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U.S. Official Vows to Seek More Aid to Help With Influx of Vietnamese

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A federal official promised Saturday to try to come up with more money than local officials could routinely expect to help settle thousands of refugees expected to begin arriving from Vietnam in January.

Mary-Chi Ray, deputy director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, told a symposium on Vietnamese immigration at the Anaheim Marriott hotel that of the $382 million the federal government allocates for resettlement, $154 million, about 40%, already goes to California.

“You can’t say we are forgetting California,” Ray said.

But at the urging of social services administrators concerned that the refugees will strain already overtaxed programs to the breaking point, Ray said she would seek additional, discretionary funds.

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The imminent immigration presents a dilemma to people like Larry Leaman, director of Orange County’s Social Services Agency, he said.

“We’re very concerned because the social services’ dollar is already stretched thin providing services for our present number of Vietnamese refugees here. With more expected, we’re going to go to the breaking point,” said Leaman, who was a symposium panelist.

No figure on the number of former political prisoners expected to resettle in Orange County was available. However, the county has an estimated population of 100,000 Vietnamese, the nation’s largest concentration, and county agency directors have estimated that at least 15,000 of the expected refugees could resettle here.

Leaman urged the State Department Saturday to assist the county’s planning efforts by forwarding names of refugees who intend to settle in Orange County.

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More than 3,000 former Vietnamese political prisoners, the first wave of an expected 130,000 “re-education camp” detainees and their families, may arrive in the United States as soon as January, said Robert Funseth, senior deputy assistant secretary of state.

Funseth said Saturday that since an accord was reached between Hanoi and the United States in July, monthly application interviews by Vietnamese wanting to leave Vietnam have risen from 3,000 in July to 5,500 in August.

Funseth told the audience comprising hundreds of Vietnamese-Americans from Orange County that the State Department would give first priority to former political prisoners with relatives in the United States.

“These former detainees will be needing all the help we can give them,” Funseth said. “You can help by opening your hearts and homes to these newcomers from Vietnam as they begin to arrive in January in your neighborhoods.”

Detainees who have spent the longest time in re-education camps will be placed first on the government’s list for departure, he said.

About 300 people attended the symposium, which was sponsored by the state Legislature’s Joint Committee on Refugee Resettlement, International Migration and Cooperative Development, the chairman of which is Sen. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles).

The accord represents the first time the United States and Vietnam have been able to reach agreement on a major humanitarian issue. It could pave the way for agreements in other areas, such as the issues of U.S. soldiers who are prisoners of war and those still missing in action.

Already, Hanoi and the United States have agreed on the release of 3,500 detainees, said Funseth, who labored seven years as chief U.S. negotiator for the agreement. The first group was originally scheduled to be released by October, but the release has been delayed by medical screening and flight problems in Vietnam.

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Unlike the huge airlift in 1975, when hundreds of thousands of Southeast Asians were flown by military transport to the Philippines and then to refugee camps such as the one at Camp Pendleton after South Vietnam surrendered, Funseth said that Vietnam has insisted the refugees must use Air Vietnam, a commercial airline.

“There have been so many tourists and businessmen visiting Vietnam that getting additional seats has been a problem,” Funseth said. “But we’re exploring the idea of getting some charter planes, although we are limited by budget.”

A poll of 1,000 prospective applicants taken in Ho Chi Minh City showed that of 465 families, 346 had relatives in the United States. Of those, 181--more than 50%--had relatives living in California, where they intend to resettle, said Theresa L. Rusch, the State Department’s director for refugee reception and placement, who attended the symposium.

Many former political prisoners speak English, Rusch said, explaining that many of them learned English because they had worked for the U.S. government during the Vietnam War. Many are also writers and religious leaders, she said.

“Some have skills that can transfer into our economy that makes them, on the average, better equipped than the average immigrant,” Rusch said.

However, many of them have emotional scars, and will need assistance beyond what a public agency can offer, she said.

Annually, about 26,500 Vietnamese are allowed to emigrate under immigration laws as “refugees,” a term that entitles emigres additional aid in the form of job training, language assistance and other resettlement services. Another 25,000 can enter the United States as immigrants, a category in which no additional aid is provided and usually restricted to spouses, children and parents of refugees in this country.

Money and services aside, Ton That Dien, a member of a national association of former political prisoners who now lives in Garden Grove, warned his fellow panelists that despite the accord, “don’t trust Hanoi for anything.”

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“I know that the Communists are untrustworthy,” said Dien, who was a major in the South Vietnamese army who was captured and spent seven years in various re-education camps. “For people like me and our association, we won’t believe the agreement until we see people getting off the plane in the United States. For us, it’s wait and see.”


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