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Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Office helped bring thousands of Southeast Asian refugees to Minnesota

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society/Alan Ominsky
The Lao-Hmong National Conference was hosted at Concordia College in St. Paul in 1981.

Between 1975 and 1986, about 750,000 refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos resettled in the U.S. They passed through two initiatives: the Refugee Parole Program and the Orderly Departure Program. Voluntary agencies, sponsors, and programs managed by the Indochinese Refugee Resettlement Office offered help. As a result, Minnesota was one of ten states that accepted the largest numbers of refugees.

The Indochinese Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 (and following amendments) allowed Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian refugees to enter the U.S. It also established the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program (IRAP). The IRAP allowed refugees to access local services that were distributed through the state and fully reimbursed by the federal government.

According to Governor Wendell Anderson, the state of Minnesota had received the largest number of Southeast Asian refugees in the Midwest as of October 1975. Although Anderson acknowledged the efforts of Minnesota’s voluntary social agencies, he wanted to address longer-term resettlement issues, standardize refugee assistance, and offer follow-up services to refugees after their arrival.

In December 1975, Anderson established an Indochinese Resettlement Office. This became the Refugee Programs Office in 1981. It coordinated the efforts of federal and voluntary agencies, such as the Lutheran Social Services, Church World Service, Catholic Charities, and American Red Cross Minnesota Area Chapter. Families, church groups, and community organizations, such as the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women in Minnesota and the Lao Association of Mutual Association, Inc., participated in the resettlement process. They sponsored refugee families and helped them adjust to their new homes.

Anderson also created an Indochinese Refugee Task Force to advise the Governor’s Office. It included representatives from social service organizations; the Vietnamese-American Association; the Cambodian refugee community; the Departments of Welfare, Employment Services, and Education; the Governor’s Manpower Office; and the private sector.

The task force had two primary functions. First, it collected data about the Southeast Asian households in the state. Second, it provided information about classes, programs, and recent laws to the refugee community. For example, the Task Force conducted a statewide questionnaire in 1977. It also published a newsletter, Minnesota New Life, in English, Vietnamese, Khmer, and Lao.

The Refuge Act of 1980 marked a turning point in both immigration policy and refugee assistance. Because the refugee admissions and resettlement processes were ad hoc, policymakers aimed to create a more comprehensive refugee policy. They sought to give Congress more control over the admissions of refugees into the U.S. Legislators also wanted to make resettlement more efficient and consistent.

The act established a permanent Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), officially appointed a U.S. Coordinator for Refugee Affairs, and formalized the process of channeling federal aid to refugees for a period of thirty-six months. The ORR was authorized to use funds for cash, medical aid, and social services, and to reimburse state and local public agencies directly or through contracts.

Along these lines, the Minnesota Refugee Programs Office negotiated contracts with various agencies, charities, and church groups in Minneapolis/Hennepin County. It organized refugee-specific job-creation projects, including the Hennepin County Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), the Refugee Work/Training section, and the F. V. S. (Vietnamese M. A. A.) Employment Project. Although many refugees still needed employment, these projects served an estimated 1,478 refugee residents in Hennepin County, with 898 job placements by 1982. Special programs targeted unaccompanied minors and youth, since the demographics of Southeast Asian refugees were relatively young. Two thirds of the refugee population in St. Paul was under age twenty one.

Despite the considerable success of these programs, the Refugee Program Office and caseworkers recognized that Southeast Asian refugees faced multiple challenges as newcomers, including racial discrimination in their neighborhoods, hiring bias, and language barriers. The lack of jobs and American neighbors’ hostile attitudes sometimes forced the refugees’ “secondary migration” to other cities. They gathered in rural and coastal areas where there were more farming and fishing jobs and larger Southeast Asian communities. The Refugee Programs Office and voluntary agencies tried to address these barriers to employment with language and job training programs.

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