A father gets his daughter out of Vietnam, many others take heart. Despite revival of `orderly departure program,' hurdles remain high

Two years ago, Barry Huntoon was thumbing through a Life magazine in his California home when his eye fell on the picture of an Amerasian girl in Vietnam. ``I couldn't stop looking at her,'' says the Vietnam war veteran. ``She looked like me.'' When he showed the picture to his wife, she said, ``That's your child, isn't it?''

Last week, Mr. Huntoon met his daughter in a tearful first encounter at the airport outside Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). The girl's mother, a Vietnamese woman whom Huntoon says he almost married while serving in Vietnam as an Army medic from 1970-72, is scheduled to join them in the United States soon. But the union of father and daughter took two years of bureaucratic delays, caused in large part by immigration rules as well as diplomatic distrust between Washington and Hanoi 12 years after the war.

Huntoon says it was a ``whole nightmare'' to rescue 15-year-old, light-haired Tran Thi Tuyet Mai from a life of selling peanuts to Russian tourists at a beach resort. His success is unusual, helped along mainly by the efforts of the University of Wisconsin's Dr. Judith Ladinsky, who maintains private ties with Hanoi.

For some 8,000 to 12,000 other children of mixed Vietnamese and American parentage, and an estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Vietnamese who have applied to leave their country, the bureaucratic hurdles to leave Vietnam remain steep.

Last month, the US and Vietnam agreed to revive the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) which, since 1979, has allowed some 130,000 Vietnamese to leave for the US, Canada, France, and Australia under the auspices of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The program was set up to stem the massive flow of so-called ``boat people'' - Vietnamese risking their lives by escaping on unseaworthy craft across the South China Sea.

For the US, the issue of Amerasians and ODP are usually put together. Hanoi reduced the flow of people leaving under ODP to a trickle in January, 1986, blaming the US for bureaucratic bottlenecks which left anxious applicants with an ``exit mentality'' creating social problems inside Vietnam. The clamp-down was seen as a major cause of a sudden increase earlier this year in the number of ``boat people.''

While admitting to having slow ODP procedures, American officials counter the charge by saying the stoppage was due to a policy struggle in Hanoi during a leadership change last year. Nonetheless, the US has agreed to speed up its processing.

The first group to exit since the revival of the program is expected to leave by year's end, with Vietnamese officials hoping to clear about 20,000 names within a year. This would reach pre-1986 levels.

Both sides contend ODP is a humanitarian effort, with Hanoi seeing it strictly as family reunification. In the past, Vietnam has tried to use ODP, and other indirect ties with the US, to move toward diplomatic recognition by Washington and perhaps crack an economic blockade imposed by the West after Vietnam's 1979 occupation of Cambodia.

In addition to reuniting relatives, the US uses ODP to retrieve old political and military associates left behind after the South Vietnamese government fell in 1975. A majority of the 95,000 names on the US list given to Hanoi under ODP fit into this ``political'' category, contends Luu Van Tanh, vice-director of consular affairs in Ho Chi Minh City. Most of them don't even have relatives abroad, he says. US officials say that less than a majority on the list are former US associates in South Vietnam. To speed up the process, some US officials want to set up an office in Ho Chi Minh City, an idea vetoed by hard-liners in the Reagan administration. ``Some people are still fighting the war,'' comments a US immigration official.

Since July, the government has published two newspaper articles in Ho Chi Minh City to answer questions about ODP. Television programs also now provide information. Everyday, says Mr. Tanh, his office receives about 100 letters, all of which he is required to answer quickly. About half of all ODP applicants are in Ho Chi Minh City, and they number some 200,00 to 300,000, he adds.

In the future, Tanh hopes that Vietnam and the US will allow relatives to visit each other easily so there is less reason for Vietnamese to emigrate. In all, about 4,000 Amerasians have left Vietnam along with 6,000 of their relatives, Tanh estimates. About 12,000 Amerasian applicants remain. The main difficulty is deciding which relatives of Amerasians can leave and also how to link up fathers with their children in Vietnam.

For Barry Huntoon, the link-up with daughter Mai was a long search for someone who could get a letter to her, and then a swamp of bureaucratic hassles. Lawyer's bills - and emotional stress - piled up.

``Hundreds of fathers have tried to get their children out, but many have given up,'' he says. ``It's a shame.'' Will both Mai and her mother settle in with the Huntoon family? He has no idea yet what may happen, but he says if anyone had been a hero over the past two years, it is his wife - ``for being so understanding.''

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