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Commentary : U.S. Must Remain a Safe Harbor for Boat People of Southeast Asia

<i> Robert K. Dornan is the Republican representative for Orange County's 38th Congressional District, which has one of the largest concentrations of Vietnamese refugees in the nation. </i>

There he was, Sir Geoffrey Howe, the British foreign minister himself railing against the influx of Vietnamese refugees into the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong to all those assembled in Geneva for last month’s international conference on Indochinese refugees.

There I was, an official U.S. delegate to the conference listening to him in shock as he called for the forced repatriation of over 43,000 boat people from Hong Kong back to communist Vietnam. I thought, please dear God, don’t do this again. Yet the British have now concluded an agreement with the communists in Vietnam to do just that.

It was 45 years ago, in October, 1944, when another British foreign minister, Sir Anthony Eden, met in Moscow with Joseph Stalin and agreed to forcibly repatriate over 2 million Soviet citizens to the murderous Stalin regime. The United States and our other allies acquiesced to this dishonorable plan. Many Russians committed suicide or bravely attacked their guards with bare hands rather than return to the Soviet Union. Nearly all 2 million were either killed or sent to a slow death in Siberian gulags.

So now when our secretary of state also talks of “voluntary” repatriation of Vietnamese refugees I am repulsed by those words. These brave boat people faced prison or death if caught escaping, then risked their lives at sea from drowning, sharks, starvation, cannibalism, and rape or murder at the hands of brutal pirates. Let’s be frank, would any sane person even consider “voluntarily” returning to Vietnam?

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The United States has already accepted about 52% of all Vietnamese refugees--a great many of whom have settled in Orange County. I would like to believe that we did this because of our moral obligation to those loyal, freedom-fighting allies we left behind in the killing fields of Southeast Asian communism.

But if that’s not good enough, then consider that Vietnamese-Americans, like their hyphenated Italian, Irish, Scandinavian, or Eastern European forerunners, continue to make a dynamic economic and cultural contribution to this country.

Visit Little Saigon in Westminster and witness the remarkable transformation of that area into a thriving tax base of small businesses, restaurants and tourist attractions. The Vietnamese-American community also has quickly become a large and well-educated labor pool from which American industry substantially draws our newest scientists, engineers, doctors, architects, physicists and more.

Most of all, the Vietnamese-American community reminds those of us second-, third- and fourth-generation Americans just how disgruntled are the bigoted, or simply the mistaken, remarks like: “How in the hell did they get to own a business? They barely speak the language.” “Are my taxes subsidizing them?” “They’re taking over.”

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No, it wasn’t our taxes, a subsidy or preferential treatment. It was the American dream. Through sacrifice, concentrated study, a determined spirit and hard work you can own a business in this country whether your family has been here one year or 100. This above all is the greatest contribution that these newest Americans have given us--a reminder that opportunity abounds for all of us.

So I am stunned that Western democracies actually feel comfortable with strongly advocating the return of Vietnamese refugees into the clutches of an oppressive communist government. Have they learned nothing from China?

Some suggest this proposed change in refugee policy is the result of “compassion fatigue.” First-asylum nations like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the colony of Hong Kong are no longer willing to accept the domestic political heat, short-term financial strain or ethnic confrontations borne of historical rivalry and plain old bigotry that has come with the 1.5 million Vietnamese who have so far fled their country.

But for nations like the United States, Great Britain, France and West Germany, this unwelcome change of policy is much more fundamental. Maybe it should be considered a twisted spin-off of Gorbymania.

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It is now the accepted belief among many high-ranking government officials, but excluding many skeptical congressmen like myself, that the pace of internal political reform within communist governments is occurring with sufficient speed to no longer justify a presumption of oppression.

As a result, the longstanding U.S. policy that anyone fleeing a communist nation is doing so because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” is quickly crumbling. Yesterday’s political refugees are today being called “economic refugees” who are therefore no longer eligible for immediate asylum. This applies to Vietnamese boat people. It also applies to the hundreds of Soviet Jews stalled in Italy. What a horrible message we are beginning to send to oppressed people around the world.

I and many of my colleagues in Congress, Republican and Democrat alike, are working hard not to seal our harbors or extinguish the “lamp beside the golden door.” This is never an easy political position. But a bill I have co-sponsored has finally just passed the House of Representatives and would establish a legal presumption of persecution for emigres from the Soviet Union, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

We need more Americans, foreign-born and home-grown, who have the pioneer spirit. They are our future as they are our past.

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