A Question of Conscience


WHETHER AMERICANS SHOULD have been in Vietnam and other Asian countries is a question that has stirred seemingly endless controversy. The Podhoretz's and the McGovern's will probably be arguing in their graves about the propriety and morality of sending U.S. troops to those far-off parts of the world.

Yet amidst all the debate about guns and bombs, there is one aspect of our military involvement in Asia that has received scant attention, despite its pressing moral and humanitarian nature. This is the plight of the so-called "Amerasians," the offspring of American soldiers and Asian women, an estimated 80,000 of Laos and Vietnam.

Because of their parentage, many of these children--long abandoned by their fathers--are nothing less than outcasts in their own society. In Vietnam, for example--where estimates of the number of these "half-breeds" range from 7,000 to 20,000--an Amerasian is ineligible to attend public school, get a job, or even hold a ration card. A top official has branded them as "bad elements."

But perhaps more brutal than the legal barriers against the Amerasians is the social discrimination. As John Aeby, spokesman for the Holt International Children's Services, an organization helping these children, points out, strong nationalistic feeling in the Asian countries has helped cause the ostracism of Amerasians from societies, which will not often accept anything less than total racial homogeneity. Consequently, many Amerasians are subject to intense scorn, ridicule, and harrassment and condemned to lives of poverty.

"For those forgotten American children in Asia, life is just a misery. The harrassment never seems to end. Sometimes they are beaten, stoned, kicked and reduced to a subbuman status in ways I could never begin to describe." Father Alfred V. Keane, head of a home for Americans in Seoul, said recently to Time Magazine.


SUCH A SHAMEFUL AND SAD situation demands action, but under existing conditions, little can be done to rescue Amerasians from their lives of misery.

Particularly problematic is present U.S. immigration law which gives these children "non-preferential" immigration status--the lowest category into which prospective immigrants can be placed--making it. as Aeby says, "virtually impossible for 96 percent of the Amerasians to have the opportunity" to come to America. These "half-breeds" must prove paternity and locate the father who abandoned them years ago--an often next-to-impossible task. As it is now, without this suitable "anchor" in the U.S. under the law, these kids have little claim to emigrate to the States and are thus left to languish.

In the least, the law must be changed to allow America to begin recognizing its responsibility to these all too visible by-products of our involvement in Asia. In fact, a bill before Congress right now would help do just that.

Rep. Stewart B. McKinney (R-Conn) has been concerned about the plight of Amerasians for years. In 1979, he introduced legislation that would ease the restrictions on Amerasians coming to the United States. That bill faltered, but McKinney is trying again, and this time it appears he may have a chance of succeeding. The Amerasian immigration Act--submitted last year--would significantly increase the chances for an abandoned child to come to the United States. The bill would specifically raise the immigration status of the Americans from "non-preferential" to higher categories, classifying them, for example, as sons and daughters of U.S. citizens. The bill directs the State Department to make a greater effort to substantiate claims of U.S. paternity. Organizations in the field would help in this process of documentation, as well as serving as sponsors for the children once they get to the States.

The bill does not set up any quotas, it does not raise the number of people coming to America--certainly prickly subjects today. What it does do, as McKinney has said, is "simply place the Amerasian in has or her proper preference classification based on their legitimate claim as a chile of a U.S. citizen." In other words, Amerasians would be placed on the top of the pile of aspiring immigrants--were they rightfully belong.

Indeed, some may argue that the bill does not do enough for the Amerasians. After the French left Indochina, for example, they took 25,000 Eurasians with them. And those left behind with even the slightest trace of French blood were given the option of French citizenship when they turned 21. Perhaps America should be as liberal towards Amerasians.

PERHAPS, PROBABLY. But considering the difficulty this moderate piece of legislation has had, a more liberal bill, as one McKinney staffer says, "is just not going to happen." The Amerasian Immigration Act appears the best practical hope for these children.

A lot of the legislation's success will depend on the cooperation of host governments, in particular, the Vietnamese, for whom the Amerasians are a touchy subject. The State Department, as well as organizations trying to get access to these children in Vietnam, stress that any attempt to aid the Vietnamese Amerasians will have to be very low-key.

But nothing else should hold back the passage of the McKinney bill. This legislation will not bring faceless swarms of immigrants crawling to our shores--it will merely place the Amerasians in their proper place at the head of the line for immigration. And the bill will not carelessly split up families--not all Amerasians will need to be brought to the States, and some will be better integrated into their present societies.

What the bill will do is allow the United States finally to meet an obligation to a group of its own--to help put an end to their suffering. As McKinney himself testified about the Amerasians: "It is time we recognize these children for who they are--our children--and give them an opportunity to live a life where they are not forever condemned as outcasts." Can we do anything less?