As Trump bans Syrian refugees, a look back at when California welcomed 50,000 displaced people
President Trump’s restrictions on refugees and others from some Middle Eastern countries has generated much debate about the role the United States should play in helping those trying to flee their homelands.
California was confronted with this issue in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, as South Vietnamese allies of the U.S. were desperately trying to get out as the communists took over. Thousands ended up at Camp Pendleton in what became one of the nation’s largest refugee operations.
Years later, those refugees recalled being treated with great kindness and respect by Marines and American aid workers. Many resettled refugees stayed in Southern California, founding Orange County’s Little Saigon district.
But the influx was not without controversy.
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 then-Gov. Jerry Brown sounded alarms about the toll the Vietnamese refugees would take on the state.
Here’s some background on the “Tent City” at Camp Pendleton, from the archives of The Times:
How did this refugee crisis begin?
In the days after the April 30, 1975, communist takeover, images of Vietnamese citizens scrambling onto U.S. military aircraft or fleeing in small boats were seen in newspapers and on television screens across the United States.
Nearly 130,000 Vietnamese fled their homeland that spring, most of them former South Vietnamese government or army officials who worked closely with Americans during the war and feared reprisals by the Communist Party and members of officials’ families. In their home country, they were highly educated and well-to-do. In the United States, they had to start over.
The Ford administration pushed through the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, which helped resettle refugees that were sponsored by churches and volunteer families. The sponsors provided food, clothing and shelter until the refugees became self-sufficient.
The Vietnamese were assigned to four “tent cities” set up on military bases, including Camp Pendleton. While there, they took vocational classes and waited for sponsors.
What was the Pendleton refugee camp like?
It was the largest refugee city in the U.S., with about 50,000 mostly Vietnamese passing through.
The camp would eventually reshape Southern California. Many refugees stayed for the warm weather similar to what they were accustomed to in Vietnam. In central Orange County, refugees found cheap housing and plentiful jobs in Westminster, where they erected businesses among the strawberry and bean fields, drawing Vietnamese scattered in other states.
How do Vietnamese refugees and the Marines who helped them remember those times?
The Times talked to some of them and 2010 — and here’s what they told Times reporter My-Thuan Tran:
In 1975, Loc Nam Nguyen escaped Vietnam on a C-130 transport plane with no possessions aside from old family photos. Thirty years old at the time, he said his first night at Camp Pendleton was one of the hardest of his life.
“I cried. Everybody cried,” he said. “We had no idea where we were. We had just lost our country. It was like we were in the middle of nowhere, and we had no idea what was going to happen in the rest of our lives.”
Nguyen was placed in Camp No. 8, sleeping beside 40 others in a tent. Life at the camp was not comfortable, Nguyen said. The nights were cold, there were common showers and the lines for food were long.
Every day, Nguyen searched bulletin boards with lists of refugee names for signs of his parents and 10 siblings, from whom he was separated during the escape. It would be years before his entire family was able to come to the U.S.
But life went on, he said.
Nguyen reconnected with old friends at the camp and dated a few women. “There was this feeling of, you better make friends here because in the future, you won’t have a chance to know Vietnamese girls,” he said.
He recalled the kindness of the Marines who worked at the camp, who helped man the food lines, clean the toilets and play games with the children. Several Marines, hearing that the Vietnamese were nostalgic for fish sauce, brought some from a Thai market in Los Angeles, Nguyen said.
There were many weddings, he recalled. There was a weekly Mass, Buddhist prayer, dance classes, parties, vocational training and English classes. A Marine gave him an old guitar, and Nguyen would sing songs with his friends.
Now 65, Nguyen lives in Los Angeles and is head of U.S. Catholic Charities’ immigration and refugee department and an emcee on a popular Vietnamese music variety show. But he frequently recalls his experiences at the base.
For others, Camp Pendleton turned a page on the war that divided the country. Retired Gunnery Sgt. Louis Beatty, now 71, spent two tours in Vietnam during the war. “Most of the people we saw in Vietnam were the bad guys,” he said.
“I never met a Vietnamese at the camp that was not tremendously respectful or not open,” he said. “They were very, very beautiful people. It really left a positive impression on me.”
Where did these refugees end up?
In 2010 The Times examined that question:
The camp would eventually reshape Southern California. Many refugees stayed for the warm weather they were accustomed to in Vietnam. In central Orange County, refugees found cheap housing and plentiful jobs in Westminster, where they erected Vietnamese businesses along the strawberry and bean fields, drawing Vietnamese scattered in other states.
Today, Orange County is home to 150,000 Vietnamese, the largest such population in the country. Little Saigon in Westminster and Garden Grove is teeming with hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants, markets and doctors’ and lawyers’ offices. A handful of Vietnamese in the county hold elected office, including a county supervisor and a state assemblyman.
In 2015, there was a gathering to mark the 40th anniversary of the camp. But it was not without its own issues. As The Times’ Anh Do reported:
At first, organizers planned a reunion at Camp Pendleton, a refugee haven that welcomed the first arrivals fleeing Vietnam in late April 1975. But military officials would not allow the flying of South Vietnam’s flag, a banner from an “unrecognized country,” on federal land. They acted on orders from the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department because the U.S. has diplomatic ties with Vietnam’s Communist regime.
So the event moved to Orange County’s Little Saigon.
10:25 a.m.: This article has been updated with a final question about where refugees ended up.
This article was originally published at 9:36 a.m.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.