Part IV: The United States Refugee Act of 1980 – Holbrooke’s Role A Review of George Packer (2019) Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century

The United States Refugee Act of 1980 (USRA1980), signed by Jimmy Carter on 17 March and made effective on 1 April 1980, amended the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) and the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act (MRAC) to alter an ad hoc system of admitting refugees into the U.S. The aim was to standardize the process of admitting refugees and people of humanitarian concern. The Act provided uniform and consistent procedures for the selection, resettlement and integration of those refugees, but was not concerned with asylum procedures, that is, with refugees who claimed Convention refugee status in the U.S. The Act also primarily set as a goal the effective resettlement of refugees to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States.

 Within six weeks of its signing into law, another source of a large refugee flow arrived on the shores of Florida, the Cuban boat people.

USRA1980 incorporated into U.S. law the UN definition of a refugee, raised the limits from 17,400 to 50,000 per year and provided mechanisms for the executive branch of government to exceed those limits in cases of humanitarian emergencies. The Act established the Office of the U.S. Coordinator of Refugee Affairs, whose responsibilities were temporarily assumed by the Secretary of State, but a year later was housed within the Department of Health and Human Services. As its foremost function, the Office administered the funds available for domestic resettlement costs, including ESL and employment training, in cooperation with state and local authorities. Reporting and oversight systems were put in place.

George Packer claimed that Holbrooke had “a lot to do” with USRA1980 and Jimmy Carter signing the Act into law. (p. 205) Was this the case? It is well known that Senator Edward Kennedy drafted a bill to reform refugee policy in 1978 and tabled his proposal in the United States Senate in 1979. The Carter administration had sent its proposed draft legislation to Congress in March of 1979. The eventual consolidation of the President’s proposal, the legislation tabled in the House of Representatives and Kennedy’s bill took only a year and was passed unanimously by the Senate, indicating no significant opposition to the legislation in spite of a majority of Americans opposing an increase in the refugee intake. The relative speed of passage was a clear indicator of the widespread support for new legislation in Congress.

Note how modest the legislation was – 10% of the annual immigration intake and only 1 refugee for every 4,000 Americans. Canada admitted 60,000 Indochinese refugees alone between July of 1979 and December of 1980, or about 40,000 per year, and about 1 refugee for every 600 Canadians. Was Jimmy Carter reluctant to sign the bill so that Holbrooke provided the extra heft to get it passed? Not if anyone knows anything about Carter’s empathy for refugees. Finally, the bill was mostly about resettlement and Holbrooke disdained domestic policy; he was a foreign policy wonk.

An academic colleague of mine at the time, David Martin, who taught immigration law at the University of Virginia, took a leave of absence then (or was he on sabbatical?) and served as special assistant to the assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs at the State Department. (Holbrooke was very busy as assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.) Martin, an expert in refugee law, was the principal drafter of the legislation that dealt with this program to move selected refugees (humanitarian in contrast to Convention refugees) from refugee camps overseas to resettlement programs in the U.S.

In Canada, the mandarins in Ottawa had become acutely aware that the refugee outflow from Vietnam was no longer primarily an after-effect of the Vietnam War as thousands of Vietnamese – primarily ethnic Chinese at first – crowded old unseaworthy commercial vessels to escape. In November of 1978, when Hong Kong would not allow the 2,600 refugees aboard the Hai Hong to disembark, Canada offered to resettle 25% of them. The U.S. civil servants were as well aware of the looming crisis as the Canadians. Americans at the time called for action from federal officials when it became clear that the 25,000 target for resettlement in 1978 was clearly insufficient.

At the same time, acceding to U.S. pressure, the U.S.S.R. began to permit large numbers of Soviet Jews to leave. Canada, in response to lobbying by the Jewish community, amended its 1976 draft legislation that was incorporated into law in 1978 to make provision for the private sponsorship of refugees. That became a major factor in Canada’s large and disproportionate uptake and resettlement of Indochinese refugees. The American legislation had no equivalent provision.

USRA1980 was a direct product of increased demand – Soviet Jews, Indochinese, the continuation of freedom flights from Cuba about to erupt from a trickle to a flood, let alone Argentinians and Chileans, Iraqi and Lebanese Christians, Ethiopians and other Eastern Europeans. Further, in spite of a majority of Americans who were unsympathetic to an increased refugee intake, there was an upsurge in popular feeling, especially among urban educated groups, politicians of all stripes, business leaders, professionals and academics, to reform the law and increase the number allowed to enter.

There was also a significant gap between existing legally permitted levels (17,400 annually) and the need to legislate an increase and regularize the process. Existing legislation, limited to refugees from Communist countries and the Middle East, also failed to provide for the movement of people fleeing oppressive regimes, such as those from Argentina and Chile. Reliance on the parole provision of section 212(d)(5) of the INA allowing the Attorney General at his discretion and in emergencies to admit aliens into the U.S., that is, to ameliorate threats to isolated individual cases, was clearly insufficient to handle large movements.

Further, the parole provisions for the Cubans in 1962 provided for 100% federal funding of, for example, medical assistance for the refugees, with no termination date, a patently unfair provision in comparison with assistance available even to American citizens. Most of those Cubans were by now citizens. There were other odd provisions for assistance to refugees, such as Jews from the Soviet Union. The motley provisions for aid were inconsistent and incoherent and led to clashes between the legislative and executive branches of government. Legislative order was needed.

There is no doubt that Richard Holbrooke was totally supportive of these changes. However, there is little evidence that he had “a lot to do” with the legislative changes, in particular, with Jimmy Carter signing the legislation into law. Yet reviewers seem to have accepted and summarized Packer’s account as an accurate representation.

For example, Fred Kaplan in Slate (9 May 2019), in “When America Took Responsibility for Refugees,” simply summarized Packer’s five pages without a single critical note. Though his review is mildly critical of Packer, David Klion, too, uncritically echoed Packer’s account of Holbrooke’s role with respect to refugees. “Holbrooke consistently defended human rights and played a central role in getting Jimmy Carter to sign the Refugee Act of 1980, which welcomed an eventual 1.5 million people from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia into the United States.” (“The Unwinding: Richard Holbrooke and the lost idealism of a generation,” The Nation, 13 August 2019) Once again Donald Camp: “What about the achievements? …His idealism came out in his…focus on Indochinese refugees, while Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter administration, culminated in the Refugee Act of 1980, which tripled the number of refugees admitted to the U.S.” (American Diplomacy, May 2019)

David Martin, who was intimately involved with the legislation, opined that, “combined frustrations account for the surprisingly wide consensus that new legislation was needed. Outside lobbying played at most a minor role; their own unhappy experience with the process furnished the key executive and congressional figures with ample motivation for hammering out the Refugee Act of 1980 and seeing it through to enactment.” (“The Refugee Act of 1980: Its Past and Future,” University of Michigan Journal of International Law, 3:1, 1984)

Further, as I indicated previously, the claim that Holbrooke brought the plight of the Cambodian refugees to the attention of the world was unwarranted. The 1975 Indochina Migration and Assistance Act already encompassed both Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees. Why was Packer claiming special credit for Holbrooke in this area?

There are several possibilities. Holbrooke in his notes, diaries and memoirs may have taken such credit himself. Former wives and friends interviewed by Packer may have said this as a result of what Holbrooke told them in his propensity for self-promotion. Since there are no citations included, I do not know. Packer may have exaggerated Holbrooke’s role to enhance the importance of the person whose biography he was writing and, therefore, the importance of his own work. His version may have made the account more dramatic. Finally, it could have been a device to match and, indeed, enhance Holbrooke’s own sense of his own self-importance.

I do not know the reason. However, Packer was incorrect on a number of matters on the refugee issue. After 1975, America did not close its gates to or turn its back on Vietnamese refugees. Packer exaggerated Holbrooke’s role in changing American Naval policy with respect to the Indochinese from simply picking up refugees in the path of American war vessels to actively seeking to rescue refugees at sea. The intake increase from 7,000 to 14,000 Indochinese refugees per month was not the result of Holbrooke badgering either the President or the Secretary of State. Packer also mischaracterized the activities of both the UNHCR and the NGOs.

The first and last points, as well as the one re American action and publicity shifting the world’s attention to the Cambodian refugees, suggests that the issue was not just a desire to enhance Holbrooke’s status and roles, clearly unnecessary given his actual accomplishments, but a matter of too little concern with ensuring that Packer’s claims bore a close resemblance to what actually occurred in history.

Why let a fact get in the way of a good story? And Packer’s biography of Holbrooke is an enthralling read and a significant accomplishment. But he is not a historian. He is a journalist. The book not only generally lacks citations, but there is no index to facilitate cross-checking. The book is also advertised as a tale of the end of the American century or half-century of dominance on the world stage. The book alludes to such a claim, but never explores or develops it. The book is and should be read only as a biography. However, as a biographer, is his account of Holbrooke’s career and character accurate or persuasive?

And it is to that biography I will return and largely ignore the question of accuracy or comprehensiveness with respect to history. There is an irony in all of this. For Packer makes a very strong case, that though Holbrooke personally often exaggerated and even lied, he was driven to establish for himself what the real facts on the ground were.

With the help of Alex Zisman


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