The Structure of Refuge: Southeast Asian Refugees in the United States, 1975-1985

International Review of Comparative Public Policy, Vol. 1, pp. 97-129, 1989

18 Pages Posted: 17 Jul 2011  

Rubén G. Rumbaut

University of California - Irvine - Department of Sociology

Date Written: 1989


Recent research and theoretical debates about the economic mobility and labor incorporation of immigrants to the United States have tended to focus on either the individual characteristics of employees (supply-side “human capital”) or the institutional characteristics of employers (demand-side “segmented labor markets”). Structural perspectives and analyses have also shown the heterogeneity of modes of incorporation within immigrant enclaves and in the informal economy. But the experience of Indochinese refugees over the last decade points to the importance of still other variables that combine to provide an alternative to low-wage employment in the secondary labor market. These include a “structure of refuge” created by a complex of state policies, refugee programs and what I call “segmented state welfare systems,” on the one hand; and the size and composition of Indochinese refugee families/households, reflecting a very young age structure and very high fertility and age-dependency ratios for this population, on the other. Most available research, whether approached from individual or institutional perspectives, has tended to neglect a focus either on the pivotal role of women or on the refugee family/household as a unit of analysis. Also neglected is the role of the state, despite the fundamental political processes governing both international refugee flows (their mode of exit) and refugee resettlement in asylum countries (their mode of entry and incorporation). Nationally, almost half of the Indochinese refugee population in the United States is receiving some form of public assistance. There are wide differences in Indochinese welfare dependency rates among the states, however; California and Texas (where most Indochinese refugees are located) provide polar opposite examples. Still, the national welfare rates for Indochinese refugees stand in contrast not only to those of other legal immigrants (to say nothing of illegal immigrants) but also to the rates for other refugees. All of this requires explanation. Here I first describe the historical development of a “structure of refuge” in the United States. This is followed by a detailed examination of the occupational and economic situation of Indochinese refugees in San Diego County, California, based on data from a comprehensive longitudinal survey – the Indochinese Health & Adaptation Research Project (IHARP) – carried out during 1982-1985. Multivariate analyses of refugee earnings and welfare dependency are presented, and the implications of the findings for future research and public policy are discussed.

Keywords: Segmented State Welfare Systems, Southeast Asian Refugees, Occupational and Economic Adaptation, Welfare Dependency, Fertility, Family Structure, Human Capital, Segmented Labor Markets, IHARP Longitudinal Survey

Suggested Citation

Rumbaut, Rubén G., The Structure of Refuge: Southeast Asian Refugees in the United States, 1975-1985 (1989). International Review of Comparative Public Policy, Vol. 1, pp. 97-129, 1989 . Available at SSRN:

Rubén G. Rumbaut (Contact Author)

University of California - Irvine - Department of Sociology ( email )

3151 Social Sciences Plaza A
Irvine, CA 92697-5100
United States

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