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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Southeast Asian Americans in 2020: 45 Years of Resilience and Resistance

This piece was published in the 31st print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

This year was a pivotal year for all communities of color. For SEAAs especially, the confluence of our 45th anniversary with a global pandemic, the ongoing fight in support of black lives, and a historic election, we are reminded that our fight for equity and justice continues.

Beginning in 1975, the confluence of the Vietnam War, the Secret War in Laos, and the Cambodian Genocide forced millions of people to flee from their home countries in Southeast Asia. This was and continues to be the largest refugee diaspora the world has ever seen, with more than 1.1 million refugees resettled from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The United States played a key role in welcoming and resettling refugees, with the historic passage of the Refugee Resettlement Act of 1980 opening the United States’ doors to Southeast Asian families fleeing war and genocide.[1] This act was pivotal in the creation of a comprehensive and unified system of refugee resettlement for the first time in history, resulting in an increased number of individuals that the United States admitted into the country under refugee status. It also created the first statutory basis for asylum. Prior to its passage, families were scattered across the country, with little to no support. This landmark policy is the reason that more than 3 million Southeast Asian Americans (SEAAs) now call the United States home.[2]

The year 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of the arrival of Southeast Asian families to the shores of the United States, and Congress continues to recognize the integral role that SEAAs play in their communities and in our country. Earlier this year, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (CA-47) introduced H. Res. 952 recognizing the 45th anniversary of the resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees, commemorating their contributions to the United States, urging the president to halt the deportation of Southeast Asians, and calling for the advancement of equitable policies for Southeast Asian American (SEAA) communities.[3] This resolution uplifts the vital contributions of SEAAs while also recognizing that disparities—health, economic, social, and educational—are still a heavy burden on the shoulders of Southeast Asian Americans. However, despite these challenges SEAA communities are deeply rooted in a legacy of resilience and resistance that is only growing stronger.

This year was a pivotal year for all communities of color. For SEAAs especially, the confluence of our 45th anniversary with a global pandemic, the ongoing fight in support of black lives, and a historic election, we are reminded that our fight for equity and justice continues. Only by seeing our needs and challenges through accurate data can we advocate fully for not just our visibility but our community’s civil rights as the largest community of refugees ever to be resettled in America. Armed with our community’s data, we will build our community’s self-determination from our legacy of refugee resilience to shape a new, multicultural, equitable democracy and America.

Southeast Asian American challenges in 2020: A national analysis


Southeast Asian Americans in 2020 face disparities in health and wellbeing. SEAA communities benefited from the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and continue to depend on public health insurance for survival.[4] SEAA communities have historically faced significant barriers to accessing affordable health insurance and culturally and linguistically appropriate health care. Prior to the ACA, SEAAs experienced some of the highest uninsured rates in the nation: one in five of our community members had no health insurance.[5] By 2015, uninsured rates for SEAAs were reduced by half as access to both public and private health insurance increased through the ACA and Medicaid expansion (Fig 1). Efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act—such as the vote to repeal the ACA in 2017 and ongoing efforts to litigate the ACA out of existence—directly threaten the health and wellbeing of Southeast Asian American communities.

The traumatic experiences of war, genocide, and displacement left many SEAAs with physical and mental health conditions that have gone untreated. A study conducted by RAND Health in 2005 reported that nearly two-thirds of Cambodian refugees from their study suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and more than half had depression.[6] In contrast, only 3 percent of the US population had suffered from PTSD, and about 7 percent had major depression. SEAAs also suffer disproportionately from Hepatitis B, which can lead to cirrhosis, liver cancer, and liver failure.[7]Hmong and Vietnamese women are at a higher risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer than other racial and ethnic groups.[8] Because so many community members are limited English proficient and low income, many families struggle to access the care they need to treat these urgent and chronic conditions.

Figure 1. SEAA Health Insurance Coverage Rates 2011 & 2015

As a result, SEARAC and our partners have continued to urge policymakers at the federal and state levels to support the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion in all 50 states. SEARAC received hundreds of comments from community members through our 2018 Protect Our Care campaign, each of whom extolled the importance of affordable healthcare coverage for themselves and their families. One such comment came from a community member who noted the ACA’s impact on women’s health issues. “I began taking oral contraceptives in 2002—I spent roughly $1,440 on oral contraception, at least $160 on well-woman visit co-pays, and the cost of the HPV vaccine (which was strongly recommended) from the age of 14,” wrote one commenter. “My mother, sister, and I have been able to access well-woman visits free of charge since ACA, which also covered birth control for myself and my sister.” Attacks against the ACA have occurred at all levels since its passage, and the legislation has been significantly weakened; and yet, its importance to Southeast Asian American health cannot be overstated. Due to SEAA’s experience with historical trauma and the deep disparities that continue to persist in our community’s care, bold steps are needed by our elected leaders to ensure that communities of color, immigrants and refugees have access to high quality affordable care that is culturally and linguistically responsive to their unique needs.

Economic security

The economic disparities faced by Southeast Asian Americans also loom large. Nearly 1.1 million Southeast Asian Americans are low-income, and about 460,000 live in poverty.[9] Hmong Americans fare worst compared to all racial groups across multiple measures of income. Nearly 60 percent of Hmong Americans are low-income, and more than one of every four live in poverty (Fig 2). As a result of continued socioeconomic insecurity, Southeast Asian Americans also struggle with housing instability; all SEAA subgroups, with the exception of Vietnamese Americans, also have lower than average homeownership rates in the United States. Those with home mortgages are more likely to be housing cost-burdened than average (32 percent). Vietnamese American mortgagors (45 percent) have the highest rate of being housing cost-burdened than all racial groups.[10] As such, policies that promote economic security to help working families including immigrants and refugees, such as funding for food stamps (SNAP), rental and mortgage assistance, supplemental security income, student loan forgiveness, and many others are so critical now more than ever.


In 2020, SEAAs still face great educational hurdles. Language barriers faced by Southeast Asian Americans impact our ability to access healthcare, education, and economic opportunities. Nearly 90 percent of SEAAs speak a language other than English at home, and 45 percent of SEAAs are limited English proficient (LEP). Both rates are higher when compared to Asian Americans as a whole and other racial groups.[11] For Southeast Asian American older adults, those rates jump as high as 95 percent, and many of those elders live in houses where no one else speaks English.[12] Limited English proficiency has left SEAA communities more vulnerable to fraud and scams, lacking access to essential services, and lagging behind their peers in educational attainment. Nearly 30 percent of Southeast Asian Americans have not completed high school or passed the GED, a rate more than double the national average (13 percent).[13] There are also gender disparities in educational attainment rates across the SEAA ethnic groups. A larger proportion of women than men have not completed high school, a difference that ranges from 6 percent among Laotian Americans to 11 percent among Cambodian Americans. Only one-quarter of SEAAs hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the one-half of Asian Americans who do.

Figure 2. Poverty and Low Income

Disaggregated data are key to understanding the educational disparities facing Southeast Asian Americans. The terminology currently used by most survey instruments to collect data about our communities is wildly insufficient. Overarching categories such as “Asian” fail to account for meaningful differences among racial and ethnic subgroups. The term “Asian” or “AAPI” encompasses 25 different racial groups who speak more than 50 different languages. When the data about poverty, language, health, and educational attainment are disaggregated, we begin to understand the varied experiences of Southeast Asian Americans and the disparities that our diverse communities face. We miss out on these differences when people are constrained to identify themselves by broad categories—or when we don’t ask them to identify themselves at all. Aggregated data also assume that everyone under those overarching umbrellas has the same identity, history, and culture, which we know is untrue.

The California AAPI Youth Assessment was launched in 2019 to illuminate the stark disparities that diverse AAPI youth face. Building on the success of a 2014 AAPI youth data disaggregation survey in Oakland, CA, SEARAC and CHARGE collected 813 survey responses from AAPI youth and young adults, ages 12-30, throughout California and conducted five focus groups with AAPI youth and young adults in Fresno, Long Beach, San Jose, Santa Ana, and Stockton. Survey results and focus group discussions illustrated how youth from marginalized AAPI groups experience significant educational disparities. For example, one in two Cambodian, Laotian, and Iu Mien students in our research had not taken classes that taught them about their ethnic history, culture, or identity.[14] “I’m constantly telling people about our history, or some of the struggles we are going through, because they don’t get to learn about it. [Teachers] don’t teach it in school. I have to educate people about us, and that’s hard,” shared one focus group participant. Expanding and reporting on disaggregated AAPI data in public K-12 and higher education institutions, developing culturally competent student and parent support services, and developing ethnic studies curricula that reflects the diversity of our communities will help address the disparities in educational attainment that SEAA students are experiencing.


Finally, the impacts of restrictive immigration policies and rampant deportations, which have increased exponentially under the Trump administration, have created fear and trauma among Southeast Asian American communities. Since 1998, at least 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans have received final orders of deportation despite many arriving in the US with refugee status and obtaining a green card. Due to stringent immigration policies enacted under President Clinton, Southeast Asian American communities are three to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions compared with other immigrant communities.[15] The reason for this is due to two sweeping policies passed by Congress in 1996. The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) uniquely impacted immigrants, including lawful permanent residents.[16] Southeast Asian refugees with green cards were suddenly vulnerable to mandatory detention and deportation for a broader category of crimes through the expanded definition of “aggravated felonies” in these laws. Due to the retroactive nature of these policies, individuals found themselves being unfairly punished for very old crimes, for which they had already served their sentences. The mandatory nature of these laws also tied the hands of immigration judges to review cases of individuals before sentencing them for deportation. In many cases, individuals who were deported had turned their lives around after their crime and were active community members, business owners, and caregivers for their US citizen families.

In SEARAC’s 2018 joint report with the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, “Dreams Detained, in Her Words: The effects of deportation on Southeast Asian American women and families,” we spoke with several SEAA female community members whose families were impacted by detention and deportation. The interviewees talked about the health, economic, and community impacts of having their loved ones detained and/or deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).[17] One woman, Jenny, despite losing health insurance from her husband’s job, sought therapy for her and her children to deal with the mounting stress of raising four children, fighting her husband’s deportation case, and organizing a community of other women whose family members were detained. Family members never know how long detention might last or if their loved one will eventually be deported, heightening the anxiety of living in a constant limbo of unknown outcomes while pursuing different avenues of legal action. “A lot of people get kind of stuck or have anxiety, especially people within our Cambodian community,” Jenny shared. “I remember my mom, my mother in-law, she has a lot of fear of authority. I had asked her to go to DC with me one of the times . . . She couldn’t pack her bag, and I had to walk her through all of the packing because she just kind of was in shock. She was in shock because her son was getting taken away from her.”

SEAAs require a pathway to meaningful immigration reform and a new vision for the US immigration system. Representatives Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Pramila Jayapal, Karen Bass, and Ayanna Pressley understood that need and introduced the New Way Forward Act (H.R. 5383) in December 2019, a historic bill that restores due process protections for immigrants and refugees facing detention and deportation; decriminalizes migration; and creates an opportunity for deported loved ones to come home.[18] Our communities cannot just push to prevent or renegotiate bilateral agreements but must uproot the very laws and system that have criminalized our people and torn our families apart. Supporting the New Way Forward Act is a start in that direction.

COVID-19 impact

These existing challenges and systemic barriers have been exacerbated in 2020 by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Despite the best efforts of educators and school staff, many Southeast Asian American students have been left behind during widespread school closures. The transition to remote, online learning has revealed longstanding gaps in digital access among SEAA families. Twelve percent of Cambodian, 9 percent of Hmong, 11 percent of Lao, and 9 percent of Vietnamese American households lack a broadband internet subscription.[19] Many SEAA students pursuing higher education rely on financial aid and employment to pay for college. However, the economic shutdowns due to the pandemic and the revenue shortfalls for institutions across the country that have shut down campuses are limiting these sources of financial assistance.[20]

Under COVID-19, fears have heightened among SEAA immigrants in detention facilities who fear exposure due to ICE’s historical record of overcrowding and inadequate health and safety precautions. Health disparities have been further exacerbated with SEAA community members facing increased mental strife, including increased isolation for elders impacted by social distancing measures, and increased generational and cultural tension between youth and parents who are home-bound due to school closures and lay-offs. An increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and harassment across the country has been reported after officials used phrases like “China virus” to discuss COVID-19.[21] Additionally, because disaggregated data on COVID-19 does not exist for Asian American communities, the seemingly lower rate of COVID-19 contraction by Asian Americans paints a misleading picture and conceals the real impacts facing SEAA communities who have higher rates of pre-existing chronic health conditions compared to other Asian American communities.[22] Anecdotal information exists around the high impact of COVID-19 on Southeast Asian American workers in the meatpacking industry in the midwestern states, but the lack of data continues to be a barrier to understanding the full depth of the problem.

Resilience in SEAA communities: local case studies

The challenges that we face are great, but despite these obstacles Southeast Asian American refugee communities comprise one of the most resilient American narratives known in history. SEAAs are vital members of our society, and we have found creative ways to honor our legacy and support our communities. In the face of a global pandemic, SEAAs have been working tirelessly to feed, house, and care for those most in need through food drives, tele-health, virtual education programming, fundraisers, and advocacy for those left behind or left out of the stimulus packages. 

When a stay-at-home order was issued in Seattle, WA, the leadership, staff, and partners of Kandelia, a Seattle-based organization serving the local refugee and immigrant communities, took the initiative to call and message every student and family they served to see how they were doing— and learned that many were in dire circumstances.[23] “We had an overwhelming number of reports of families who were out of work, out of money, and out of food,” said Tamthy Le, interim executive director. “One family was eating tortillas and salt by the time we got a hold of them.” As a result, Kandelia began compiling all the needs that families had, including food, rental assistance, diapers, hygiene products, internet/technology. Community members responded quickly to help fill these needs. “Since then, we have provided over 1,200 bags of food/basic needs items and over $150,000 in financial assistance,” Tamthy said.

Similarly, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf extended his statewide stay-at-home order on March 17, 2020, the staff at the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia (CAGP) children and youth development team switched gears to plan a brand-new digital program for its preschool and elementary school program.[24] By the fourth week of the closures, CAGP’s education programs went completely virtual. Coming out of that experience were even stronger relationships with school and organizational partners, as well as with the families of students. “For families whose English is not their first language, the acclimation time to remote learning is lengthier due to higher need of digital navigation support,” CAGP’s children and youth development director, Raksmeymony (Rex) Yin said. “Even now since mid-April, we are still supporting families to adjust to the new learning systems. Some schools have deemed a lot of these students as out-of-reach and out-of-touch and have been seeking a community organization like CAGP to be that bridge to the families.”

This year also brought a long-overdue racial reckoning to communities across the United States as uprisings responded to police brutality against Black and African Americans, sparked by the murder of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, MN. As refugees and descendants of refugees, as survivors of war and genocide, Southeast Asian American communities also know the devastating impacts of police force. We acknowledge that our own paths to equity are a direct product of their historic civil rights wins and struggles, that they continue to build, as well as to endure, to this day. In fact, a 1978 International Rescue Committee ad entitled “Black Americans Urge Admission of the Indochinese Refugees” in The New York Times documents the support of major Black leaders for the admittance of Southeast Asian refugees into the United States (Fig 3).

In SEARAC’s statement in support of Black Lives, issued in May 2020, we urged Southeast Asian American communities to acknowledge the systems that have benefitted from having communities of color pitted against one another and boldly resist them.[25] Other SEAA community-based organizations echoed that sentiment. “While Asian communities have been rewarded for our assimilation into whiteness with the lie of the ‘model minority’ myth, it is at times like this crisis that we should remember that our status is always conditional and subject to being taken away by xenophobia,” wrote the Asian Minnesotans Against Racism & Xenophobia Collaborative.[26] Joan Chun, Deputy Director of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association, reflected on the protests and outrage that took hold in hundreds of US cities and wondered, “If the world had stayed silent forever while the Khmer Rouge genocide was happening, what would the outcome have been like? How many more families would have been separated? How many more people would have been killed?”[27] We stand unequivocally with Black and Brown communities facing violence, oppression, disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, and socioeconomic and health disparities.

Looking ahead

As we reflect on the challenges and resiliency of the Southeast Asian American communities, we are also looking ahead to the work that needs to be done. This is a long-term struggle that will not be resolved by a presidential election or the end of a global pandemic, as important as those two milestones are; we are a community of people working to build the future for which our ancestors fought. Beyond 2020 and the 45th anniversary of our arrival to the United States, we envision a time when there is no longer deportation and detention of our families and communities, where all public data are disaggregated to reveal community-specific needs and tailor specific interventions, where everyone has access to culturally responsive healthcare, and where families are living with dignity and thriving, not just surviving. It is our responsibility to create that future, and we will do so with love and collaboration. Here’s to the next 45 years.

Figure 3. 1978 International Rescue Committee ad in the New York Times

Sokunthary Svay (co-founder of Cambodian American Literary Arts Association) shared this image on 5/30/2020, derived from her scholarly research conducted in the New York Public Library in 2018.


[1] “Annual Reports to Congress (Fiscal Years 1981-2000),” Office of Refugee Resettlement (Washington, DC: Office of Refugee Resettlement, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,1982-2001).

[2] “2015 American Community Survey, 1-Year Estimates,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed 10 February 2020,

[3] “SEARAC Applauds Introduction of 45th Anniversary Southeast Asian American Resolution,” SEARAC, 5 May 2020,

[4] Southeast Asian Americans Speak Out to Protect the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid Expansion (Washington, DC: SEARAC, 16 April 2018) [PDF file]. 

[5] “2009 American Community Survey, 1-Year Estimates,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed 10 February 2020,

[6] Grant N. Marshall et al., “Mental Health of Cambodian Refugees 2 Decades After Resettlement in the United States,” JAMA no. 294 (2005): 571-9.

[7] Vince Cobalis, Lesley Varghese, and Peteria Chan, Asian American Health Assessment (Asian American Resource Center, 10 July 2014) [PDF file].

[8] Nancy K. Herther et al., “Health Disparities Research in the Hmong American Community: Implications for Practice and Policy,” Hmong Studies Journal no. 13.2 (2010): 1-31.

[9] “2011–2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, C17002,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed 10 February 2020,

[10] Southeast Asian American Journeys (SEARAC, 2020) [PDF file].

[11] “2011–2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, Table B16004,” U.S. Census Bureau, accessed 10 February 2020,

[12] Southeast Asian American Elders #TellACL (SEARAC, December 2016) [PDF file].

[13] Southeast Asian American Journeys (SEARAC, 7 February 2020) [PDF file].

[14] Can you see me? School culture and climate for California’s AAPI youth (SEARAC, 17 November 2020) [PDF file].

[15] Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders behind Bars: Exposing the School to Prison to Deportation Pipeline (Washington, DC: National Education Association, December 2015) [PDF file].

[16] Agnes Constante, “Decades after resettlement, Cambodian refugees vulnerable to prison-to-deportation pipeline,” NBC News, 27 April 2020. 

[17] Dreams Detained, in Her Words (SEARAC, 2018) [PDF file].

[18] Kham S. Moua, “The New Way Forward Act is Necessary to Combat Southeast Asian Deportations,” SEARAC, 27 February 2020. 

[19] “American community survey 1-year estimate: Selected

population profile in the United States,” US. Census Bureau, accessed 6 November 2020,

[20] Quyen T. Dinh, Katrina D. Mariategue, and Anna H. Byon, “COVID-19 – Revealing Unaddressed Systemic Barriers in the 45th Anniversary of the Southeast Asian American Experience,” Journal of Southeast Asian American Education and Advancement vol. 15: iss. 2, article 11 (2020).

[21] Kimmy Yam, “Anti-Asian bias rose after media, officials used ‘China virus,’ report shows,” NBC News, 29 September 2020.

[22] Agnes Constante, “Why the Asian American Covid data picture is so incomplete,” NBC News, 20 October 2020.

[23] “Tamthy Le,” SEARAC, 23 July 2020, 

[24] “Raksmeymony Yin,” SEARAC, 15 July 2020,

[25] “SEARAC Statement on the Death of George Floyd,” SEARAC, 27 May 2020,

[26] “Unity and Solidarity for George Floyd,” Coalition of Asian Leaders, 29 May 2020, 

[27] Joan Chun, “Khmer community—It is time for us to say Black Lives Matter,” Southeast Asia Globe, 15 June 2020,