Cambodian immigrants

Significance: The arrival of thousands of immigrants from Southeast Asia during the mid-to-late 1970’s marked a new era in immigration to the United States because of multiple factors. One of the characteristics that defined this new era was the region from which these new immigrants were coming. A second trait of this new era was that the arrival of these immigrants created a strong, negative reaction among Americans against them. Furthermore, the arrival of these immigrants led to new legislation regarding their status.

The first major influx of Cambodian immigrants who began arriving in the United States during the late 1970’s was part of a large group of refugees from Southeast Asia fleeing political instability in their homelands. The most unstable Southeast Asian nation may have been Cambodia. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge came to power in that country and implemented an extreme version of agricultural-based communism. The new government may have killed as many as two million Cambodians in its attempt to reshape society. As a result, thousands of Cambodians fled the country. Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1979 intensified the exodus.

A Long Journey and Unwelcoming Arrival

Many of the Cambodian refugees initially fled to neighboring Thailand. There, they were put in refugee camps in which they endured poor conditions. Although some Cambodians remained in Thailand, thousands eventually were permitted to come to the United States at the beginning of the 1980’s. This group was part of a second wave of Southeast Asian immigrants to come to the United States, the first of which had been the massive exodus from Vietnam in 1975. Given the significant influx of immigrants from Vietnam during the last half of the 1970’s, the U.S. government was forced to act. In 1975, the federal government passed and signed into law the Indo-China Migration and Refugee Act. The large numbers of refugees coming to the United States from Southeast Asia led the American government to establish a resettlement program, which was created by this piece of legislation.

The U.S. government utilized this resettlement program that was created during the mid-1970’s to assist Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the country. Through this program, voluntary agencies helped find sponsors to help support the new immigrants and help them adjust to American society for a limited time. The Cambodian immigrants who arrived a few years later were put through the same program. Between 1980 and 1984, approximately 75,000 Cambodians arrived in the United States.

Profile of Cambodian immigrants

Profile of Cambodian immigrants
* Immigrants who obtained legal permanent resident status in the United States.
Source: Department of Homeland Security, Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, 2008.

After arriving in the United States, the difficulties confronting the Cambodian immigrants did not end. They faced strong opposition from many Americans. Much of the opposition was due to the economic problems in the United States at the time. Another aspect of the opposition seemed to be racial.

The large numbers of refugees coming from Southeast Asia led to additional legislation by the federal government. Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980 to limit the number of refugees who could enter the United States on an annual basis. Although elected officials argued that it was necessary to act in order to put the United States in line with international standards for the treatment of refugees, the numerical cap suggested it had more to do with opposition to immigration primarily linked to the economic problems confronting the United States.

Economic Challenges

Like many other immigrants from Southeast Asia, Cambodian immigrants have tended to work mostly in low-wage jobs, most notably in the seafood processing industry. Many have looked for work similar to what they did in Cambodia, but some who had professional training have been unable to find corresponding employment in the United States. A relatively large number have opened grocery stores. Cambodian Americans have generally had a difficult time economically in the United States. Unemployment among them is high. Many of them have lived in poverty and been dependent on government assistance. Their situation has tended to be worse that of other recently arrived ethnic groups in the United States.

Prior to this wave of southeastern immigration, very few people with Cambodian heritage lived in the United States. According to the U.S. Census, approximately 120,000 foreign-born Cambodians lived in the United States in 1990. More than 100,000 of them had come to the country during the 1980’s. Most of them lived in California. The second-largest concentration of Cambodians lives in Massachusetts, with between 15,000 and 20,000 Cambodians. Many also live in New York City, Texas, and Pennsylvania. As the political situation in Southeast Asia improved around 1990, few Cambodians continued to immigrate to the United States.

Kevin L. Brennan

Further Reading

  • Barkan, Elliott Robert. Asian and Pacific Islander Migration to the U.S.: A Model of New Global Patterns. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Descriptive account of modern immigration to the United States and how it has mirrored trends in global migration. 
  • Caplan, Nathan, John K. Whitmore, and Marcella H. Choy. The Boat People and Achievement in America: A Study of Family Life, HardWork, and Cultural Values. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1989. Historical overview of the refugee crisis in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam during the late 1970’s. Also contains numerous individual stories of life in the United States. 
  • Ebihara, May M., Carol A. Mortland, and Judy Ledgerwood, eds. Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. Collection of articles examining the perceived threat to Khmer culture and efforts to preserve it at home and abroad. 
  • Navarro, Armando. The Immigration Crisis: Nativism, Armed Vigilantism, and the Rise of a Countervailing Movement.Walnut Creek, Calif.: AltaMira Press, 2008. Comprehensive history of the politics of immigration to the United States since the colonial era. 
  • Scott, Joanna C. Indochina’s Refugees: Oral Histories from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1989. Several individual accounts of life in these three Southeast Asian countries immediately after the communists came to power, as well as the escape to foreign refugee camps. 

See also: Asian immigrants; Burmese immigrants; California; Employment; History of immigration after 1891; Lahiri, Jhumpa; Thai immigrants; Vietnam War; Vietnamese immigrants.

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