But in his first year as governor, Mr. Brown—like his fellow Democrats—strenuously opposed immigrants who received federal approval to come to the U.S. as refugees from their besieged homelands.
When South Vietnam and Cambodia fell to communists in April 1975, Gov. Brown, who had just succeeded Ronald Reagan, fought the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees. In the process, Mr. Brown and other Democrats engaged in xenophobic rhetoric.
“There is something a little strange about saying, ‘Let’s bring in 500,000 more people,’ when we can’t take care of the one million out of work,” Mr. Brown said.
His point man on the issue, Mario Obledo, reflected the state’s ethnic politics. Obledo had helped found the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund and was called the “Godfather of the Latino Movement” before joining Mr. Brown’s administration as secretary of health and welfare. Obledo created Project VIC, the Vietnamese Interagency Commission, to explore the possibility of suing the federal government to stop the exodus.
On April 23, Obledo called the State Department to ask for a meeting with Secretary Henry Kissinger within 48 hours. After following that call with a telegram, Obledo told reporters he would be ready to go to Guam, a transit point, “to insure that no refugees are brought into the state until some definitive relocation plans are announced by the federal government.”
Obledo and Mr. Brown even tried to prevent aircraft filled with refugees from landing at Travis Air Force Base near San Francisco. In another telegram, Obledo instructed Col. James T. Rock, the base commander, to “take no action of any kind with regard to Vietnamese refugees in California . . . until you personally hear from Secretary of State Kissinger. ” Mr. Brown said that unless Mr. Kissinger’s office supplied help—presumably financial—“I’ll direct my effort toward looking out for the interests of the people of this state.”
“Our biggest problem came from California,” Julia Taft, director of President Ford’s Interagency Task Force on Indochina Refugees, told National Public Radio in 2007. “They were very difficult,” she said, referring to Mr. Brown and Obledo. “They didn’t want any of these refugees because they had also unemployment. They had already a large number of foreign-born people there. They said they had too many Hispanics, too many people on welfare. They didn’t want these people.”
Mr. Brown finally relented, Taft said, when she told him she would “go on TV and to the media and to the voluntary agencies and announce that the governor did not want any church, synagogue, family [or] former military family in California to be able to help these people.”
Among the Democrats who supported Brown were two U.S. senators, Delaware’s Joe Biden and South Dakota’s George McGovern. New York’s Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman echoed Mr. Brown’s position when she said that “some of her constituents felt that the same assistance and compassion was not being shown to the elderly, unemployed and poor in this country.”
Michigan’s Rep. Donald Riegle, a future senator, proposed an amendment preventing refugees from receiving federal assistance unless Americans had the opportunity for similar help. Mr. Biden said he would support almost any appropriation to evacuate Americans but would oppose any for evacuating Vietnamese nationals.
As for McGovern, he said in a lecture that “90% of the refugees would be better off going back to their own land. . . . The communist government has already given orders that the people are not to be molested. Our program should include the highest-priority steps to facilitate their early return to Vietnam.”
McGovern and other liberals disregarded communism’s brutality. Perhaps they also wanted to prevent the creation of another voting bloc, such as Cuba-Americans in Florida—that would support anticommunist conservatives.
In opposing immigration from Southeast Asia, Mr. Brown and his fellow liberals pitted ethnicity against ethnicity and class against class in a cynical quest for power—as they do today. To paraphrase Thomas More, Brown may leave office as California’s good servant. Concerning immigration, however, he is his party’s first.
By Joseph D’Hippolito