By The Herald Editorial Board
Forty-six years ago, Washington state — “alone among the 50 states,” reported The New York Times — launched an effort at the insistence of Gov. Dan Evans to bring Vietnamese refugees to this state a little more than a month after the fall of Saigon and the South Vietnamese government and the departure of U.S. forces.
Evans began the effort in reaction to widespread hostility to the arrival in the United States of the refugees, who were being housed temporarily at military bases across the country, including California’s Camp Pendleton.
“This was not the attitude we wanted associated with our state,” Evans, a Republican, told the New York daily.
Evans sent an aide, Ralph Munro, who would later serve as secretary of state, to the California base to arrange for 500 refugees to be invited to Washington state for resettlement. The Times report describes how state employment offices were apprised of refugees’ skills, Boeing and other large employers were contacted about available jobs and lists of sponsors among state residents were compiled.
More refugees would follow that first group to Washington state in following months and years, including those fleeing war and oppression in Cambodia and Laos. As of 2004, according to a report, more than 78,000 people of Southeast Asian descent make their home in Washington state, contributing much to the state’s cultural diversity and its economy.
Just days after the collapse of Afghanistan’s government in Kabul, comparisons already are being made to the events in Vietnam, in particular the plight of Afghan citizens who risked their lives to serve as interpreters, guides and advisers for U.S. military forces, work in the U.S. embassy or otherwise assist Americans in Afghanistan during the 20-year war.
As it did in 1975, Washington state should again lead the nation in inviting Afghanistan’s allies and refugees here to find a new home that honors their sacrifices and our government’s promises.
An echo of the challenge made by Evans, that effort has started with a call from the state’s Republican legislative leaders to take swift action to prepare for the arrival of Afghan refugees in Washington state.
“The shocking and sudden collapse of the Afghan government promises to bring about renewed oppression for ordinary Afghans and a tragic dashing of hope for women and girls across the country. Images of Afghan civilians clinging to U.S. aircraft in a desperate bid for freedom will forever be seared into our national conscience,” wrote state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, and state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, who are the party’s legislative leaders, in a letter Monday to Gov. Jay Inlsee, the state’s Democratic legislative leaders and the state’s congressional delegation.
Wilcox and Braun see such an effort as honoring the service of the state’s veterans who fought in Afghanistan.
“Having communicated with these brave men and women, we are struck by the warmth and compassion they feel for the Afghans who stood up to assist them during their service overseas, including the many, many interpreters,” the letter continues. “By helping the Afghan people escape the Taliban, we can do more than express our solemn gratitude to our veterans here in Washington state. We can show them that their service was not in vain.”
The state’s Democratic officials appear ready to join in the call.
“The thing the state can do is to welcome immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers and welcome them with services,” state Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, the House majority leader, told public radio station KNKX (88.5 FM) on Monday. Jinkins said the state recently increased support for organizations serving immigrant communities and would seek in the next session to “backfill” those groups’ expenditures in service to Afghan allies coming to the state.
Likewise, the state’s U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell joined with 44 other Senate colleagues in a letter to the Biden administration, urging it to streamline the paperwork process for Special Immigrant Visas, particularly for Afghan women leaders who are facing threats, kidnapping, torture and assassination from the Taliban “for their work in defending and promoting democracy, equality, higher education and human rights.”
About 2,000 Afghan allies have arrived in the United States under the special visa program in the last two weeks. About 9,000 have resettled in the U.S. since 2009. And more than 80,000 could follow. Many, because of their work with the U.S. military or State Department, have been previously vetted and have received security clearances. Others should receive such background checks in an expedited process or after arrival in the U.S.
Once here, however, communities, organizations and individuals will need to come forward to welcome and help resettle those who have already proved their loyalty to America and its democratic principles.
Among the organizations seeking volunteers and support in welcoming refugees in the state is Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It is specifically looking for volunteers in Western Washington to serve as sponsors for refugee families.
For all the tragedy that has accompanied the United States’ war in Afghanistan — in particular the chaos and calamity now playing out at the airport in Kabul — some good can still come, as it did following the equally chaotic fall of Saigon.
The New York Times’ article from 1975 quotes a University of Washington law professor, John Haley, who sponsored a family from Vietnam.
“We felt it was an American responsibility to help,” Haley told the Times. “And in some ways, you know, it is a privilege.”