Cambodian Immigration

The story behind the Watt Munisotaram, a $1.59 million Cambodian Theravada Buddhist temple dubbed the “Holy Site on a Hill” by one reporter and “a big Chinese restaurant” by a local, begins with war.1 In 1975, the civil war in Cambodia ceasaed when the Communist Khmer Rouge forces entered Phnom Penh and took power, initiating a reinvention of Khmer society that would start afresh at “Year Zero”.2 Unfortunately, the end of one conflict gave way to an even deadlier one. Led by Saloth Sar (better known by his nom de guerre Pol Pot), the Khmer Rouge sought to transform Cambodia into a self-sufficient agrarian communist state. The Khmer Rouge first evacuated people from urban areas and led them to the countryside to start their life of farming for the State. All currencies, markets, religion, and other capitalist and spiritual ways of life were prohibited. Intellectuals such as teachers, students, and doctors were persecuted because they represented the “modernist” view and were seen as a threat to the regime. Buddhism was seen as counter to communist ideology so the Rouge began systematically killing monks and other religious leaders. In less than four years, between 1.7 million and 2.5 million people died either of starvation or murder, out of a total population of 8 million.3

Buddhism was seen as counter to communist ideology so the Rouge began systematically killing monks and other religious leaders. In less than four years, between 1.7 million and 2.5 million people died either of starvation or murder, out of a total population of 8 million.

Before 1975, virtually no Cambodians lived in the United States and not one entered the U.S. between 1969-1976.4 Cambodian refugees began immigrating to the United States in large numbers in 1979, with the biggest wave of immigrants coming in the early 1980s during the peak of the Khmer Rouge killings. The Luce-Celler Immigration Act of 1946 granted very few Asians the right to enter the country on special visas, although even in this regard Cambodians were still not granted entry as a group. A few individuals came as students, or on special visas, but the turning point in American immigration law came in 1965 with the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act, which brought an end to “country of origin quotas”. These changes in immigration law were coupled with an increased interest in Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism, by non-Asians in Americans, and led to greater religious diversification in the U.S.5 Starting in the 1970’s, refugee populations from Southeast Asia (especially Cambodia) immigrated to the U.S. in substantial numbers.

  1. Brown, Curt. "HOLY SITE ON THE HILL; The rolling farmlands near tiny Hampton, in rural Dakota County, now boast the nation's newest, largest Cambodian Buddhist temple.." Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN). June 23, 2007.
  2. https://sites.google.com/a/macalester.edu/refugees/cambodians/reasons-for-leaving
  1. https://sites.google.com/a/macalester.edu/refugees/cambodians/reasons-for-leaving

  1. Cadge, Heartwood : The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America, 20.

  1. Cadge, Heartwood : The First Generation of Theravada Buddhism in America, 6.