Vietnamese Refugees
On April 23, 1975, North Vietnamese refugees who had left the region of Phan Rang were carried on board the Durham cargo ship on the China Sea to the merchant navy ship Transcolorado to reach the south. Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images

The U.S. Can Handle Much More Than 10,000 Syrian Refugees

Sep 15, 2015

As refugees and migrants from Syria and elsewhere continue to flood intro Europe, much of the conversation about their eventual destinations has focused on which European nations are welcoming them and which are not. The global problem however, is not limited to resettlement in Europe. Some American states are already taking a significant number of refugees, and President Obama said last week that he hopes to allow 10,000 more in the coming year.

Though Obama's announcement has been criticized as "reckless" by some who see it as a security risk, the 10,000 Syrians who might be resettled on American shores is actually an extremely small number in historical perspective.

Take, for example, the Vietnamese people who came to the U.S. after the 1975 conclusion of the Vietnam War—a number estimated at 120,000 that year. A Gallup poll at the time showed that only 36% of respondents thought they should be brought to the United States. The refugees came along with fear that they would "steal" jobs or, conversely, be a burden on the system if they were unable to find jobs. In addition, the Cold War was still raging, and many feared the future political leanings of the country's newest residents. Some also posited that Americans, desperate to forget the war, simply dreaded seeing Vietnamese faces on their streets.

Still, there was a widespread feeling that the country owed something to the people whose lives had been endangered by the American military's actions in their country—and the refugees were already on their way.

They were processed in Guam before being brought to military bases in California, Arkansas and Florida. They were seen by doctors, fingerprinted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, tested on their English and provided with a Social Security card. Then, if they could find a sponsor—an American, often a complete stranger, who would help them find a home and a job—they were able to begin civilian life.

The first wave of refugees were mostly professionals and elites who could get out right when the Americans did, and who many times were highly sought after by sponsors. (TIME profiled one Vietnamese couple, both doctors, who were supported by a Nebraska town desperately in need of a local physician.) Those who came in the later wave—precursors to the so-called "boat people" who would flee the region in the years to come—were more likely to be laborers, farmers and fishermen.

Just as is the case today, many worried that the new influx of people would pose a security threat to the nation. Each person was—per standard immigration procedure—supposed to get a security check. But, as TIME reported in May of 1975, "since the refugees left their pasts and their records in a country now occupied by the Communists, the check may simply slow down the flow of refugees all along the line, from Guam to the U.S., and force them to spend weeks in the camps." The backlog in Guam quickly reached 50,000 people. Conditions were worsening as more and more refugees crammed into a tent city meant to house them for short stays only. As a result, it wasn't long before INS reversed the decision to require the background checks for everyone, waiving the requirement for anyone who had worked for the U.S. government, was married to a citizen or was closely related to someone who was. By the end of the month, Congress had approved $450 million to help the refugees get settled.

And, by and large, it worked.

By 1979, TIME observed that, though the transition hadn't necessarily been a smooth one, most of the Vietnamese immigrants who had come to the U.S. in 1975 had adjusted well. Employment was actually higher among that group than among the entirety of the American population, and the number who depended on the government for help was sinking. Nearly three-quarters of those 1975 families earned $800 a month or more, which is about $2,775 in today's dollars. The Vietnamese immigrant population in the United States remains relatively well-off.

Despite the fears felt in 1975, the U.S. had easily absorbed those 120,000 refugees—twelve times the number of people currently being discussed. But, had they looked back a few decades, the Americans of the 1970s shouldn't have been surprised. After all, 120,000 is a relatively small number too: as TIME explained in 1975, about 400,000 Eastern Europeans came to the U.S. after World War II and 650,000 Cubans were resettled, mostly in Florida, when Castro came to power.

Read more from 1975, here in the TIME Vault: A Cool and Wary Reception

newsletter
History NewsletterStay on top of the history behind today’s news. View Sample
Springtime is laughter time for children, but there was no laughter for three-year-old Betti Malek when the Germans crashed through Belgium and took Antwerp in 1940. She was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England, and one of the million of children who suffered during the five-and-a-half years of war, May 17, 1945.
Betti Malek—pictured on May 17, 1945—was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England after the Germans seized Antwerp in 1940.AP Photo
Springtime is laughter time for children, but there was no laughter for three-year-old Betti Malek when the Germans crashed through Belgium and took Antwerp in 1940. She was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England, and one of the million of children who suffered during the five-and-a-half years of war, May 17, 1945.
GERMANY - JUNE 06: Post WWII German refugees and displaced persons crowding every square inch of a train leaving Berlin. 1945.
Operation Overlord
A handful of survivors from the 150 refugees who left Lodz in Poland two months earlier headed for Berlin. They are following railway lines on the outskirts of Berlin in the hope of being picked up by a British train.
Grim-faced refugees stand in a group on a street in La Gleize, Belgium on Jan. 2, 1945. They are waiting to be transported from the war-torn town after its recapture by American forces during the German thrust into the Belgium-Luxembourg salient.
20th March 1945: Refugees from across Central Europe queuing for food at an Allied Forces refugee camp in Germany after being displaced.
Stream of refugees and people who have been bombed out of their homes moving through destroyed streets - 1945after end of war; on the left two soviet soldiers patrolling).
Group of Dutch refugee children arriving at Coventry Station, Great Britain, 1945.
25th October 1945: German refugees fleeing from the Russian zone in the first few weeks after the end of World War II in Europe. They are sleeping on straw in a makeshift transit camp at Uelzen in the British zone of Germany.
3rd March 1945: German refugees crowding the market square at Juchen, Germany, a town captured by the US Army at the end of the Second World War.
Exhausted, homeless German refugees hudd
Dutch Child Refugees: Arrival In Britain At Tilbury, Essex, England, UK, 1945, A small Dutch boy smiles for the camera upon arrival at Tilbury in Essex. He is carrying a small paper parcel under his arm, which contains all his luggage. He, and the other children, (some of whom can be seen behind him) all have labels pinned to their coats which bear their names, home address and destination, 11 March 1945.
Refugees from the East of the German Reich (German Empire) around 1944/1945.
German civilian refugees prepare to flee war-torn Aachen, Germany as the battle for the doomed city draws to a close, Oct. 24, 1944. The refugees have been living in air-raid shelters as the battle for the city rages on. The Americans have about 4,000 of these refugees on their hands, who are being taken to a camp in Belgium and temporarily housed in a large school.
Women and children are standing at the roadside and are waiting for a transport possibility, in 1945.
Swiss Jew Eva Bass, formerly a nightclub singer in Paris, entering refugee camp at Fort Ontario, with her children Yolanda and Joachim, whom she carried on a sixty-kilometer trek through the fighting lines to reach American transport ship Henry Gibbins. 1944.
German civilian refugees walking through the streets of Aachen, Germany, on their way to a safer area away from the combat zone, 15th October 1944.
Civil Affairs Refugee Camp, France, 1944.
War refugees walking through Berlin with their whole belongings on 15th December 1945.
Frenchwoman with two children and belongings loaded on a baby carriage seen in Haguenau, France on Feb. 20, 1945, before they started on their long trek to a safe rear area. They are some of the refugees leaving the town because of the planned withdrawal of the 7th U.S. Army. Many civilians prefer to leave their homes and seek safety in a rear area, rather than suffer another German occupation or risk being conscripted into the German Vollksturn.
An attendant with white brassard (front, r) accompanies newly arrived refugees, in January 1946, through the refugee camp in Bebra.
Betti Malek—pictured on May 17, 1945—was one of numerous child refugees brought from Belgium to England after the German
... VIEW MORE

AP Photo
1 of 21
All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.