Pennsylvania was arguably created by its white settlers on the lofty principle of accepting the world’s seekers, starting with William Penn’s 1682 creation of a political utopia offering religious freedom not only to his fellow, persecuted Quakers but to all. The pay-it-forward spirit of “Penn’s Woods” has inspired many moments of Quaker-led refugee resettlement, but by 1975 the broader notion of Penn’s Philadelphia as a welcome center had lost its luster.
Battered by the end of the Industrial Revolution and with a reputation for ethnic conflict in an era of Frank Rizzo and “Broad Street Bullies,” America’s founding city watched at first as other urban locales — like New York’s borough of Queens, or Los Angeles and Orange County to the west — saw immigration as the secret sauce to rebirth. But the choice of Pennsylvania’s Fort Indiantown Gap as a main processing center for tens of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after Saigon fell in 1975 — arguably a quirk in federal policy — caused some pioneers from Southeast Asia and their U.S. helpers to see opportunity on Philadelphia’s potholed streets that others had missed.
Hung Phan was only 11 on April 30, 1975, when the Communist regime toppled the South Vietnam government, and for the next 13 years he was harassed as the son of a “puppet army soldier” while his dad was sent to a brutal reeducation camp, his 70-something grandfather was imprisoned, and his family’s house was taken. Coming to Philadelphia in the late 1980s offered a new life. Now a 57-year-old math teacher and a leader of the Vietnamese Communities of the USA, Phan said: “In a country full of freedoms, democracy and human rights in which we live now, my parents — as well as most other Vietnamese parents — defied all struggles and tried their best through slim chances.”
The immigration beachhead established by refugees arguably inspired others seeking political or economic freedom, such as Mexican immigrants who also moved to South Philadelphia beginning in the 1990s. While census numbers suggested only about 2,000 Vietnamese lived in Philadelphia at the end of the Vietnam War, those numbers surged to nearly 17,000, according to a 2016 survey that found only seven California cities and Houston had larger Vietnamese communities. The just-released 2020 census showed that Philadelphia is seeing substantial population growth for the first time since the 1940s, and Asian and Latino immigrant communities drove the increase. In other words, Vietnamese refugees helped Philly get its groove back.
Ironically, the census numbers were released in a week when many Americans were thinking a lot about the fall of Saigon and the U.S.-supported South Vietnamese government just over 46 years ago. The rapid collapse of the regime in Kabul after the American troop withdrawal ordered by President Biden has created the exact same dilemma as the end of the Vietnam War: how to handle tens of thousands of our allies — folks who helped the U.S. military or journalists or aid groups working there during the 20-year American-led conflict — who would not be safe in Afghanistan and are seeking to leave as refugees, hopefully to the United States.
As the initial scenes of mass chaos at Kabul International Airport, including the tragedy of freedom seekers so desperate they tried clinging to a U.S. aircraft as it took off, riveted the world, it was heartening to see how many political leaders, in other nations and here in America — including both warring political parties — offered to welcome some of what could be as many as 100,000 refugees from war-ravaged Afghanistan. One U.S. governor’s words this past week were particularly inspiring.
This governor wrote that his state “was settled by refugees fleeing religious persecution. We understand the pain caused by forced migration and appreciate the contributions of refugees in our communities. Today we sent a letter to @POTUS expressing our desire in helping those who are fleeing Afghanistan.”
That leader was Utah’s Republican chief executive, Spencer Cox. In comparison, Pennsylvania’s Gov. Tom Wolf, the moral heir to William Penn, has been ... OK. After initially saying little, Wolf tweeted Thursday morning (about an hour after I reached out to his press office, probably a coincidence): “PA is in contact with federal and local partners to coordinate resources to resettle Afghan refugees seeking safety from violence. Our commonwealth has long served as a refuge for those seeking peace and stability amid crisis, and we will continue to help in any way possible.”
I hope to see Pennsylvania act more boldly, and start talking about accepting healthy numbers of these displaced Afghans, in the weeks ahead. I do worry that Democrats have been cowed by years of GOP political abuse over admitting refugees into the United States. Even President Biden — who said all the right things on the 2020 campaign trail about making America a more welcoming nation again — stunned supporters in the early days of his administration by saying he’d keep the U.S. refugee cap at the Trump-era historical low of 15,000, only shifting gears after pressure from progressives. Still, the slow start has kept both the United States and Pennsylvania at paltry levels for accepting refugees in 2021. Some of the slowness in shifting gears may explain why we were so far behind the 8-ball on Afghan resettlement when Kabul fell.
In the coming days and weeks, those same old xenophobic pressures from the far right to keep some Afghan people from coming to the United States will only grow louder. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the standard-bearer for lowering the IQ of America’s political conversation, said, “First we invade them, then we are invaded.” The challenge for Democrats like Wolf and Biden and for big-hearted Republicans like Utah’s Cox will be to ignore these voices and do the right thing. To stay on course, the lessons of Pennsylvania and its Vietnamese population (as well as Cambodians, Laotians, and others from the troubled region) will be instructive.
It may be an accident of history that triggered the refugee boom in Pennsylvania. After the Vietnam War ended, the U.S. government selected Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County in the east-central part of the state as a main resettlement center, and some 32,000 refugees from Vietnam and surrounding countries passed through there in the months immediately after the 1975 fall of Saigon. The location and its proximity to Philadelphia’s hub of refugee resettlement groups gave the city a prominence it might not otherwise have had.
The foothold established by the first few thousand arrivals only became more noticeable after the Hoa Bihn Plaza opened in 1990, the first of several thriving Southeast Asian shopping and restaurant strip-mall style complexes centered on the intersection of Washington Avenue and Eighth Street in South Philadelphia. The rise of that merchant and restaurateur class, augmented by other success stories from a rising generation educated in Philadelphia schools, and nurtured by vibrant community organizations, turned Philadelphia into the largest Vietnamese population center on the East Coast.
It was a lot harder than it sounds. There were conflicts with the local U.S.-born population in Philadelphia, including at University City High School, where a series of fights between new Asian arrivals and the predominantly Black student body made headline news in the Philadelphia Bulletin in January 1982, which wrote: “East meets West with a vengeance.” There was also street harassment, and problems finding housing that was up to snuff during a time when the Nationalities Service Center was resettling about 75 Southeast Asian people in the city every week.
“Language barriers and cultural shocks can make newcomers’ lives difficult,” Phan, the community group leader, said — noting that harassment has continued to this day, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought increased verbal and physical attacks against people of Asian descent.
Those past lessons could become critically important in the coming weeks if Pennsylvania can do the right thing and welcome Afghans amid a refugee crisis with too many painful echoes of 1975. The history — as shown most recently and most brightly by the success of Philadelphia’s Vietnamese people — is clear: Pennsylvania only thrives with the renewal that comes from immigration. So let’s keep William Penn’s promise alive, yet again.
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