The heartbreaking images of panicked crowds at the Kabul airport remind me of how my family’s story began after the Vietnam War. In 1975, my uncle, aunt, and three out of their four kids made it onto an American plane—leaving their eldest daughter behind—as U.S. forces left Vietnam, just like the Afghan refugees attempting to leave their country that we see today. Four years later, my parents fled Vietnam as boat people, part of a mass exodus making a dangerous escape by sea. They were among millions on the run from war, genocide, and communism in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Thanks in part to the 1980 Refugee Act, they were able to gain asylum and sponsorship through my uncle and aunt, who had arrived in the States earlier.
President Joe Biden had co-sponsored that act during his time in the Senate. So in early August, when I joined other Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) leaders to discuss the pressing needs of the AANHPI community with Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, I took the opportunity to thank him and shared what the act had meant for my family. Just a few weeks later, my family’s own migration experience would reemerge in the public eye because of the sudden U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, creating a new wave of refugees seeking safe harbor.
Media attention has drawn valid comparisons of the current Afghanistan evacuation with the Fall of Saigon, but less attention has been paid to how the U.S. took measures to mitigate the consequences of its failures in the 1970s. To deal with the resulting humanitarian crisis, the U.S. passed immediate legislation to deal with the most urgent asylum cases and over the subsequent decades, it welcomed more than 1.3 million Southeast Asians. We became the largest refugee community ever to be resettled in the United States.
I currently lead the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), which was established in 1979 to help with refugee resettlement. In the intervening decades, we have undertaken a wide range of efforts to enhance the well-being of our communities and counter discriminatory practices that we encountered as we added “American” to our identity. In the process, we have also embraced what we consider the heartbeat of America: its promise of inclusive democracy, and the opportunity to thrive and become our best selves, no matter our race, our background, or where we’re from.
We also understand how hoarding that opportunity diminishes, rather than protects, its value. Our own experience makes it clear that where there’s a will—economic, political, and social—there’s a way to successfully absorb new people, saving lives in the short term and adding engaged and beautifully diverse citizens over the long haul.
To aid those seeking escape from Afghanistan, our government must continue to evacuate all at-risk refugees before fully withdrawing, even if it extends beyond the stated Aug. 31 deadline. We must also keep the major Afghan airports open to facilitate travel and evacuate those who wish to leave. This goes beyond U.S. citizens, the individuals who are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas because of their work with us, and their families. It should include all vulnerable persons, including women, LGBTQ+ community members, and those identifying as part of ethnic and religious minority groups, among others, who have been impacted by the United States’ decades-long occupation of the region.
A lot of the effort must also take place here at home. We need to add Afghanistan to the list of countries whose citizens are designated for Temporary Protected Status due to disasters and war in their country of origin. We need to also employ emergency humanitarian parole for Afghans escaping, including women, children, and religious and ethnic minorities. Also, as was true for Southeast Asia, we must significantly raise the numbers of refugees we accept and expand our capacity to resettle them. My parents languished for years in a dismal refugee camp in Thailand before being resettled in the U.S., and Afghan refugees shouldn’t be made to endure the same circumstances, especially when we already have vibrant Afghani communities across the country ready to help with resettlement.
Those thriving Afghan enclaves, and our own Southeast Asian communities, are living proof that generous asylum and resettlement policies build a stronger and more enriched country. And I know from deep, personal experience how the benefits of those policies extend far beyond those first generations of refugees.
Five days after my meeting with Biden, my dad passed away from advanced lung cancer. Before he passed, I was able to fly home in time for him to hold my son, who was born during the pandemic, for the first time. He was taken to the hospital 10 minutes later and eventually passed about 48 hours after that first and last cuddle with his grandson.
My dad’s enduring gift is his unconditional love and generosity that shows why support to refugees is not a three- to five-year policy. From protecting his children and grandchildren until his last breath, to the nephews and siblings he sponsored, to the faith communities that he prayed with and served with until his final days. The love he left behind spans generations of refugee families who continue to honor him and are here in the U.S. because of him. I am honored to be his daughter. I am honored to continue his legacy of refugee resilience.
There’s no time to lose. Those of us who are part of the Southeast Asian migration know this story: determined action saves lives. Now is the time to take action. Now is the time to continue building our country’s legacy, one that lives up to its ideals of equity and freedom for generations to come. Protecting refugees like my dad shows America at its best. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again, but this time better.