South East Asian Immigration

The Southeast Asian Immigrant Experience: SEARAC

After the devastation that was left from the Indochina wars, a direct result of the United States’ inflated worries of communist threats, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam found their communities completely destroyed by the aftermath. As a result, many Southeast Asian Americans resettled in the United States and with inadequate support from the government, were dispersed throughout the country to encourage assimilation rather than personalized assistance geared towards the community. Many arrived with little to no support and were forced to uproot their lives in communities that were already underserved. 

In an analysis by Stacy Kula and Susan Paik for the Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement, the authors emphasize the various areas in the United States where most groups resettled, although the information only categorizes four ethnic groups of the various that arrived; Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong and Laotian. Most Southeast Asian groups resettled in dispersed areas of the country, while nearly a third of the refugees collectively resettled in California. 

For the most part, Vietnamese resettlers found themselves relocating in southern and western states near the coast, such as Texas, Florida and Washington. Cambodian resettlers have adjusted to living in western and eastern states near the coast as well, such as Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Texas and Washington, each state inhabiting 10% or more of the total Cambodian population. 

The Hmong population settled primarily in the midwest states of Wisconsin and Minnesota, each holding an equally large proportion of the entire population. Lastly, Laotian groups have dispersed equally across various states, mainly maintaining a large number of their resettlers in California. The first group of refugees to arrive were mostly professional Vietnamese individuals between 1975 and 1978, but a majority came after the end of the Vietnam War. The second wave of refugees came after the end of the Vietnam war as conditions that extended into economic and political sectors in their home countries forced many to find refuge elsewhere.


Cambodian refugees in a camp located on the Thailand border with Cambodia in 1979- Berta Romero-Fonte.



In order to help resettle the incoming refugees SEARAC was founded in Washington, D.C. as the Indochina Refugee Action Center in 1979 by a group of concerned Americans who lived in the United States who felt that the country had to do more for the incoming refugees. The organization began much of its work interacting directly with the refugees that arrived in the United States in the early 1980’s and expanded into reaching its work into the government, advocating for policies and assistance for the Southeast Asian community. 

In doing so, the organization was able to successfully advocate for the Refugee Act of 1980 and push for the Office of Refugee Settlement to be added into the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, allowing for resources and economic assistance to be allocated to these communities. The organization has taken significant steps to continue advising on policies in support of the Southeast Asian communities, with a large part of their focus on education, immigration and health related issues.


Advocates for the All Students Count Campaign from SEARAC that pushed for the disaggregation of “Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander ethnic groups” in educational data. – SEARAC.


SEARAC steers much of their advocacy to tackle the issue of categorizing Southeast Asian American students among other Asian American students, creating discrepancies in the reports of their achievements and adversities, erasing much of their personalized experiences. Consequently, this makes it difficult for Southeast Asian students to receive personalized assistance from academic programs if their data is not geared to serve this community independently.

As described by SEARAC’s mission statement for educational advancement, students face “language barriers, insufficient support for parent engagement, gaps in mental health treatment, race-based bullying and harassment, and socio-economic barriers that prevent students from accessing and completing higher education. Only 14% of Laotian, 17% of Hmong and Cambodian, and 27% of Vietnamese Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 54% of Asian Americans overall.”

SEARAC’s work also includes a strong stance against unjust immigration conditions imposed on Southeast Asian communities from institutional entities on the refugee community that arrived. The organization has made various efforts through policy advocacy to ensure that each individual case is considered based on unique experiences. The organization has also made an effort to continue advocating for the United States to uphold laws that allow for individuals to receive green-cards through family sponsorship. 


SEARAC advocates speaking out against the deportation of Southeast Asian individuals in front of Capitol Hill on February 2019. – SEARAC.


SEARAC also focuses much of their advocacy efforts to target the issues that arise specifically in the community’s experience with medical treatments. In relation to the mismanagement of Southeast Asian data, the community is often left underserved and given inadequate resources that fail to take into consideration the distinctive situations that the community faces. In SEARAC’s statement concerning health disparities in the community, especially among the elderly, they highlighted the following issues with the health treatments of the community:

“The traumatic experiences of war, genocide, and displacement left many Southeast Asian Americans with physical and mental health conditions that have gone untreated. Certain Southeast Asian American groups suffer disproportionately from hepatitis B and cervical cancer. Unfortunately, most state and federal health systems fail to tease out data on Southeast Asian Americans from “Asian Americans” overall, making it difficult to understand and address these disparities.”


“Made By Refugees” poster created by My Tien Pham.


What began as an organization run by an American community, quickly expanded and integrated the voices of many Southeast Asian advocates and community members into the decision making process and advising. In an interview with Kham Moua, the director of national policy at SEARAC, he spoke to Latina Republic about the organization’s work and how it worked to serve the Southeast Asian community. 


Kham Moua, director of National Policy at SEARAC.


“We think of ourselves as a nexus and a hub between our local and state communities and the D.C. beltway. Our role as a policy advocacy organization doesn’t provide us a lot of direct service work with our community members. What we do is make sure that our board is reflective of our community members. [The board] includes individuals who lead local and state organizations and serve Southeast Asian communities, business owners from our communities, and directly impacted folks like people who have removal orders through our leadership and advocacy training,” he explained.


The immigrant experience for Southeast Asian individuals is one often grouped with the experience of all immigrants, erasing the unique adversities that make their fight that much more difficult. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 imposed harsh penalties on those who committed crimes in the country, directly affecting the Southeast Asian community. 

This disproportionately affected these communities as many who arrived or where the children of immigrants grew up in low-income areas. Many fell victim to the harsh cycles of crime imposed on them by the environments they grew up in, left without support from the United States in resettlements. As a result, many who committed crimes before 1996 were now open to receive an order of deportation as the law had no statute of limitation.


Advocates at a Sacramento rally to stop the deportation of Southeast Asians with past criminal deportations in October 2018. – Don Thompson/Associated Press.


Deportations did not begin immediately until the United States began to develop relations with these countries and create agreements that would allow for the removal of these individuals to their respective countries. Moua explained the following about the situation:

“The US government generally has had some difficulty removing Southeast Asians, until a series of bilateral agreements were put in place. For example, in 2002, the US entered into a bilateral agreement with Cambodia to allow removals of Cambodians and so we saw a large spike immediately afterwards and we’ve seen the deportation of Cambodians continue an increase in every administration because of it. 


Vietnamese refugees nearing a rescue ship in 1978. – Fred Irht.


In 2008, the US entered a bilateral agreement with Vietnam so we’ve seen an increase in deportations ever since that as well. And although there’s no formal agreement with Laos in 2017 or 2018, they placed visa sanctions on Laos and then in early 2020 they increased the visa sanctions and essentially placed an immigration ban on Laos which basically allows pressure on the country to accept more people back.

That’s part of the reason why we also saw more deportations over the years because they have entered into agreements that made it easier for the countries or for the US to remove these individuals. That’s also part of the reason why you’ve got folks who have final orders of removal for convictions from like two, three decades ago at this point, who now have families who have US citizen children and spouses and who are trying to just live day to day sort of without being able to plan for their futures.

Moua went on to explain the initial hardships that placed these individuals in these situations in the first place, and how the lack of data disaggregation makes it difficult to cater to this community: 

“There were just barriers for these communities coming into the US, and a lot of them also were dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues related to war and genocide. The settlement system was not equipped to deal with these populations either because of lack of knowledge about them, lack of ability to to deal with the issues that they were going through, and because the US refugee resettlement policy at the time was an assimilation based policy. 

So the idea was to spread them as much as possible in order to force assimilation into the American society, and part of that meant that they weren’t able to initially come together and build ethnic enclaves to support each other. A lot of these folks ended up in low income overpoliced neighborhoods with little access to support either financially, educationally or job wise. And we continue to see the barriers that our communities have faced since they were resettled. We have high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder within our communities. High rates of mental health issues within our communities that are often unaddressed. 

For us, that, combined with their status as refugees, leads to a very particular set of experiences that often gets obscured when refugees aren’t considered within the way the different policies affect different communities. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have the highest discrepancies within our community. We have some of the highest poverty rates, some of the lowest educational income rates and at the same time, we have some of the highest income rates and some of the highest educational attainment rates as well. 

And so that information is erased when the information is aggregated. That’s one of the other big pieces that we think the [Biden] administration can be taking more steps on initially. One of the primary issues and work is on the deportation of South Asian Americans. There are over fifteen thousand Southeast Asians who will have an order of removal from the US. About 80 percent of those are because of prior criminal convictions and our stance has been that the Biden administration, really all administrations, should stop deporting Southeast Asian refugees and really stop deporting people. Generally, we believe that there should be disentanglement of the immigration system and the criminal legal system.”


Illustration rallying support for the ending of Cambodian deportations by Natalie Bui.


SEARAC has opposed much of the work done by the Trump administration where the organization constantly voiced its disdain for the harmful choices it was making against the Southeast Asian community. From an open disapproval of former President Trump’s State of Union speech to the anger towards the administration’s sanction on Laotian visas, SEARAC has condemned much of the administration’s actions. 

On the other hand, SEARAC has been more hopeful that the Biden administration will be more susceptible to receiving guidance from the communities that see themselves affected by the decisions made. 

The immigrant experience across all communities differs greatly and Moua explains an instance of reflection between the Latino and Southeast Asian communities experiences during from a preceding interview: 

“One of the conversation pieces is the similarity between Southeast Asian Americans and why we’re here in the US. The Central American asylum seekers are escaping to the US and part of the reason why there are individuals trying to come to the US from Central America and people who are resettling to the US from Southeast Asia has been because the U.S. destabilized the region through military intervention in foreign conflict.


Young advocates protesting against the deportation of Southeast Asian immigrants. – SEARAC.


You know, our communities have similar areas to other countries, other communities like Somali-Americans who were refugees and who are refugees because the US and other Western countries created conflict in the region. There are a lot of similarities in the way that Southeast Asian communities are treated compared to other communities of color. Certainly, the experiences are not the same because of the way that race is treated in the US and the way the black and brown people are treated in particular.


Art depicting the journey many refugees faced after the end of the Vietnam War. -Tran Mai Hanh.


But there are similarities in the same way that Southeast Asians have also faced over-policing and that our youth are oftentimes put on gang databases or are considered gang affiliated as well. So there are definitely parallels and I think making sure that that’s part of the dialogue is important. Making sure it’s part of the dialogue and the narrative is really just understanding that in similar ways our communities are impacted as well.”


Kimberly Gabriela Martinez | University of California, Irvine

Kimberly is an undergraduate student majoring in Political Science at UCI. She grew up in a predominantly Latinx community in Southeast LA and is the daughter of two Honduran immigrants. Having seen the obstacles that many immigrants face first-hand has inspired her to pursue a career in immigration law. She hopes to amplify the voices of those in the community during a time where immigration has become one of the most polarizing issues in modern politics. Making sure that underrepresented stories and voices are heard is important in removing the negative stigma around the immigrant community and she hopes to contribute to this change.