Refugees or Asylum-Seekers

The following is an excerpt from Detention Empire: Reagan’s War on Immigrants & the Seeds of Resistance by Kristina Shull, available now everywhere books are sold.

Refugees or Asylum-Seekers

The massive scope and devastations of the Vietnam War indelibly scarred US political and social life, reshaping subsequent US refugee politics. Growing public divisions over the war also help to explain the seeming paradox of immigration detention’s return in the human rights era. The United States’ acceptance of half a million refugees from Cuba between 1959 and 1973 solidified a status quo of anti-communist refugee politics, but new refugee patterns in the 1970s, specifically Soviet, Chilean (to a limited extent), and Southeast Asian, somewhat transcended the binary Cold War logic of prior US refugee acceptance. However, the militarization of refugee camps in the wake of the Vietnam War, coupled with narratives of US benevolence, created a powerful new blueprint for the erasure of state power.

A proliferation of new terms such as “parolee” and “entrant” signifying refugee status (or non-status) after the Vietnam War further reflects the increasing ways the United States wielded or sidestepped refugee law under exceptional circumstances, often in alignment with its foreign policy aims. In the 1970s, the United States’ management of two refugee groups with different fates laid the groundwork for the reinscription of a detention regime: Vietnamese refugees and Haitian asylum-seekers. Note here the definitional distinction between “refugee” and “asylum-seeker,” the first being a person already granted refugee status under US or international law and the second being a person in search of status. In subsequent chapters, I intentionally collapse these terms, using them interchangeably to argue for an expanded definition of the concept and to challenge the state’s denial of refugee status for Cubans, Haitians, and Central Americans, especially as detention policy formation hinged upon the exceptional exclusion of these migrant groups. Here, however, the distinction is important. While Vietnamese refugees were accepted as “citizens in the making” by the United States and held on military bases during resettlement, Haitians were largely denied refugee status and held in jails, prisons, and detention centers (and later on military bases as well). Although often cast as deserving and undeserving opposites, together they illustrate the range of spaces used to incarcerate noncitizens. In fact, the mobilization of this false binary is central to processes of erasure and denial; both groups experienced trauma, racism, and extraordinary state violence in spaces of incarceration. The immense costs of US militarism borne by Vietnamese refugees have also been flattened and erased by “model minority” stereotypes of Asian Americans that misread silence as docility rather than trauma.

This political cartoon, originally published in the Palm Beach Post on February 2, 1979, and reprinted in an American Committee for the Protection of Foreign Born newsletter that November, critiques both the racism and the hypocrisy of INS blanket denials of Haitian asylum-seekers fleeing the US-backed totalitarian dictatorship of Jean-Claude Duvalier. Pat Crowley. Reprinted with permission from USA Today Network/University of Miami Special Collections.

The resettlement of Vietnamese refugees served as a critical turning point for refugee politics and detention landscapes, as the United States would again draw upon its archipelagic network of offshore power in its militarized management of refugee crises after the war. Between 1975 and 1992, the United States accepted over 1 million refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. The military’s central role in the allegedly benevolent process of resettlement resulted in “militarized refuge(es)”—a term encapsulating the co-constitutive impact of militarism on sites of resettlement and on bodies. As Jana Lipman writes, the benevolent framing of Vietnamese refugee camps “worked to displace the violence of war with a humanitarian operation as the dominant image of the military.”

Kristina Shull is assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.