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Southeast Asians in the United States

The year 2020 marked the 45th anniversary of Southeast Asian refugees’ arrival in the U.S., which is still the largest U.S. refugee group to be resettled since then. While it has been over 45 years since thousands of Southeast Asian refugees settled in the United States, the community continues to face major socioeconomic challenges that have long been disregarded due to the “model minority myth,” which portrays all Asian Americans as successful.

When Southeast Asians began arriving in the United States in 1975, they were met with hostility and racism. Refugees were viewed as voluntary migrants by the general public and were expected to quickly become economically self-sufficient and independent. As the refugees arrived in the US, the country’s resettled process was conducted ad hoc by the State Department and voluntary organizations. Due to the lack of understanding of their problems and needs, many refugees were considered a burden to American society.

Cambodian refugees, the majority arriving in the US in the early 1980s, had come out of a genocide that claimed approximately 2 million victims. Many Cambodian and Laotian refugees had also been displaced multiple times from their home countries before arriving in the US. It was not a realistic expectation to assume that refugees would be able to pick up their lives and start rebuilding their communities right away. Social support, financial assistance, and other kinds of community resources were needed to aid with resettlement.

In 1980, a historic moment took place with the passage of the Refugee Act, a bipartisan bill, that formalized the country’s resettlement procedures. It established a goal of helping refugees achieve economic self sufficiency within three years. The act also raised the ceiling for annual refugee admissions from 17,400 to 50,000 from 1980 to 1982.

The report, “Southeast Asian American Journeys, A National Snapshot of Our Communities” outlines the experience of the community, beginning with the migration to the U.S. to the present day. Nearly 1.1 million Southeast Asian Americans are low-income and about 460,000 live in poverty. Of all the racial groups, Hmong Americans fare worst across multiple measures of income.

Southeast Asian Americans became the largest resettled refugee population in American history, with more than 1.1 million Southeast Asians moving to the U.S. over three decades.

Southeast Asian Americans still struggle with socioeconomic insecurity and inequitable educational opportunities while remaining heavily dependent on public health insurance for survival. The community continues to be affected by decades-old mandatory detention and deportation policies.

As a result of continued socioeconomic insecurity, Southeast Asian Americans struggle with housing instability, according to the report. All subgroups also have lower than average homeownership rates, except for Vietnamese Americans, who are at an average rate of 65 percent.

When it comes to educational attainment, the report found that Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong have the lowest high school and college graduation rates.

In regards to health, the report found that Southeast Asian Americans are less likely to have health insurance compared to the average population and Asian Americans overall. The uninsured rates dropped among all subgroups after the passage of the Affordable Care Act. The largest decreases were among Cambodian Americans (20 percent to 15 percent) and Laotian Americans (18 percent to 14 percent).

While the report outlines the community’s continued struggle, it is also important to note that it includes data and input from community members that highlight Southeast Asian American potential, successes, and advocacy work.

Narratives as well as data draw attention to the community’s collective resilience as survivors of war as well as survivors of acculturation and poverty in the U.S.

The report also highlights that the Southeast Asian American community posts higher rates of voting age members compared to Asian Americans overall.

As Southeast Asian Americans have resettled in the U.S. and continue to contribute to the country we call home, there is a lot of potential to empower ourselves in various industries as we build a better community for ourselves and the future generations.


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