Guest Opinions

We know how to handle refugees. We stepped up after one of our most divisive wars

Refugee orphans from Vietnam aboard the first “Operation Babylift” flight at the end of the Vietnam War look through the windows of World Airways DC-8 jet as it flies them to the United States.
Refugee orphans from Vietnam aboard the first “Operation Babylift” flight at the end of the Vietnam War look through the windows of World Airways DC-8 jet as it flies them to the United States. AP file

We have a little over a month until this caravan of refugees, which is dwindling to 1,500, arrives at the U.S. border with Mexico. The final numbers don’t matter, because we can handle this.

We know there aren’t any al-Qaida or Taliban operatives hidden amongst them; that’s been debunked by the intelligence services and Department of Defense. We know the situation in Honduras is horrific, and the situation in San Pedro Sula — the nation’s second-largest city — is absolutely dire, with an out-of-control murder rate.

I visited nearby Soto Cano Air Base in 1993 and even then we couldn’t leave the base without being armed and driving in a multi-car convoy. Imagine what it must be like living there for a young widowed mother with young children?

There is a solution because we’ve seen this before. On April 30, 1975, the country of South Vietnam ceased to exist. Over 130,000 Vietnamese were put to flight knowing to remain meant certain death. This mass migration made its way to Guam, refugees were vetted at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam. The fact that they were in Guam was taken as prima facie evidence of them being in fear for their lives. There were few other ways to vet an applicant then, other than checking any American references.

Today those arriving here, after pushing a baby carriage a few thousand miles, also provide reliable evidence that the applicant is a sincere asylum seeker. An additional bonus is that today anybody can be vetted by a simple email to the Honduran police asking for a criminal history check. Anybody wanted by the authorities, or with a criminal past, can be rejected and repatriated. Those granted asylum can be sent on to a holding camp for final processing.

In 1975, to process 130,000 people, the Defense Department built four tent city refugee processing centers: the Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., the USAF at Hurlbert Field, Fla., two Army camps at Fort Chafee, Ark., and Indiantown Gap, Pa. Those camps provided a place to stabilize (medically and psychologically) refugees and prepare them for immersion into American life. Back then we used movie travelogues to show off each state. Now we have the internet for no-cost cultural orientation, continuing education and language learning. In 1975, the Lutheran church opened up a vast network of sponsors while the government processing continued. In 2018 that network is online, making it instantly available to match refugees with sponsors.

In 1975, those 130,000 refugees cycled through rapidly, none staying more than a few weeks. Although some people voiced concerns initially, I’m not aware of a single Viet Cong agent slipping though and wreaking havoc. I was there.

We now have a choice to make as a nation. The Department of Defense has demonstrated it can easily process and absorb 7,000 or even 100,000 refugees. Placement? People forget that America is still a vast country — some 3,794,100 square miles — and of that 47 percent of it is unoccupied. Empty. Time to choose. Call Congress, 202-224-3121.

Michael A. Sciales, Major, USAF (ret), is a retired Judge Advocate General (JAG) and served overseas for 13 out of 20 years. Served on every continent except Antarctica. He enlisted in the USAF right out of high school, in 1971. Served four years, 15 months of that on an island. He moved to Boise in 1976 and attended BSU, and graduated from the U of I college of law in 1987. He clerked for Jesse Walters at the Idaho Court of Appeals before returning to active duty.

This column has been updated to correct the name of one of the 1975 camps.

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