Wells C. Klein; Helped Resettle Thousands of Refugees


Wells C. Klein, an advocate for refugees and immigrants who played a central role in resettling thousands of Southeast Asians in the United States at the end of the Vietnam War and helped shape American policy toward refugees from other trouble spots, died of lung cancer April 5 at his home in Stowe Hollow, Vt. He was 74.

“He was a pioneer . . . a giant in creating the modern-day refugee and immigration field,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based advocacy and policy group.

The forum is one of several organizations that Klein helped found or revive that are at the forefront of the national refugee and immigrant protection movement.


He was also instrumental in crafting the Refugee Act of 1980, which codified the definition of a refugee and established policies about their fair treatment that are still followed.

The modern refugee movement, which brings 80,000 to 100,000 people a year to the United States, began with the fall of Saigon in 1975. The U.S. was unprepared for the Indochinese arrivals, who posed challenges the country had not faced for decades because of severe immigration restrictions.

Organizations that had helped settle European immigrants at the turn of the last century had gone “out of business or out of practice,” Sharry said. Those that survived were not equipped to deal with a flow of Third World refugees--the “boat people"--many of whom were traumatized by their arduous escape from war-torn homelands.

Into this void stepped Klein.

Born in New Haven, Conn., he was raised in a family engrossed by social issues and causes. His father, Philip, was an eminent professor of social work at Columbia University. His mother, Alice Campbell Klein, was involved in social welfare agencies.

After serving in the Navy during World War II and studying at Sarah Lawrence College and Cornell University, where he majored in anthropology, Klein began his international work. He became a mission director for the humanitarian organization CARE in Yugoslavia and by the mid-1950s had become chief of the CARE mission in Saigon, where he spent much of the period of the American troop buildup.

In the late 1960s he became director of International Social Service, a worldwide, nonprofit family agency. It was the first in a series of organizations that Klein resuscitated. Expanding it into an international social work agency, he developed a special focus on finding homes for Vietnamese orphans and other displaced Vietnamese children, especially those fathered by Americans.

In 1975, he took over the American Council for Nationalities Service, a nonprofit group that at the turn of the 20th century had helped Eastern European immigrants adjust to American life. Moribund for decades because of immigration bans, it became, under Klein’s leadership, a major resettlement agency that helped more than 130,000 Southeast Asians adjust to life in the United States after Saigon’s collapse. The agency is now called Immigration and Refugee Services of America.

Klein played a central role in arranging federal and state aid to address the Southeast Asian refugees’ needs for counseling, language instruction and vocational training. He lobbied for the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program, passed by Congress in 1975, which made Medicaid, food stamps and other benefits available to them.

“Suddenly, communities like Orange County had several thousand refugees. There was fear there would be a backlash and that they would find themselves unemployed or unemployable,” recalled Robert DeVecchi, president emeritus of the International Rescue Committee, the largest nonreligious refugee agency in the nation.

“The results have been very much to the contrary. And Wells knew that mechanism for making it work. He had a social worker’s knowledge of how states and municipalities and communities work, to a far greater degree than the rest of us in the refugee field,” said DeVecchi, who, like many leaders in the field, was mentored by Klein.

By 1980, when it was clear that refugees had become an irreversible tide in American life, Klein was working closely with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others in Congress to draft the landmark refugee act. One of its most important features was a legal definition of a refugee: a person who has fled his homeland because of persecution and who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of a well-founded fear of persecution.

In 1981 Klein resuscitated another long-dormant organization: the U.S. Committee for Refugees. It has become “the definitive voice on refugees, human rights and refugee crises,” said Lavinia Limon, who directed the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement for the Clinton White House. The committee publishes the annual World Refugee Survey, an authoritative summary of refugee conditions in more than 100 countries.

In 1980 Klein led the resettlement community in welcoming and assisting the 125,000 immigrants Fidel Castro sent in a chaotic sea migration to the U.S. from Cuban prisons and mental hospitals. Rejected by their countrymen in South Florida, where they landed, the Mariel boat lift refugees “tested the bedrock values of the refugee program,” said Limon, who at the time worked for Klein at the American Council for Nationalities Service.

“The question was, do we only resettle refugees of certain colors and of a certain class? He decided that our agency was going to take the lead on this,” she said. “He directed the program in a way that showed a lot of conscience at a time when it would have been easy to say, ‘Let’s do a minimal effort.’ ”

Klein was sometimes criticized as an empire builder because of his alacrity at turning sleepy agencies into thriving national and international organizations. He also loved to tell tales of his adventures, such as the time in 1979 when he journeyed by helicopter and motorboat in monsoon conditions to reach 50,000 Vietnamese boat people stranded in the waters off Malaysia. “We arrived drenched,” recalled Sharry, who worked for Klein at the time. “He was totally exhilarated.”

“He was not a bleeding heart do-gooder,” observed Limon, another Klein protege. An imposing 6 feet tall with a deep voice and a talent for passionate persuasion, Klein had an irrepressible entrepreneurial streak that some construed as opportunism. But, his admirers say, his compassion was authentic.

“During my 25 years working as Wells Klein’s colleague, I never once saw him compromise on the principle of protecting and assisting refugees, whether Cambodians at the Thai border, Haitians detained at Guantanamo or the displaced of Sarajevo,” said Roger Winter, who succeeded Klein as director of the Immigration and Refugee Services of America and now heads the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. “He never faltered.”

Klein, who never married, is survived by his brother, Malcolm, of Los Angeles, and his nieces, Laurie Klein of Northboro, Mass., and Leigh Vanderklein of Montclair, N.J. Donations may be made to the Wells C. Klein Refugee Fund, c/o U.S. Committee for Refugees, 1717 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Suite 701, Washington, D.C. 20036.