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Bringing America's children home

For the dozen or so children who will board a plane out of Ho Chi Minh City this week for Bangkok, Thailand - and then the United States - the flight will be more a homecoming than a departure. These young people, after all, are American citizens of mixed parentage who for one reason or other remained in Vietnam after the US pullout from that war-torn nation. They are being brought to the US under the auspices of religious and relief groups. And now, thanks to the untiring efforts of these groups, who have been bringing the issue to the attention of the US Congress, thousands of other Amerasian children may soon be following them home from not just Vietnam but Kampuchea, South Korea, Thailand, and Laos.

In finally approving special legislation regarding Amerasian children, the US Senate this week was to some extent making amends for official United States indifference to these young people over past years. Although firm numbers are hard to come by, there may be as many as 20,000 Amerasians in Vietnam alone, the offspring mainly of US servicemen and Vietnamese mothers. There are another 3, 000 to 5,000 in South Korea, and several thousand in other Southeast Asian nations. Often considered outcasts in their societies because they look like ''Americans,'' many of them have had to survive by living in the streets. Now, assuming that the governments of their respective nations can agree - particularly in the case of what has been a reluctant Vietnam - they may eventually face a new future in the United States.

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Precisely because these are American children, there are compelling reasons for expediting the Amerasian legislation as quickly as possible. The Senate measure was passed on its own, rather than as part of the more comprehensive Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, which has also cleared that chamber. In the House, the Amerasian legislation is part of Simpson-Mazzoli, which has not yet come before that body for a full vote.

Ideally, both chambers should enact the overall immigration bill as quickly as possible. Yet, if that proves impossible this year because of the slower House action, the Amerasian measure deserves enactment on its own for humanitarian reasons. The longer the delay in passage, the more likely that some of the children - particularly the older teen-agers and, in some cases, young persons in their 20s who could come in under the Senate measure - may not be able to obtain parental, family, or group sponsorship. Younger children, as pointed out by relief workers, tend to obtain preference in the adoption or sponsorship process.

The Senate measure would allow entry to persons born after 1950 who had a US parent, so long as there is a guarantee of financial support for the child, and some form of documentation. If there is any weakness in the measure, it is the absence of legal provisions pertaining to paternity. Some lawmakers, in fact, have quietly questioned the legislation because of concern about future lawsuits regarding neglect or claims to estates that might arise where paternity is in doubt and an ex-serviceman denies fatherhood. It would not seem unreasonable for the House to address this point.

Still, the overriding issue is clear. The Amerasians are not only the children of their Asian societies but also the children of the United States. Every effort should be made to bring them home - if that is their preference - as speedily as possible.

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