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Vietnamese refugees who got a warm welcome from America puzzle at family separations, harsh rhetoric

Vietnamese refugees who got a warm welcome from America puzzle at family separations, harsh rhetoric
A young boy sits on a suitcase while his family is processed into the camp. (Los Angeles Times)

As a refugee, Lynn Le landed at Camp Pendleton among thousands of mothers and fathers clutching their children, desperately searching for a sign that at last they would be safe in America, far from Communist persecution at the end of the Vietnam War.

Her father, Phong Le, held her close to his side. A barracks door opened and a tan man walked toward them, saying words they didn't understand. But when the stranger extended both arms to tickle the 7-year-old, they both knew they were on friendly ground.

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The year was 1975 and Le, the youngest of three, never forgot how the Marines quickly came to their aid with standard-issue clothing "with sleeves so long we thought we would never grow into them," she recalled.

"Boy, we were freezing and grateful to have both the jacket and the camp enclosing us. Whenever anyone mentions Pendleton, I get these soft, warm feelings," said the 50-year-old San Jose business consultant.

With the fall of South Vietnam, Camp Pendleton became a refugee camp for thousands of Vietnamese families who made it to America. The camp is considered one of the starting points of Vietnamese American life, a place where successful communities across the nation got their start. Refugees still look back with appreciation to the welcome mat the American government offered.

Tran Thi Nam, 109, with her 5-yr-old great granddaughter Ha Hoang on June 12, 1975.
Tran Thi Nam, 109, with her 5-yr-old great granddaughter Ha Hoang on June 12, 1975. (Los Angeles Times)

Now, Camp Pendleton is one of several military installations that until recently were under review for a temporary detention center for migrants — many flowing out of Mexico and Central America because of economic hardship and violence.

Lt. Col. Jamie Davis, spokesman for the office of the secretary of Defense, said Friday that Pendleton was considered but has not been chosen to house one of the detention facilities. Instead, officials designated two in Texas, Ft. Bliss and Goodfellow Air Force Base, he said.

The immigration politics are much different now than in 1975, with President Trump pushing a hard-line policy that included for a while separating refugee parents from their children.

And news that Camp Pendleton could have been used as part of an effort that separated refugee families troubled some Vietnamese immigrants who started their new lives at the San Diego County base. They said their experience was of great generosity by the American government, one that fought to keep families together and give them the building blocks for new lives.

"This is where we had our first taste of what it meant to be warm and safe in our new home. We have amazing memories of camp that we can keep in our hearts forever," added Le, whose family hailed from coastal Nha Trang before their exodus when she was in grade school.

"All these decades, we've looked at it as a symbol of freedom, not fear," added Huy Ba Dang, 83, a retired aerospace draft technician from Westminster.

More than 100,000 Vietnamese refugees fled to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon in 1975. The tent city created at Camp Pendleton was the largest refugee city in the U.S., with about 50,000 mostly Vietnamese passing through.

Many eventually went on to work in the Little Saigon district in Orange County.

President Ford’s decision to welcome the refugees was not popular. A Gallup poll in May 1975 showed that only 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. Many feared job losses and increased public welfare. Even Gov. Jerry Brown expressed concerns. Ford argued accepting them into America was essential because the refugees had been war allies.

But those who went through the tent city said they were grateful. Though the circumstance are in many ways different, some said they feel a certain kinship with Central American refugees fleeing violence and other hardships.

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Tony Lam, a former camp leader at Pendleton and the first Vietnamese American elected to political office in the U.S. in 1992, said he considers many migrants "economic refugees searching for a more stable life.”

“For the Vietnamese, some people left behind a wife, or husband, or everything they ever owned to seek freedom in America. For some of the new populations coming in, they're also seeking a measure of freedom," said the Westminster resident, 82, owner of a sandwich shop.

In 1975, he had stayed at Pendleton with his buddy Dang, who served as barracks leader. Both worked among thousands of fellow refugees, "and I remember grown men crying when they saw how the military cared for us and nurtured us," Lam said.

Dang and others said they associate Camp Pendleton with how America can be welcoming.

"I truly thank the citizens who opened their arms and their generosity to us," said Dang, who traveled to America with about 40 members of his extended family. "I am not biased or partisan to any government, but I would hope that the place — this camp — remains a respected symbol."

Viet Nguyen, a professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at USC, agreed. He said that housing refugees separated from their families at Pendleton would feel like such a sharp shift to so many Vietnamese Americans because the tent cities were designed to preserve and even reunite families.

"If Pendleton took in detainees in the future, it would be a shock because so many view it as their entryway to American life,” he added.

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