Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

The Exodus Cometh

By David G. Young

Washington DC, July 24, 2007 --  

A military withdrawal from Iraq will create a flood of refugees. America must find a way to welcome them.

The flags of the defunct republic flap defiantly in sky. The yellow banners with crimson stripes are widespread here, as they were 32 years ago before the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. It's called Little Saigon. Eight miles west of Washington, D.C., in the suburb of Falls Church, the strip shopping center is the teaming center of Washington's Vietnamese community, full of energetic families who trace their presence in the country to the refugee exodus in the face of advancing communist forces.

There are plenty of Vietnamese video shops, restaurants, and a deli that sells exotic dragon fruit and incredible Vietnamese grilled pork sandwiches. But as the Vietnamese community grows in affluence, becomes more assimilated, and spreads out, this nostalgic monument to South Vietnam will one day need to find a new purpose. Thirty years from now, this might be Little Baghdad.

As American senators, congressmen, and presidential candidates grapple with how to exit from a failed and ill-conceived war in Iraq, America will have to figure out how to deal with a flood of refugees that it hasn't seen since the years shortly after the fall of Saigon.

The American Ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker, has urged the Bush Administration to grant visas to all Iraqis employed by the American government to reassure them they have a way to flea retributive attacks in the event of an American pullout1 -- a pullout that everyone except Bush loyalists knows is inevitable. The United Nations estimates that 2.2 million Iraqis have already fled the country, the vast majority going to other Arab countries like Syria and Jordan.2 Many of these dislocations are intended to be temporary -- wealthier families and the professional classes had the resources to weather the sectarian violence in neighboring countries. But if history is any guide, most of the refugees will never go home to Iraq.

The Lebanese Civil War provides a good case study. Like Iraq today, Lebanon in 1975 had a chaotic mix of Sunnis, Shiites, Arab Christians, as well as other minority groups. After the civil war erupted that year, sectarian killing continued en masse for the next 15 years, prompting hundreds of thousands to flee "temporarily" for safer locales, only to end up staying permanently as the Civil War dragged on until 1990.

Even though the United States didn't have a side in the Lebanese Civil War, thousands of refugees still ended up in America. This was especially true in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, which has long had a strong Arab Christian community, and more recently an Arab Muslim community as well.

Dearborn is already preparing for the Iraqi exodus. Social service agencies there are working to settle 150 to 200 Iraqi refugees in coming months -- a tiny number that has been limited by extensive federal background checks brought on by fears of terrorist infiltration.3

The size of the Iraqi refugee population that will be absorbed by the United States will be determined by opposing forces -- fear of terrorism on the one side, and moral responsibility on the other. While the Bush Administration has said America can accept as many as 25,000 refugees next year,4 this is miniscule compared with the number that will want to flee. In an eight month period around the collapse of the South Vietnamese regime in 1975, 140,000 people fled to the United States, and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese "boat people" followed in the next decade.

Processing extensive background checks for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees will be impossible without an army of investigators, and letting people in without checks increases the risk domestic terrorism. But to deny the refugees entry would be a moral outrage. This problem must be addressed now.

Given a solution, the year 2039 might have as vibrant of an Iraqi-American community as there is a Vietnamese-American community today. Like most refugee communities, the Iraqis will probably establish a colony in the Washington DC, area. Even though my favorite grilled pork sandwich at the Little Saigon deli might be long gone in 2039, an equally good Schwarma sandwich might be available at a Little Baghdad takeout. It's time to welcome tomorrow's Iraqi-Americans.


1. Washington Post, Envoy Urges Visas For Iraqis Aiding U.S., July 22, 2007

2. Ibid.

3. Detroit News, Area Preps for Iraqi Refugees, July 19, 2007

4. Washington Post, Ibid.