A 14-member delegation from California, including Irvine Mayor Larry Agran, has been granted permission by the Vietnamese government to travel to Vietnam on behalf of a refugee family reunification project.
The trip, scheduled for next Thursday through April 11, is humanitarian and apolitical although delegates intend to discuss with Vietnamese officials and the U.S. State Department sensitive refugee issues on reeducation and political camp prisoners, improving the departure program and the backlog of Amerasian cases involving children fathered by American soldiers.
The trip, initiated by state Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), is believed to be the first time the Vietnamese government has accepted such a delegation. The California group will be predominantly Vietnamese-Americans from California returning to their homeland accompanied by elected officials, an aide to Torres said.
“This is a real important opportunity to undertake,” Agran said Wednesday. “We’re taking names of hundreds of individuals still in Vietnam who have relatives in Orange County.”
Trip schedules have not been finalized, including naming the 10 Vietnamese-Americans who will accompany Torres, Agran and Torres’ aide Nguyen T. Nguyen. A businessman and a physician from Orange County are among those being considered.
Agran was invited by Torres because he is an elected official in Orange County, which has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese in the United States, and because Agran had expressed an interest in the trip, they said.
The idea grew out of Torres’ solo trip last year to the Far East, where he had discussions with Vietnam’s Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach in Ho Chi Minh City. Torres chairs the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Refugee Resettlement, International Migration and Cooperative Development. Torres said that when he suggested a trip to Vietnam by a California delegation, the idea was warmly received by Thach.
“When I met with Thach and his officials, they were very supportive of having Vietnamese refugees return to Vietnam,” Torres said. “I indicated to him and said I was not there to open diplomatic relations but to share my concerns, which were on immigration, the Amerasians and family reunification.”
Torres’ meeting and travel to Vietnam have been approved by the State Department, he said, adding that he also was assisted by Jonathan Moore, the U.S. Ambassador of Refugee Affairs in Bangkok, whom he had met while attending Harvard University.
During the earlier trip, Torres visited refugee camps in Hong Kong and Bangkok, where he met with boat people and others who fled Vietnam.
Torres delivered to Vietnamese officials a list of 500 Vietnamese seeking to join relatives in the United States. The return trip is, in part, an attempt to seek emigration updates on those individuals.
“On my last trip, I explained that the Vietnamese community is very large in California but it has been a very slow process getting things back like documents because, in part, Hanoi has no computers. It’s an extremely poor country,” he said.
Torres and Agran emphasized that the delegation does not represent the United States government. And the Vietnamese-Americans who will accompany them have “absolutely no” commercial ties to Vietnam and are not going to promote diplomatic relations, Nguyen said.
Renewing diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Vietnam remains a highly sensitive and emotional issue in Orange County’s Vietnamese community because of fervent anti-communist sentiments.
Torres said he recognizes that it is a “very complex and precarious situation.”
“We’re trying to reunify families. That’s all we’re trying to do,” he said.
Funding for the trip will come from private Vietnamese organizations and prominent business leaders, Torres said, adding, “No tax money is being used.”
Torres noted that a majority of Southeast Asians and Amerasian children who enter the United States resettle in California.
As of October, 1986, there were an estimated 369,000 Southeast Asian refugees living in California. The number of Southeast Asian refugees in the United States was estimated at more than 806,000, according to a 1986 report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’re getting most of the Amerasian kids in California. It is an economic question, and the number of how many we should accept is also sensitive,” he said.
“Under federal law, Amerasian children can bring back extended family members, and we’ve heard that fathers will want their daughters to marry an Amerasian for resettlement purposes,” Torres said.
The senator said Vietnamese officials agreed last year to expedite exit visas for those wishing to emigrate and also to aid the release of Amerasian children fathered by American soldiers during the Vietnam War.
There has been progress with relatives receiving exit visas, but Torres and his staff are unsure if it was due to the state senator’s trip.
One Orange County case, in particular, involves a mother and her children who fled South Vietnam 14 years ago, according to Agran who is making his first trip to Vietnam.
“She hasn’t seen her husband for 15 years,” Agran said, adding that he hopes to help expedite their reunification.
Agran, an attorney, has been an Irvine City Council member for 10 years. He is also executive director for the Center for Innovative Diplomacy, a nonprofit corporation that seeks to involve citizens in international affairs.