110. Memorandum From Secretary of State Vance to President Carter 1


  • Indochinese Refugees


Many Indochinese refugees who are escaping by sea are drowning because, with no guarantee that they will be accepted by any country, [Page 386] masters of passing ships refuse to pick them up. The crux of the problem is to break the logjam on resettlement of refugees so that Asian countries will grant temporary asylum to those who reach their shores. There is a related problem of additional refugees flowing into Thailand by land.

I believe the United States bears a special responsibility for both groups of refugees—a matter of basic human rights. I am therefore asking for your concurrence in a request to the Attorney General that he use his parole power on an urgent basis to admit 15,000 refugees into the U.S. to stop this tragic loss of life and suffering. Parole is utilized to admit aliens without respect to the numerical limitations for country or hemisphere or other grounds of inadmissibility, for humane considerations or for reasons rooted in the public interest. A discussion of funding implications begins on page 5.


Boat Cases

The Indochinese refugee problem is in every respect serious, but it is especially critical for the boat case refugees. Because resettlement offers for these refugees are not keeping pace with new arrivals—now estimated at more than 500 per month—the countries first reached by the boats are increasingly unwilling to allow the refugees to disembark for fear that they will be saddled with them for the indefinite future. Consequently, some refugees, after risking arrest or death to escape and then hazarding a voyage in small craft to a nearby country, are being forced back to the high seas. Frequently, large ships bypass boats in obvious distress because their masters doubt that rescued refugees could be disembarked and they cannot afford the economic burden of having refugees on board for weeks or even months.

Thai Camp Refugees

There are presently over 80,000 refugees languishing in camps in Thailand, receiving bare sustenance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Of these approximately 8,000 have a special claim to our help because they worked directly for us or were closely associated with our efforts during the war, or who are immediate relatives of persons in the U.S. None of these people is currently eligible to enter the U.S. under existing immigration law.

Third Country Actions

We will continue efforts both bilaterally and through the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to get nearby countries to accord the boat case refugees temporary safehaven and to get other countries to participate more fully in the resettlement program of all categories of refugees. But many of the countries in the area are both overburdened by the [Page 387] refugees already within their borders and fearful of the social, economic and political consequences of harboring them for extended periods of time. Some other countries, France in particular, but also Australia, Canada and West Germany, have been generous in accepting permanent resettlement, but this has not been adequate to meet the problem. Meanwhile, the flow of refugees from Indochina continues.

U.S. Response

In light of the above it is clear that the U.S. must accept a substantial number of these refugees if this serious problem is to be alleviated. The most practical way to do this is by parole. The parole authority is vested in the Attorney General, under section 212 (d) (5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA).2

Consultations with Congress are commonly undertaken prior to the exercise of the parole authority, though not statutorily necessary. In the past, the United States has made special provision through parole programs for about 20,000 refugees stranded in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, in addition to 125,000 who fled as Indochina was falling. In 1976, when approaching Congress on the intent to parole an additional 11,000 Indochinese (bringing the total to 145,000) the previous Administration indicated to Congress that it would not use parole authority to admit further large numbers of Indochinese. That statement was based on calculations which subsequently have proven to be serious underestimations of the continuing outflow of refugees. The situation is once again urgent.

In my view, both the past American role in Indochina and this Administration’s deep commitment to human rights require that we take immediate action.

I therefore urge that you authorize me to request the Attorney General to exercise his parole authority to admit up to 7,000 refugees who have escaped their homeland by boat, and another 8,000 who escaped by other means and are now in camps in Thailand, and who have a legitimate claim to our protection. By taking this action—making the United States a haven of last resort if other resettlement arrangements cannot be made within a reasonable period of time—we should be able to convince nearby countries to open again their gates and provide temporary asylum. This, in turn, would once again allow ships’ masters to pick up refugees in distress without fear of economic penalty. It would also enable us to take early action to assist those refugees in Thai camps who have a special claim on us. Combining these two [Page 388] categories reduces the likelihood that we will have to go through the difficult process of approaching the Congress again.


As soon as approval is given for a request to the Attorney General, I will launch a series of consultations with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other key governments to reinvigorate their programs of temporary asylum and permanent resettlement. Japan would be approached both to make additional financial contributions to the UN High Commissioner’s program for Indochinese refugees and to accept additional refugees on a temporary basis.

At the same time, I will work with the Attorney General and HEW to develop a strategy for consultation with the Congress. In the past there has been some Congressional reluctance to class parole of Indochinese refugees based on high domestic unemployment levels. Based on this country’s special obligations to the victims of the Indochina war, however, I am convinced that a continuance of the earlier parole efforts will be seen as a particularly special situation.

Moreover, I believe resettlement of these additional refugees in the U.S. at this time would not create any serious domestic problems. Since they would arrive here in small groups at widely spaced intervals—as opposed to the massive, sudden influx of 1975—the refugees would go relatively unnoticed. There would be no need for any type of refugee camp as existed in 1975. Voluntary agencies would handle the entire resettlement of the refugees once they reach the U.S. For example, when the previous Administration in 1976 paroled 11,000 additional refugees into the country, the entire number was resettled quietly—and efficiently—by the voluntary agencies with only a very modest official role. Nor would there probably be significant additional welfare costs. Over 86% of all Indochinese refugee households in the U.S. now receive income from employment and only 13.6% are solely dependent on cash assistance (36% receive some form of assistance). Finally, the employment situation is much improved over the past two years and prospects are for more improvement.

If serious objections should be raised by Congress because of the numbers involved, we believe priority should be given to solution of the boat case problem since lives are at stake. We should, however, avoid promising that further parole action will not be necessary. If rates of escape remain high, we may again have to resort to this approach (although as noted this will be difficult).


There are basically two funding costs involved in paroling refugees: transporting them to the U.S. (approximately $400 per person); and [Page 389] payment of initial resettlement expenses through grants to the voluntary agencies ($250 per person). For FY 1977 we have enough funds for all refugees we could expect to process (up to 7,000). The Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration and the UNHCR have money available from U.S. contributions in 1977 to cover transportation expenses for up to 5,000 refugees. The U.S. Refugee Migration Assistance Emergency Fund has a current balance of $5 million, a portion of which could be used for travel and related costs for an additional 2,000 refugees as well as the resettlement grants for all 7,000.

Congress will probably appropriate at least $10 million to replenish the Emergency Fund for FY 1978. Depending on other requirements for the fund, this could be enough to resettle some or all of the other 8,000 refugees during FY 1978. If the fund is not sufficient, we could request a supplemental appropriation, since the Emergency Fund has a standing authorization of $25 million.


That you authorize me to request the Attorney General to exercise his parole authority under Section 212(d) (5) of the Immigration and Nationality Act to admit up to 15,000 Indochinese refugees, giving priority to boat cases but also including others who have a legitimate claim to our protection.3

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Brzezinski Office File, Country Chron File, Box 19, Indochina. Limited Official Use.
  2. P.L. 89–236, also known as the Hart-Celler Act.
  3. There is no indication that Carter approved or disapproved the recommendation.