The refugees of Orange County

Orange County, just south of Los Angeles, with a population of approximately two million, has the highest concentration of Indochinese refugees to be found in any county in the United States, with over 37,000 Vietnamese, 12,000 Lao, and 2,000 Cambodians. The county's Indochinese refugee population is now growing by 7,800 a year, 30 percent of whom are secondary migrants: that is, refugees who left their original resettlement locations in the United States to migrate to Orange County.

One-ninth of all the Indochinese refugees in the US now live in this one county. The reasons include: (a) proximity to Camp Pendleton where newly arrived Indochinese refugees were once located; (b) favorable weather conditions and employment opportunities; (c) welfare and social services which are generous by national standards; and (d) above all, a widespread tendency of refugees to join families and friends.

The county is to be commended for the way its officials, voluntary agencies, churches, and citizens have worked together in handling the many difficult problems related to refugee resettlement. Their combined efforts exemplify what is best in our communities, and undoubtedly, in time and as a result, most of the refugees will be important contributors to, not just beneficiaries of, the communities in which they are resettled.

Yet there are mounting concerns in Orange County and elsewhere over the increasing size of refugee welfare budgets, inequities in the distribution system whereunder a few refugees may receive more benefits than other disadvantaged groups, inadequate coordination between federal and county programs for refugees, and the lengthening time many refugees appear to spend on welfare rolls. In the latter regard, many avoid taking low-paying jobs in order to get all the education possible before entering the job market at higher salary levels. This means that some are now on cash assistance who could be self-sufficient if they were to enter the job market at lower levels.

But most jobs now absolutely require basic English language skills and some vocational training. Employers of refugees in Orange County, who at one time were lenient on requirements for employment of refugees, are now tightening their requirements. Hence all the training the refugees seek becomes increasingly important.

Earlier I mentioned the problem of secondary migration which, in many ways, is the most serious of all problems, as far as Orange County is concerned. One of the county's supervisors has even gone so far as to suggest a county moratorium on receiving any more refugees so that "we could better assist the 50 ,000 already living in the county." I know of no concerted efforts being made to deal with the problem of secondary migration nationwide. Under the Constitution , there can be no legal restrictions on migration within our country, but that does not rule out measures which would have the effect of encouraging refugees to remain more evenly distributed across the country.

Finally, it should be noted that some refugees in camps in Southeast Asia, and presumably some people contemplating escape from Indochinese countries today , are fully aware of the generous features of the US welfare program. There is evidence that, to some degree, knowledge of this welfare contributes to the "magnet" effort of drawing Indochinese out of their homelands to the US.

These are factors which underline the need for a comprehensive evaluation of US domestic problems relating to Indochinese refugees: in particular, the increasing size of the refugee welfare budget, inequities in the distribution system which allow certain refugees to receive more benefits than other welfare recipients, and ways to minimize secondary migration and the problems of impacted communities.

Although criticisms of favored treatment of refugees -- real and imagined -- have not caused much of a stir in the past, they may in the future when, as expected, there will be cutbacks in social services and when more of the refugee costs will be borne by the counties. Orange County already anticipates rising community tensions owing to cultural differences and competition for jobs and resources.

I end with a paradox. The Indochinese refugees are, for the most part, hard-working, enterprising people, whose very success in getting ahead in America will cause some envy and resentment, as well as help motivate many more Indochina refugees to flee.

All this is occurring at a time when the ability of the United States to absorb further waves of immigrants, refugees, and undocumented aliens is coming under long overdue question, and at a time when growing demographic pressures, resource scarcities, and turbulence in the less developed countries are almost certain to help produce increasing numbers of those seeking the economic and political security which America best provides.

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