Jana Lipman’s In Camps: Vietnamese Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Repatriates is a breathtaking contribution to immigration and ethnic history. Just behind the forgotten news headlines of the 1970s—which turned Vietnamese refugees into passive victims and media spectacles that symbolized U.S. military failure in Southeast Asia—rests a history that Lipman unearths. It is the overlooked how story: how the U.S. military participated in the refugee management and resettlement programs; how migrants themselves moved between multiple state institutions; and how the Vietnam War continues to shape U.S. immigration and human rights policies in important but little-known ways.
Based on a remarkable array of archival and oral history materials collected in multiple countries, In Camps shakes up both immigration and military history. First, Lipman takes up and executes the calls—largely prescriptive—by immigration scholars for histories that link immigration history and the history of U.S. foreign policy. Other historians who have examined the question of refugees have focused mostly on refugee policy, rather than integrating the experiences of refugees themselves. From within the field of immigration history, Lipman’s research offers an important new perspective on the ways that South Vietnamese veterans moved from being America’s allies to Americans’ neighbors. Lipman also upends immigration history by demonstrating the productive (yet under-examined) role of the U.S. armed forces in the forming and implementation of immigration policy. As Lipman notes, arrival in Guam or at Fort Chaffee was not refugees’ first interaction with the U.S. military. Finally, In Camps expands the chronology of the Vietnam War beyond 1975, not, as did an initial generation of scholars, by looking at media representations and cultures of memory, but by documenting the institutional legacies and political reverberations that link U.S. refugee policy in 1975 with events in the 1980s and today. As humanitarian operations consume an ever-larger fraction of the efforts of western military forces, Lipman’s history of the post-1975 Vietnamese evacuation demonstrates a key turning point in Pentagon policy.
CC: Your first book, Guantánamo: A Working-Class History between Empire and Revolution (2009), built on your training in both U.S. and Latin American history. In Camps turns your focus to Southeast Asia. What was it like to make that shift, both in your research process and in your day-to-day work as a scholar and teacher?
JKL: I know it looks as if I’m all over the place geographically, but there really is a common thread. I write about the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, but ultimately, I’m interested in how communities in seemingly peripheral places can shape international politics (and vice versa). I want my work to investigate the local histories of diplomatic politics, and I believe this brings a continuity and a cohesion to my scholarship.
Based on a remarkable array of archival and oral history materials collected in multiple countries, In Camps shakes up both immigration and military history — Christopher Capozzala
After my book on Guantanamo, I really struggled with the next project, but I decided to just find an archive and start digging into the documents. Because of my interest in military bases and migration, I landed on Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas, which served as a refugee camp for Vietnamese and Cuban migrants in 1975 and 1980. But as I was doing the research, I became more and more interested in the refugee camps, protests, and activism that I was reading about in Guam, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. From there, I decided to launch into the project, and my experience doing research in Guantánamo made me confident that I could again write a history of U.S. foreign relations and migration from outside the United States.
CC: What’s at stake in putting the refugee – as a historical actor and a legal category – at the center of immigration history? How has recent scholarship, some self-consciously framed as “critical refugee studies” and some not, informed your own work?
This is a fraught question, right, because the very category of who is a “refugee” is so fraught — and yet, I think this is why refugee studies is so compelling. Ultimately, it is about state power, and the contest between one state denying rights, the people asserting their rights and humanity by crossing borders, and another state choosing whether or not to confer rights or not. In other words, the stakes are high. While all migrants cross borders and confront the state, the questions of power and legal status are particularly acute for refugees, and in that way, their histories raise questions for all who study immigration.
I don’t think you can write about these questions without invoking Hannah Arendt, and so I’m doing that here, and her writings remain foundational. However, yes, my recent scholarship is very much indebted to Critical Refugee Studies and Yen Le Espiritu’s work in particular. Espiritu’s 2006 essay “We-Win-Even-When-We Lose” and Body Counts (UC Press, 2014) inspired me to re-think how I conceived of Vietnamese refugee stories. She critiqued popular writers and scholars for describing the U.S. “saving” Vietnamese men and women, tropes that I was very much finding in my archival work, and she argued that refugee resettlement must not erase, or elide, the histories of U.S. military violence. My work has also been inspired by A. Naomi Paik’s writings on “rightlessness,” and also, Susan Carruthers’ work on Cold War Captives (UC Press, 2009).
While all migrants cross borders and confront the state, the questions of power and legal status are particularly acute for refugees, and in that way, their histories raise questions for all who study immigration.
CC: Through its rich archive and attention to local histories, In Camps offers a nuanced explanation of how “refugee camps exist uneasily within a continuum that includes humanitarian resources on the one end and prisons on the other.” Immigration historians struggle with that continuum, and our relationship to the history of “crimmigration” in particular and carceral studies in general. What does In Camps contribute to that conversation?
That’s a question I really wrestled with as I was writing this book. There are of course key substantive distinctions between the “refugee camp” and the “prison.” On the one hand, modern refugee camps promise freedom and potential entry into a country free from persecution and war. Unlike a prison, the stated goal of the camp is not punishment, but a safe space to wait for a better future. Refugees sometimes have a fair deal of control within the camps, which can resemble small cities, and their range of motion while limited, often permits social interactions and family life unimaginable in prisons.
I hope In Camps will help readers grapple with how states can turn refugee camps into places with arguably even fewer rights than prisons …
However, as an institution outside the criminal justice system, men and women can wait indefinitely in refugee camps; there is no sentence, and so no date of exit. Moreover, men and women in refugee camps often exist in a peripheral space between legal regimes. Going back to Arendt, she has argued, people in refugee camps can have far fewer rights than men and women who confront the criminal justice system. They do not have the right to a lawyer, and they are detained despite having committed no crime. Moreover, men and women who wish to claim asylum face an often arbitrary interrogation process where they have to “prove” their refugee claim, that they have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted” rather than their lack of guilt.
I hope In Camps will help readers grapple with how states can turn refugee camps into places with arguably even fewer rights than prisons, and depressingly, I think we have seen many examples of this within the United States today.
CC: How does In Camps reshape our understanding of Vietnamese-American migration, settlement, community formation, and diaspora politics?
First, I think most Americans, including scholars and novelists writing about Vietnamese migration, still focus on the 1975 evacuation and the 120,000 Vietnamese who resettled in the United States immediately after the war. One of my main goals is to explain that the vast majority of Vietnamese Americans left Vietnam many years after the U.S. war ended. Large numbers left in the late 1970s, and again more people continued to leave in the 1980s and 1990s. This population was also more diverse than it is generally represented. For example, in the 1970s, Chinese Vietnamese composed a significant percentage of the Vietnamese migrants, and in the 1980s and 1990s, southern and northern Vietnamese left the country in large numbers.
Second, Vietnamese American activism was also multifaceted. Again, much of the popular representation of Vietnamese American politics focuses solely on anti-communism. My work hopefully demonstrates that Vietnamese Americans engaged in a wide-range of activist endeavors, which included legal advocacy, spreading public awareness, direct service in the camps, and lobbying Congress. Some of this was motivated by anti-communism, but I do not think this was the only value motivating many young Vietnamese Americans. In addition, my work hopefully contributes to new scholarship on Vietnamese American political activism by scholars like Phuong Tran Nguyen, Sam Vong, and Amanda Demmer.
My work hopefully demonstrates that Vietnamese Americans engaged in a wide-range of activist endeavors, which included legal advocacy, spreading public awareness, direct service in the camps, and lobbying Congress.
CC: Many scholars, both in Southeast Asia and the U.S., have argued against seeing 1975 as the “end” of the Vietnam War. Does In Camps participate in the effort to conceptualize a “long” Vietnam War? What does it mean to reorient “post-Vietnam” history from culture and memory to refugees and migrations?
Yes, I think it does, although I don’t think that was my main aim in writing the book. But yes, wars don’t just “end,” and In Camps is very much about the long political and personal trajectories after the “fall of Saigon.”
For scholars of U.S. history, as you note, much of the initial attention on the post-war period focused on culture and American politics. I’m thinking of early work by Susan Jeffords on American Vietnam War films, H. Bruce Franklin’s MIA or Myth-Making in America, Michael Allen’s Until the Last Man Comes Home, and Edwin Martini’s Invisible Enemies. This work was foundational, and it demonstrated how the US experiences in Vietnam shaped U.S. culture and politics for decades after 1973 or 1975.
However, these works did not look at Vietnamese stories.
I believe you can’t understand U.S.-Vietnam relations for the post-1975 period without understanding U.S. migration and refugee policies. Along with MIA/POW investigations, this was a central issue for U.S. lawmakers, and many Vietnamese-Americans formed non-profits and became very successful lobbyists. Amanda Demmer’s forthcoming, Refugees and US-Vietnamese Relations, 1975-2000 will also be an important book on this point. At its core, In Camps argues that migration and international relations are intimately intertwined.
CC: You argue that “in order to understand refugee politics, one must look at the camps, the places that hosted them, and the people inside.” I was struck that when we do that, the United States turns out to be alternatively central and marginal to the story you are telling. Tell us more about why you structured In Camps this way, and how you went about writing it.
Yes! The U.S. both remains a powerful figure throughout — it contributes the most money to the UNHCR, it accepts the most Vietnamese for resettlement, it shakes its weight around, etc, but it was not always the dominant player, and it definitely was not the only actor on the scene.
Now, I am a U.S. historian — that is where my expertise lies — but to tell this story, I decided I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the camps, from outside the United States. I also wanted to tell a story that “works” on multiple levels — at the level of the individual camp, a regional and/or national story of the host country/territory, and an international story. By doing this, I’m not trying to erase the United States’ power (economic, military, or political), but I am trying to show how local politics played out, whether it was Ferdinand Marcos’s readiness to host Vietnamese in the 1980s at the Philippine Refugee Processing Center or Hong Kong’s decision to begin a screening process for incoming Vietnamese in 1988.
My goal was to both dive into the specificity of places most readers will be unfamiliar with, be it Terengganu, Malaysia or Palawan in the Philippines, and demonstrate how these peripheral places shaped U.S and international refugee policy, while still analyzing how refugee policy changed over time.
I decided I wanted to tell the story from the perspective of the camps.
CC: In all of your work, you closely examine the U.S. military and its interaction with labor and working-class history. When we were in graduate school 20+ years ago, I bet neither of us ever predicted we would be regular readers of the Journal of Military History. What changed: you, the field, or the world?
Goodness — that’s true. I would point to several changes. First, in my own intellectual development and grad school career, I was strongly influenced by the scholars writing about U.S. empire in the 1990s, and in particular, Ann Laura Stoler. Even though initially most of these scholars did not write about the military per se (with the important exception of Mary Renda), it’s hard to write about empire without writing about military power. Eventually, scholars who were not traditionally “military” scholars, realized they had to study the U.S. military as a significant, and complicated, institution.
It’s hard to write about empire without writing about military power.
Also, we need to highlight Cynthia Enloe’s pioneering work — she has now inspired a generation (or two? three?) of scholars to recognize the importance of the military in social, cultural, and political life, and to never forget how it structures gendered and sexual relations, affecting both men and women.
I think the field has really changed with more and more social historians writing about the military, rather than relegating “military history” into another box. The military is a massive institution in American life and necessary to study — I’m thinking of works by Beth Bailey, Jennifer Mittlestadt, Simeon Man, and of course your work as well.
In addition, more and more scholars began writing about the relationship between immigration and the U.S. military. I do this in my own work, but I also am thinking of Ji-Yeon Yuh’s important 2005 essay “Moved by War,” and Ellen Wu’s more recent essay in Modern American History.
This is where our work really overlaps — we both see the interconnectedness of U.S. empire, military service, and migration — and I believe we both see the routes/experiences this can take, rather than try to argue for a singular or universal experience. As a result, we can see the multiple pathways between the U.S. military and migration, whether it’s looking at third country nationals on U.S. military bases throughout the world, marriages with military personnel that lead to migration, or how war itself leads to migration.
We both see the interconnectedness of U.S. empire, military service, and migration . . .
CC: In the summer of 2018, you had the painful experience of watching as U.S. military bases once again served as sites of detention and incarceration for would-be migrants. How did you respond, both personally and as a scholar?
I was just overwhelmed, furious, outraged, and despondent. I find the practice chilling. The idea of the U.S. military housing/holding children epitomizes a militarized U.S. migration policy.
I should also add that the US government only proposed sending children to military bases in 2018, in the end, it did not do so. Rather, this happened during the Obama administration. Obama kept family units together, but asylum seekers crossing the border were kept in a range of detention facilities (including military bases), and ultimately thousands were deported.
And there are even worse possibilities than sending children to US military bases, where presumably there would be oversight. The New York Times has reported that the U.S. government has been deporting Central American children to Mexico, who are not Mexican and have no relatives in Mexico, in violation of U.S. and international law.
This is where Laura Briggs’ new book, Taking Children, is so important. She has written about the longer history of child separation at the government’s hands. Yet even knowing these histories, the border separations still outraged me, particularly, because it resonated so much with my work on Vietnamese in Hong Kong camps, demanding that they were refugees, even as Hong Kong (and the UNHCR), refused the claims and forced them to endure horrific conditions for years on end.
On reflecting on my own scholarship, I find it remarkable how much the idea of international pressure or reputation has faded. I read numerous documents by Hong Kong civil service officers, and they would lament the need to provide basic care to the incoming Vietnamese, because they didn’t want to threaten the UK’s international reputation. In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a constant refrain that there were limits on expulsions and repatriations, because there were certain international norms that needed to be upheld, even if it was undesirable. While this might have just been for show, there was a sense of shame and a need to uphold a minimum level of care.
Many of the policies that advocates for Vietnamese refugees protested in the 1980s and 1990s, such as indefinite detention, the absence of due process, or mass deportations, are now common practice. These policies regarding asylum seekers no longer even cause any shock in the public sphere. Or least not enough to effectively change policy.
It’s a grim place to end. My book traces how and why the refugee policies toward Vietnamese in camps became increasingly restrictive and punitive. It also demonstrates that refugee policy can change and that it’s contingent on local, national, and international factors.
The idea of the U.S. military housing/holding children epitomizes a militarized U.S. migration policy.
Purchase the Book Here: https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520343665/in-camps
See Jana K. Lipman Interview Christopher Capozzola: https://www.iehs.org/authors-on-authors-jana-k-lipman-interviews-christopher-capozzola/