On the eve of the 29th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, the U.S. State Department detailed an agreement it reached this month with the Philippines to speed up resettlement of the last Vietnamese boat people.
The refugees' advocates, many from Orange County, flew to Washington for an informal question-and-answer session Thursday with government officials about the status of 1,855 members of about 700 families who fled Vietnam and have been stranded in the Philippines with no legal status since 1989.
Under the agreement, the United States will offer resettlement interviews to a majority of the boat people, many of whom have relatives in the United States, a State Department official said.
It would mark a final step in the long effort to let many of the refugees immigrate to the United States. Though the displaced families long ago put down roots in the Philippines, they are essentially stateless and cannot own a business or a house or even hold certain jobs.
"This plan is based on the desire of both governments to find a comprehensive humanitarian solution for those in this group," the governments said in a joint announcement.
More than 1.5 million boat people escaped Vietnam after the war ended in 1975 -- some rescued by the U.S. military and others who fled by boat. Those who remain in the Philippines were rejected as political refugees by the Philippines immigration system. Because of that, U.S. officials were unable to consider them for resettlement under an international agreement that had been drawn up to deal with the Vietnamese refugee crisis.
In 1996, they were ordered returned to Vietnam, a move that would have permitted the United States to consider them for resettlement. When Philippine officials tried to force them to fly back to Vietnam, they rioted at the airport, saying they would be persecuted if they returned to their homeland. Roman Catholic Church officials stepped in and successfully pressured the government to let the Vietnamese refugees remain indefinitely but with no legal status and no place to go.
State Department officials said Thursday they would send teams to Manila within months to interview the refugees and promised to apply a "generous refugee-screening standard" in an effort to offer resettlement to as many as possible.
About 1,400 people are expected to qualify for resettlement in the United States, a process that is expected to be completed by September, an official said. Those who do not qualify will remain in the Philippines and may eventually be offered legal status there.
The news was heartening to the Vietnamese American community. "With all the security concerns, it came at a time when it was unexpected," said Lan Quoc Nguyen, a Westminster attorney, activist and president of Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers, a national organization that provides legal counseling for boat people. "This is important because it is the closing chapter of the 30-year tragedy for boat people."
Hoi Trinh, 34, a Vietnamese attorney who has lobbied for the boat people, said it was bittersweet because refugees who married Philippine citizens or who are Amerasians will not be interviewed.
"We urge the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to, please, at least hear their stories," Trinh said. "There's a need to hear, at least once, from all the refugees."
Senators Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said in a written statement that they welcomed the agreement between the United States and the Philippines. "After almost 30 years, the last of the refugees of the Vietnam War have a chance to build a stable future," Brownback said. "This is an important moment for them, and an important symbol of the U.S. commitment to refugee protection and resettlement."
Mary Curtius reported from Washington, D.C., Mai Tran from Orange County.