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Vietnam's forgotten casualties

THO doesn't like the night. She has longing dreams for her missing American father, someone she doesn't remember because he disappeared long ago, when the teen-ager was an infant in Vietnam. Despite being fatherless, Tho is fortunate. Unlike thousands of other Amerasians, children of American GIs and Vietnamese mothers, she has made it to the United States, where she has a chance to live a better life and, perhaps, come to some self-understanding. Ironically, Vietnam and the United States agree that these innocents belong in the US, but because national interests have been put before the interests of the children, children of Tho's circumstances are few.

Matters aren't getting better. After only a relatively few youngsters got out over the years, Amerasian departures to the US wound down to nearly nothing this spring, the casualty of a broader Hanoi-Washington dispute. By conservative estimates, as many as 15,000 Amerasian children remain in Vietnam, where their mixed American-Asian appearance condemns them to the edges of an economically strapped society. The youngest are approaching adulthood, and it's believed that their abilities to adapt elsewhere, already diminished with age, may soon be gone.

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Once, it seemed that many were on their way to the US. That was in 1982, when Congress passed Public Law 97-359, the so-called ``Amerasian legislation.'' For a number of reasons, that measure has yet to bring a single child out of Vietnam.

Instead, the fortunate ones like Tho have come via a rather shaky arrangement -- the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), a United Nations-administered channel for legal emigration from Vietnam. The Vietnamese suspended new processing for this program in January, and departures have declined. A congressional hearing in June revealed that 467 children came to the US in the first nine months of the current fiscal year, less than one-third of the number who arrived the previous year.

Though the processing suspension reflects a disagreement unrelated to the Amerasians, ODP has never been a favorite of Hanoi's where the children are concerned. The Vietnamese object to the refugee classification the Amerasians receive; furthermore, they want them to leave through a separate departure plan. The lack of one has led to uncooperativeness. Before kicking ODP interviewers out of Ho Chi Minh City months ago, Vietnam severely limited their number, even though more would have probably meant speedier Amerasian exits. But even more frustrating is the fact that Vietnam produced 1,000 fewer children for admission to the US last year than American officials were willing to take. Why? There is evidence that the Vietnamese held children back as bargaining chips.

Largess is not in the American record, either. Congress's poor response to the Amerasians steered the Reagan administration to the flimsy ODP. Under it, tight ceilings have been applied to admissions; children have had to prove their heritage; and family members crucial to the Amerasians' adjustment in the US have been wrongly denied chances at entry. Since departures began in 1982, fewer than 1,000 Amerasians have reached the US annually. Even when ODP operated normally, advocates warned that it could be the next century before these sons and daughters of Americans were all out of Vietnam.

Most recently, a State Department panel recommended some improvements, but even they can't erase two harsh realities -- the stalled ODP, which shows no sign of revival; and the threat of budget cuts. During the June refugee hearings, officials warned that cuts could further lower already deflated US refugee admissions.

While much of this governmental negligence has occurred, Tho has been busy. She dreams of her father, but she's also made friends at school, sings in a choir, and plans to be a doctor. Says her foster mother: ``Tho's very conscientious.''

The absence of many more like her is a hard lesson in what happens when politics precedes children.

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Joseph Cerquone is a consultant to the US Committee for Refugees.

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