In response to the end of the Vietnam War and the influx of Southeast Asian refugees into America, Rob Stein founded SEARAC’s predecessor, the Indochina Refugee Action Center (IRAC) in 1979. U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War left a violent and tragic legacy on many Southeast Asians. More specifically, aggressive U.S. foreign policy led towards the repeated bombing of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam and in the process it also destroyed many families as well as their ability to self-sustain. As a result, many Southeast Asians sought refuge in Thailand away from the struggle. Eventually, the U.S. began accepting these refugees into the country as well. However, the lack of a concrete placement policy program left many refugees to be placed in incredibly rough housing situations with little support.
Thus, IRAC’s initial priority was to focus on improving the domestic resettlement system. Their early work culminated in the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which streamlined and normalized the process of assistance given to refugees in the U.S. Following this, the organization transitioned to Southeast Asian leadership as well as changing the name to its current iteration of Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC).
Under the name of SEARAC, the organization now focuses on advancing Southeast Asian (specifically Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese American) communities to create a socially just society. SEARAC works towards this by focusing on four fundamental areas: Policy/Advocacy, Community Engagement, and Leadership and Organization Development. Originating in Washington D.C., the national organization eventually opened another office in California. Through these two locations, SEARAC was able to reach two large Southeast Asian enclaves on the west and east coasts. In addition to their physical presence, the organization is also located online with an informational website containing numerous resources.
One of the areas SEARAC works towards is education policy changes and the disaggregation of data. Southeast Asian refugees and Americans have often been overlooked and shadowed by East Asian communities. The lack of disaggregated data hides the educational disparities that Southeast Asian refugees face. For example, just over 60% of most Southeast Asian communities aged 25 and over hold a high school degree or higher compared to the 85% national US average. To obtain a more accurate picture, SEARAC campaigns in areas, schools, and districts with any large immigrant and Asian American Pacific Islander communities to report academic achievement and growth data in regards to different Southeast Asian ethnicities.
Another area SEARAC works in is campaigning for immigration policy because deportations greatly affect the Cambodian community. Crimes committed while Cambodian refugees are permanent residents not only warrant them jail time, but also later comes the risk of deportation. To prevent the destruction of families and unfair treatment, SEARAC highlights and work towards policy changes that will benefit many other communities of color. Overall, SEARAC is an organization with broad and far-reaching interests to help Southeast Asian refugees and their families.