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45,000 newcomers yearly hail from everywhere for jobs

Orange County, with its mild climate, beaches, high-tech employment opportunities - and Disneyland - has drawn an average of some 45,000 newcomers every year for the past 10 years.

These aren't all disgruntled snow shovelers from Chicago, either.

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Orange County has also drawn the ''greatest concentration of Indochinese refugees of any county in the US,'' as residents are wont to say.

There have been problems of adjustment and adaptation.

But, says Dennis C. White, director of the Immigrant and Refugees Planning Center here, ''Economically, their impact has been very positive.''

James L. Doti, director of the Center for Economic Research at Chapman College in Orange, concurs. Calling the influx of refugees ''a tremendous plus, '' he points out that they have provided a source of low-wage laborers who can afford to live in Orange County because of their willingness to double up on housing. It is not uncommon for several refugees to pool paychecks for rent of a house or apartment.

High technology means not only PhD research but also manufacturing jobs which don't pay that much, despite the concentration and attention to detail they require. And the Asians, with their traditions of embroidery and other fine handwork, have proven adept at the ''embroidery'' of electronics assembly work.

Mr. White's Immigrant and Refugee Planning Center is another illustration of the corporate involvement theme in Orange County, of private enterprise addressing issues of public policy.

The business community had observed that the refugee influx into the United States was being handled in ''crisis management'' fashion, says Mr. White.

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Corporate leaders decided they wanted to have some input into the way the refugees were handled; they wanted to see the refugees as a labor pool and a benefit to the community.

And so IRPC was started with seed money from the Fluor Corporation and the United Way. Other corporations have chipped in along the way, resulting in a center whose funding is totally from private sources and thus immune to the trims in federal spending that have cut so deeply into other agencies' budgets.

Estimates of the refugee population vary. A State Department count found 67, 000 Indochinese in Orange County, 10,000 of whom would not be classifiable as refugees because they were born here, came as students, or immigrated. With Orange County's population reckoned at 2 million, about 1 in 35 residents then is a refugee.

The Indochinese community, centered in Westminister, Huntington Beach, and Garden Grove, grew up as the first refugees moved out from nearby Camp Pendleton. There's been a snowball effect since. Refugees continue to come at 400 to 500 a month, and many move here from other parts of the country where they have been settled by the government. They come here because of family ties - and also, as noted above, for the same reasons as other newcomers - including the attraction of Disneyland.

The refugees have a mixed image. On one hand, they are commended as law abiding. On the other hand, there have been reports of organized crime perpetrated by gangs of former Vietnamese soldiers.

They have been hailed as latter-day Horatio Alger heroes for their bootstrap efforts - often successful - to launch their own businesses. On the other hand, they are perceived as a ''drain on the system'' for their high dependency on welfare.

Indeed, the IRPC survey has found that 64 percent of the households involved had at least one person on welfare.

But Mr. White is quick to point out that being on welfare doesn't mean refugees aren't working. It may just mean they have families large enough and wages low enough to entitle them to a little extra help. And success stories of those who have jumped off welfare into business for themselves abound.

Still, says county analyst Richard Baisden, ''I don't think there has been the integration one would hope.'' Indeed, the IRPC study has found that 71 percent of the refugees would like to return to their homelands someday.

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