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Opinion: 46 years ago, Americans didn’t want refugees; thankfully, that has changed

In 1975, polls showed people didn’t want Vietnamese refugees to resettle here. Today, support for Afghan refugees is strong, and that’s a good thing

Azim Kakaie is the first special immigrant visa holder from Afghanistan to arrive at Salt Lake City International Airport.
Azim Kakaie, right, is the first special immigrant visa holder from Afghanistan to arrive at the Salt Lake City International Airport. He is pictured with his case manager, Abakar Djimet.
Catholic Community Services Utah

Azim Kakaie is now a Utahn.

An air traffic controller at the main Kabul airport until a few days ago, he became the first Afghan refugee since the pullout of U.S. forces to come to Utah.

He looked a little overwhelmed in a photo provided by Catholic Community Services, holding a bouquet of flowers while standing in the terminal.

He didn’t look nearly as confused as a group of Sudanese refugees who, more than a decade ago, were brought to my subdivision by a neighbor working with a relief agency. I still have a mental picture of them huddling together in their backyard on a 70-degree day, complaining of the “cold weather.”

I often wonder where they and their children are today. Like most of the more than 60,000 refugees living in Utah, they are likely in various stages of assimilation, blending into the background while quietly weaving a new, vibrant tapestry into the cultural fabric of our lives.

Resettling isn’t easy, but we can hope Kakaie finds himself welcomed in a state whose governor wrote a letter to Washington offering to accept refugees, and whose first pioneer settlers were, themselves, outcasts.

In any event, he will likely have an easier time of it than the people who came to the United States after the Vietnam War nearly a half-century ago.

Why isn’t exactly clear.

In May of 1975, as the Vietnam War was ending, a Harris Poll found 85% of Americans felt the Gerald Ford administration was too panicked over rescuing Vietnamese refugees, and 62% said they would steal jobs from Americans.

This sentiment found its way into several newspapers of the day, as I found with a search on newspapers.com. One man wrote to The Times of Shreveport, Louisiana: “With the necessary feeding, maintaining homes and finding jobs for these refugees, it would cost the government of the United States at least $605 million to do so. This will plunge our government deeper into debt, tighten up the job market.”

By contrast, a CBS News poll conducted Aug. 18-20 of this year found 81% in favor of helping Afghan refugees come to the United States.

Few people today worry about Afghans taking jobs. That would be ridiculous at a time when reports show the United States has more job openings than it has unemployed people.

Instead, the vocal minority today comes from right-wing Republicans who claim Mideast terrorist groups will seize the opportunity to infiltrate the ranks of refugees in a plot to destroy the United States from within.

Stephen Miller, an adviser to former President Donald Trump, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying resettlement “is about accomplishing an ideological objective — to change America.”

Let’s hope so.

Nearly a half-century ago, as a high school kid, I had never tasted Vietnamese food. I had never met people who escaped communism on a leaky boat, narrowly escaping death so they could come to America and build a prosperous life. Today I have, many times, and my life is much richer for it.

Back then, we might never have imagined someone like Thu-Huong Ha, who five years ago wrote of her family’s harrowing escape from Vietnam for Qz.com. Six days before the South fell, her aunt begged and pleaded with a U.S. official to approve immigration papers for herself and 12 other family members, including Ha’s mother.

“She told him that if her brother — my father — never saw his baby again, it would be on his head,” she wrote. Despite having been rejected before, this time she was accepted.

This is the story of America, retold and relived again and again by the world’s huddled masses.

It is the story I heard four years ago from Eumbo Kasongo, a Congolese refugee who had escaped rebels who kidnapped him at age 9 and held him for years. When he came to Salt Lake City, he had never spent a day in school, yet when I met him he was a surgical technician at St. Mark’s Hospital, having overcome overwhelming obstacles through an unquenchable will.

I don’t know why people today are so much more accepting of Afghan refugees than they were of others in the past. Maybe it’s the nature of the conflict. Maybe it’s the strength of our economy. Or maybe it’s the shared experience of seeing how every immigrant who comes here adds much more than he or she could ever take from us.

Today, the nation’s Vietnamese immigrants have a higher median household income than American-born residents, according to statistics compiled by migrationpolicy.org. All those worries from long ago seem silly.

The Salt Lake area is one of 19 “welcoming communities” for immigrants on a State Department list. Kakaie will find a community, including many Afghans already living here, to help him assimilate. Many more are coming. We’re lucky.