biden and the Democrats didn’t try to stop Vietnamese refugees from coming in 1975.
A regular experience for second generation Vietnamese-Americans was this constant refrain we heard from our parents, that the Democrats weren’t ever to be believed or even good people because they tried to stop the good Vietnamese refugees from entering the country.
In 1973, Nixon was deep in the throes of his self-inflicted Watergate struggle, and the American people had grown weary of the Vietnam War. Many politicians, including Joe Biden, were elected to act on this desire to end the war. One of his first acts as a Senator was to vote in favor of the War Powers Act, which severely limited the President’s ability to commit armed forces to military action. This was considered Biden’s original sin in the eyes of the Vietnamese refugees, many of whom had served in the Army of the Republic of [South]Vietnam. It’s important to note, however, that this act passed with a large majority of Senators, including the majority of Republicans.
In 1975, the government of South Vietnam fell, which caused enormous hardship and sadness for the people who had worked so hard to save their country and support their American allies. There is no doubt in my mind about this. However, another thing I was told was that the Democrats never wanted the Vietnamese to come. Much of this belief comes from the real actions of Jerry Brown, who not only openly questioned the introduction of refugees to California, but also tried to block planes with refugees from landing in California.
This is true but hardly unique. Watergate, a costly war that was ending in defeat, an oil crisis, and a stock market crash made 1975 a stressful year for Americans. Polling suggested that only 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration to the US.
What did Congress do? Let’s look at the 94th congress in 1975.
Democrats had both houses with large majorities, with a supermajority in the house. When South Vietnam was in retreat in April 1975, President Ford made a plea to Congress to expedite $1B in funds for $722M in military aid and $250M in humanitarian aid. The situation was deteriorating rapidly, and by the time this request came to Congress, it collapsed. One person who tried to give President Ford this military aid was in fact a Democratic Congressman, Sonny Montgomery of Mississippi. Ford was frustrated at Congress for asking questions, and in fact said some words that move me even today:
“I am primarily very upset because the United States has had a long tradition of opening its doors to immigrants of all countries”
“We’re a country built by immigrants from all areas of the world, and we’ve always been a very humanitarian nation, and when I read or heard the comments made a few days ago I was disappointed and very upset,”
Imagine being a refugee with no country and having the most powerful person stand up to his own elected officials, and having him speak this truth.
The Washington Examiner covers this with a predictably conservative slant.
Kissinger said there were “Vietnamese to whom we have an obligation,” but Biden responded: “I will vote for any amount for getting the Americans out. I don’t want it mixed with getting the Vietnamese out.”
Boy, that sounds really bad. But context is king, and here’s what he actually said.
This quote stands out:
We should focus on getting them out. Getting the Vietnamese out and military aid for the GVN are totally different.
It’s clear from this context that Biden is supportive of focusing on getting South Vietnamese allies out of a collapsing country. What he did not support was additional military aid for the GVN (Government of [South] Viet Nam), in accordance with the wishes of the people who elected him on an anti-war platform.
Biden was also waiting for a more detailed plan from Undersecretary Habib that broke out funding for the evacuation of Americans from the funding for refugees, which included an estimate of the number of refugees that the United States would be accepting. One might say this was just a stalling tactic to keep refugees out of the country, but let’s look at what happened next.
One day after this speech, the Senate passed a resolution, S.148. Here is the text:
[S. Res. 148, 94th Cong., 1st sess.]
RESOLUTION: To welcome the latest refugees to our shores
Whereas ours is a Nation of immigrants and descendants of immigrants, many of whom fled from tyranny and bloodshed in their native lands where they were scorned, hated and hunted; and
Whereas they came here because they know they could find in America safety, freedom and opportunity; and
Whereas they found all those things and more, for they also found America to be a land of compassion as well as affluence, magnanimity as well as wealth; and .
Whereas Americans welcomed these fellow, less-fortunate human beings not only for their sake but for our own, knowing that they strengthened our national vitality, constantly renewing the diversity and richness of our lives and the pluralism and dynamism of our society; and
Whereas this periodic influx of refugees and exiles can serve. to keep us humble, saving us from the sins of arrogance, pride, and self-righteousness by reminding us of our origins, of the misery that abounds elsewhere in the world, and of the destiny that may also befall us should we betray our heritage:
Now, therefore, be it . .
Resolved, That the Senate reaffirms that the Statue of Liberty is, as Emma Lazarus called her, the Mother of Exiles; that the Senate reaffirms that the lesson of the parable of the Good Samaratan lives on in the minds and hearts of the American people and is a part of their character; and that the Senate welcomes warmly the latest exiles to our shores-the refugees from South Vietnam and Cambodia.
And here’s how it went. Virtually all Democrats and Republicans voted in favor. Notably, the only person who voted against was a Republican Senator from Virginia.
This is all great, but what about actually letting refugees in and giving them government support?
After Congress requested a separate bill on refugee resettlement and funding, President Ford, with Senator Sparkman, Democrat of Alabama, submitted S.1661, the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975. This bill was approved by the Foreign Relations Committee to go to the larger Senate for a vote, and Joe Biden was one of the members of the committee who approved the bill to go to the Senate for a final vote. This bill which became HR 6755, approved $455M in funding to go to refugee assistance (roughly $2B today) and allowed for 130,000 refugees to resettle in the United States.
It is crucial to note that Biden was on the Foreign Services Committee which had to approve this bill to release it to the floor, and he did.
Overwhelming support from Democrats. Two Republicans voted against, Jesse Helms of North Carolina and William Scott of Virginia. To get ahead of another potential conspiracy, Biden did not vote on this bill. He missed many votes in Congress during this time period, and it was a tough time in his life as was commuting daily on the train to Delaware from DC to be with his young sons after losing the rest of his family in a car accident shortly after his election in 1972.
After his bill was passed, a breakaway group of Republicans tried to cancel the public funding for refugees with an amendment to replace public funding in the already-passed Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act with private funding, given the economic state of the nation at the time it seems this would have been equivalent to cutting off funding completely.
What to make of all this? First, there is no evidence whatsoever to make the case that Democrats, as a party, resisted the admission of Southeast Asian refugees from Cambodia and South Vietnam. Based on the public record, the only voices that were stridently anti refugee were Republican voices, and I am thankful every day that they were a minority. With such large majorites in both houses, it seems more than likely that Democrats could have easily kept my parents and many of their friends out of the United States, to rebuild lives where they are proud to call themselves Americans.