Claim: Many Vietnamese Americans believe that former vice president Joe Biden and the Democrats broadly opposed the arrival of Vietnamese refugees to the United States.
Rating: This claim is FALSE. Over 80% of all Democrats in Congress, including Biden, voted to pass major legislation that allowed the second wave of Vietnamese refugees to resettle in the US in the 1980s. Notably, Democrats introduced the bill in both houses of Congress and a Democratic President signed it into law. In contrast, Republicans in Congress supported the bill at a lower rate of 70%. The majority of those who voted against the bill were Republican.
After the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodians fled their homelands to escape political chaos and physical danger. The second wave of Vietnamese migration to the U.S. occurred in the late 1970s and ’80s with the arrival of the “boat people.”
Between 1975 and 1979, around 300,000 refugees arrived in the United States through presidential action, since federal law at the time capped the number of refugee admissions to 17,400 people. With US immigration law in 1979 unable to provide an adequate humanitarian response to the growing refugee crisis, the Jimmy Carter Administration and members of Congress sought to change the law and establish a clear and flexible policy of immigration and resettlement. This led to the enactment of the Refugee Act of 1980.
What is the Refugee Act of 1980?
Signed into law by President Jimmy Carter, who was a Democrat, the Refugee Act of 1980 expanded the definition of “refugee.” It raised the annual ceiling for refugees from 17,400 to 50,000, created a process for reviewing and adjusting the refugee ceiling to meet emergencies, established a procedure for granting asylum, and tied U.S. protection to United Nation treaty standards. The Refugee Act also funded a new Office of Refugee Resettlement and provided cash and medical assistance to all refugees during their first few years in America.
U.S. refugee admissions during the first year of the act’s existence in 1980, at the height of the Vietnamese exodus, exceeded 200,000. It then declined to 159,000 the next year, dropped to 98,000 the following year, and then varied widely in subsequent years.
Who supported it and who was against it?
Before President Carter signed it into law, the Refugee Act of 1980 had to go through Congress. We reviewed the Congressional Record to determine who supported it and who did not.
In the Senate, Senator Edward Kennedy, a Democrat, sponsored and introduced the bill, S. 643, for the Refugee Act of 1980. Fourteen other senators, 11 Democrats and three Republicans, were added as co-sponsors, making it a bipartisan effort. The Senate bill unanimously passed with a vote of 85-0, with 15 senators absent and not voting. The Congressional Record shows that Senator Joe Biden voted “yes,” along with a majority of senators in both parties. In comparison, 88% of all Democrats and 80% of all Republicans voted to pass the bill in the Senate.
In the House, two Democratic Representatives sponsored the companion bill, H.R. 2816. They were Representatives Peter Rodino and Elizabeth Holtzman (NY-16). In contrast to the Senate, the House did not unanimously pass it. It passed with a vote of 328-47, with 58 representatives not voting.
By party breakdown, 80% of all House Democrats and 68% of all House Republicans voted to pass the bill. Out of the 47 representatives who voted against it, a majority who opposed were Republicans. To be exact, 32 Republicans voted “no” to the Refugee Act of 1980, which represented 20% of all Republicans in the House. In comparison, only 5% of all Democrats in the House opposed the measure.
Overall, the official voting records from Congress on the Refugee Act of 1980 contradict the widespread belief that Democrats opposed Vietnamese refugees, which has hidden the reality that the opposition mostly came from Republicans.
The truth is that both parties voted to support Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s in large majorities. However, the rate of support from Democrats in Congress exceeded that of Republicans. Specifically, 80% of all Democrats in Congress voted to pass this legislation compared to 70% of all Republicans in Congress. Moreover, the majority of those who did vote against the legislation were Republican, not Democrat, as so many have falsely believed.
Conclusion: The voting records from the Congressional Records directly contradict the widespread belief that Democrats opposed Vietnamese refugees, which has in turn concealed the truth that the opposition mostly came from Republicans.
Congressional records revealed that an overwhelming majority of Democrats, including Joe Biden, voted to pass the Refugee Act of 1980, which welcomed and authorized the resettlement of the second wave of Vietnamese refugees in America. Democrats introduced this legislation in Congress and a Democratic President signed it into law.
Furthermore, Democrats in Congress supported this bill at a higher rate than Republicans. And the majority of those who voted against the Refugee Act of 1980 were actually Republican, not Democrat. For those reasons, the widespread belief that Democrats opposed Vietnamese refugees in the 1980s is FALSE. To learn if Democrats opposed the first wave of Vietnamese refugees in 1975, read our article here.