Seeking Refuge

Refugees from Cambodia came to American in waves, starting in 1975.
The first wave consisted of a little over 5,000 people who were mainly Khmer Republic Air Force pilots, Khmer Republic Navy personnel, diplomats serving in Cambodian embassies/consulates in foreign countries, and other Cambodians who happened to be outside of the country at the time. The refugees entered under the parole power of the U.S. attorney because the 1980 Refugee Act had not been passed yet.

The second wave was comprised of people who had successfully escaped to Thailand during the
Khmer Rouge regime. 8,000 people who had prior relationships with the French and/or Americans were cleared for resettlement, and 3,000 of those people were admitted to the U.S.. Additionally, there were 10,000 rural Cambodians who lived near the Thai-Cambodian border – the U.S. admitted about 6,000 from this group.

The third wave was made up of people who fled Cambodia after the Khmer Rouge regime was overthrown. This exodus did not occur immediately after the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge regime because the first priority of many was to find separated family members that may still have been alive. The outflow of refuge-seekers resumed and rapidly increased in volume a few months after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, largely due to famine. Lastly, people from the Khao I Dang refugee camps constructed by the UNHCR also sought refuge in America.

Today, ethnic Chinese from Cambodia comprise a significant proportion of Cambodian business owners, who own restaurants, donut shops, etc., and make up 5 percent of the Cambodian population in the United States.

The U.S. allocated 130,000 slots for potential refugees in 1975, 125,000 of which were reserved for South Vietnamese people and the remaining 5,000 for Cambodians; only 4,600 of the slots for Cambodians were filled. The U.S. also offered to airlift a thousand government officials out of Phnom Penh, but fewer than 900 Cambodians actually accepted this offer.

A harsh attitude was maintained from the Thai government toward Cambodian refuge seekers. Two kinds of camps existed along the Thai-Cambodian border: refugee camps set up by UNHCR within national boundaries, where refugees could be interviewed for potential resettlement, and border camps just inside Cambodian territory, where refugees could not be interviewed for potential resettlement because the Thai government denied the UNHCR entry to the border camps. Conditions in these border camps were awful; many Cambodians today still harbor negative feelings toward Thailand for the harsh existence they endured in the camps.

A total of 157,518 Cambodians were admitted into the United States from 1975 to 1994. Approximately 148,000 were admitted as refugees, the rest either as immigrants with family members in the U.S. to sponsor them or humanitarian/public-interest parolees who did not qualify for refugee status but were able to be admitted nonetheless.

1994 saw the end of the Cambodian refugee program. Since that year, Cambodians admitted to the U.S. have come as immigrants, not refugees, and the number per year has been very small. American-born youth of Cambodian ancestry are the fastest growing segment of the ethnic Cambodian population in the United States today. The Office for Refugee Resettlement (created after the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act) aimed to widely disperse refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in order to minimize the financial, educational, and social-services burdens on any single locality.

The factors that determined where these refugees would end up were:
○ Locations of existing voluntary service agencies (individuals, families, church groups, or local organizations) willing to either temporarily house or help find housing, enroll refugee children in schools, help find jobs, etc.
○ Location of existing families/communities in the U.S.
○ Cities with plentiful cheap housing
○ Localities with entry-level jobs that did not require an ability to understand and speak English

There were many priorities for refugees when finding a location to move to:
○ Rejoining family or friends
○ Proximity to a Buddhist temple
○ Warm climate
○ Places with available employment
○ Places where they could qualify for public assistance

Historically, there had been no immigration from Cambodia to the United States, so there were no existing Cambodian ethnic communities when the first wave of refugees arrived. Soon, Long Beach, California was hailed as the “Cambodian capital of America”. This was due to how in the late 1950s and 1960s, two California State University campuses made an effort to enroll students from Cambodia in engineering and other technical courses at the universities. These programs ceased when Prince Sihanouk broke off diplomatic relations with the United States, but several dozen students remained in this area.

Students transformed their Cambodian Students Association into the Cambodian Association of America, the first Cambodian mutual aid association organized and incorporated in the United States. These students visited the U.S. Marine Corp Base in Camp Pendleton in southern California to give food and other resources to the many Cambodian refugees there.

Long Beach today has the largest population of Cambodian ancestry outside of Cambodia itself. Lowell, Massachusetts was the second city in which Cambodian refugees congregated in large numbers. Lowell is an old textile-mill town; Peter Pond, a Protestant minister who had worked among Cambodian refugees in Thailand, began a campaign to make Massachusetts into a refugee-friendly state. The presence of several electronics assembly plants in the town also made it an appealing place for Cambodian refugees to settle. In addition, the arrival of a senior Buddhist monk in the area further attracted Cambodians. Word of mouth also cannot be underestimated – as Cambodians began hearing about their compatriots being hired in large numbers in Lowell, many moved to that city. At its height, Cambodians comprised one-fourth of Lowell’s total population, with some dubbing it “the Long Beach of the East Coast”. Other localities where Cambodian American communities developed include the greater San Diego area, the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys, and the San Francisco Bay Area. Communities also sprang up throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, the Washington D.C. area, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, Utah, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement became concerned that Cambodian refugees were embarking on “secondary migrations,” moving away from where they were originally placed. The office did not support this because they didn’t want social service agencies, schools, and public assistance programs to be overwhelmed with more refugees than they could handle.
Thus, the ORR began a project to settle between 300 and 1,000 Cambodians each in a dozen or so cities that did not yet have a large number of Indochinese refugees. Cities were selected based on having relatively cheap housing, plentiful entry-level jobs, adequate social services, and small Cambodian populations. This project caused 8,000 Cambodians to be moved from California to Boston, New York City, Rochester (NY), Richmond (VA), Atlanta (GA), Jacksonville (FL), Chicago (IL), Cincinnati (OH), Columbus (OH), Dallas (TX), Houston (TX), and Phoenix (AZ).