The United States orderly departure program

ODP/International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC), Joint Voluntary Agency
Bangkok, Thailand



The collapse of the government of South Vietnam in April of 1975 was marked by the departure of over 150,000 people. Over the course of the next few years, a small number of clandestine departures–primarily by boat–continued. There were few legal departures.

Massive boat departures from Vietnam in 1978 and 1979 gave urgency to the need to establish a safer means of exodus for those wishing to leave. In 1979, a Memorandum of Understanding was negotiated between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), establishing the Orderly Departure Program (ODP), an international effort involving more than 40 receiving countries.

The objective of the ODP is to establish an alternative to clandestine and often hazardous boat departures by providing a legal emigration program for those seeking family reunification, or those of special interest to the various resettlement countries. The ODP also seeks to minimize the strain large numbers of refugee arrivals have placed on the region's countries of first asylum. This paper outlines the procedures currently followed by the U.S. Orderly Departure Program.


Inquiries and information received from persons in the US and Vietnam concerning ODP cases are reviewed upon receipt. Such inquiries are acknowledged, and ODP records are updated to reflect any new information contained therein. Detailed responses to all inquiries are not possible, however, given the enormous volume of mail received by ODP. We feel it is more useful to devote the bulk of our efforts and resources to processing cases of high priority or which are authorized by the SRV to be interviewed rather than to dilute that effort to provide more `information to people enquiring about cases. It is hoped this paper will answer most questions about ODP.

ODP currently maintains files on the applications of over 700,000 individuals in Vietnam. Files are being opened on the basis of approved Immigrant Visa Petitions (I-130's) filed by the applicants' relatives in the United States; visa petitions filed for fiancees of American citizens; special immigrants; evidence of Amerasian ethnicity; evidence of former close association with US policies and programs in Vietnam; and evidence of lengthy internment in re-education camps. People wishing to sponsor a relative in Vietnam should file an I-130 immigrant visa petition as soon as they are eligible to do so.

Affidavits of Relationship (AOR's) and other documentation are accepted, but further processing cannot occur unless the beneficiary falls into one of the above categories.



LOI's are issued to indicate ODP's willingness to interview the applicants on a case. It is not a guarantee of eligibility, but nearly all LOI-holders who are interviewed are approved. Cases must first be reviewed to determine whether the applicants are in fact eligible for an LOI. Efforts are made to identify those cases of the highest priority, i.e. the cases of beneficiaries of current Immigrant Visa Petitions, applicants with the lengthiest US association or reeducation, etc. to ensure they are reviewed as quickly as possible. Although the review process has recently been greatly streamlined, the cases ready for review still far exceed ODP's resources for immediate action. Applicants and their relatives can be assured, however, that review will occur in the most equitable and expedient manner possible.

If review indicates current eligibility, LOI's are sent to sponsoring relatives in the US or to the applicants in Vietnam. Only the applicants who appear to be currently eligible for departure under the ODP are named on the LOI. If applicants or sponsors notice errors in the information contained in the LOI, they should write to the ODP office requesting change to the erroneous information. A corrected LOI will be issued. LOI's issued for immigrant cases do not usually include children of the principal applicant who are married or over age 21, but a determination of such person's eligibility for departure via ODP will be made at the time of interview.

Applicants should present the LOI to the security office in the area where they live, in conjunction with their applications for emigration, as a preliminary step towards an ODP interview. As well over 100,000 people in Vietnam are listed on LOI's, the time it takes for the Vietnamese response to a specific request can be quite long.

If review indicates further information, clarification, or documentation is required, the applicant and/or sponsor will be advised of further action needed.


Names of those being interviewed for the U.S. ODP are being taken from lists provided to the ODP by the Vietnamese Government. We receive such lists on a regular basis. LOI-holders have been named on the most recently received interview lists, and it is hoped that this trend will continue. Once an applicant's name appears on an interview list, US sponsors are notified of any further action required to complete the application.

People appearing on lists who do not appear to have a basis for ODP eligibility, for example the cousin of an American citizen with no other qualifying characteristics, may either be rejected without interview or deferred indefinitely. The applicants in Vietnam are usually given notice by the Vietnamese government when they are issued a passport or exit permit, or are going to be put on a list given to the ODP. It is usually several months between getting the notice or passport and the list's actually being delivered to ODP. It may be several more months before the ODP interview actually occurs. Although passports and exit permits often have a one year validity, that is easily and routinely extended. There is no need to inform ODP that an applicant has received a notice of listing, or an exit permit, as we cannot take action until a list is actually received.


All immigrants and parolees traveling to the U.S. via the ODP must have their travel expenses paid in advance. Immigrants must also pay visa fees in advance. People traveling to the U.S. as refugees will continue to be required to sign a promissory note regarding repayment of their travel loan. ODP applicants who qualify for immigrant visas do not have the option of travelling as refugees. US sponsors will be sent instructions regarding payment after their relatives' interview in Vietnam. Payment should not be sent until specifically requested by the ODP. Payment without having received notification will not expedite the interview process as compilation of the interview lists is controlled by the Vietnamese authorities, and does not hasten our proposing the name for interview.

When all requirements are completed, ODP submits the applicants' names to the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Working Group in Vietnam with a request that an interview be scheduled. When there are more “complete” cases than can be accommodated at interviews, the cases of higher priority are given preference for interview. The applicants will be notified of the date of the interview by the authorities in Vietnam. All ODP interviews are conducted by ODP Consular Officers and officers of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), and take place in Ho Chi Minh City.

Adjudication of applications usually takes place at the time of interview. Applicants are advised of the results at that time. Notification of final action on the case is sent to US sponsors shortly after the interview occurs. Teams of interviewers now travel to Vietnam for two weeks at a time, and have interviewed up to 3200 people on one trip.


All ODP applicants (except those few already documented as US citizens) are required to undergo medical examinations prior to departure from Vietnam. These examinations are scheduled and performed by staff of Cho Ray Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City in conjunction with the Intergovernmental Committee for Migration (ICM). The validity of medical examination results expires after one year. ICM forwards the results of medical examinations to ODP through the UNHCR.


When all of the steps noted above have been completed, ODP notifies the UNHCR Working Group of the case's final approval and requests movement from Vietnam. Departure from Vietnam is scheduled by the Vietnamese authorities. ICM makes all arrangements for transportation of ODP applicants from Vietnam to Bangkok or Manila. It should be noted that movement from Vietnam is subject to the availability of seating on scheduled and chartered flights from Vietnam, which often results in delays. In March, 1989, a record 3,662 U.S.-bound passengers departed Vietnam.

ODP receives manifests listing individuals expected to depart Vietnam on a given date two to four weeks prior to departure.



All ODP immigrants depart directly from Bangkok for the US. Some refugees and most applicants admitted under the Amerasian Immigrant subprogram are required to spend six months in the Refugee Processing Center in the Philippines. The services and educational programs in the PRPC are designed to provide Indochinese Refugees with essential medical and dental attention, English language instruction and cross-cultural awareness training.

Only Amerasians, their accompanying family members, and refugee applicants requiring certain medical treatment are currently being scheduled for - training in the PRPC. This is due to limitations of the facilities in the PRPC.


Those persons leaving Vietnam via ODP who arrive in Bangkok do so with the cooperation of the Royal Thai Government which requires advance notification of each person's arrival. Under various agreements with our host country, the needs of the incoming people are monitored and/or met by the UNHCR, ICM, and ODP. Travel, food and housing are provided and additional medical examinations, if necessary, are given while U.S. travel documents are prepared in Bangkok. The Royal Thai government automatically provides a special 12 day visa to allow time for this and only when medical conditions override the departure schedules does anyone stay longer in Bangkok.

As soon as onward travel arrangements are completed, ICM notifies the local voluntary agency working with the US sponsor of scheduled arrival dates and times.


The U.S. Orderly Departure Program is part of the Refugee and Migration Affairs Section of the American Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) has a cooperative agreement with the Department of State to coordinate and implement major aspects of the ODP. Interested persons can write to the ODP office at either of the following addresses:

  • The Orderly Departure Program
  •     ICMC/ODP
  • Box 58
  •     Panjabhum Building
  • American Embassy
  •     127 South Sathorn Road
  • APO San Francisco 96346-0001
  •     Bangkok 10120, Thailand


Some other points:

  • * FRAUD: Some applicants and sponsors present false documents in support of a case. If this is detected it will delay the processing of the case and could also result in a finding of ineligibility.
  • * MEDICAL EXAMINATIONS: Some applicants disguise an existing medical condition in order to expedite their departure. This can be a danger to the health of others travelling, as well as to the applicant. Medical misrepresentation can result in delayed treatment and recovery, delayed processing, and even a return to Vietnam of passengers found to have fraudulently obtained a medical clearance. Most medical conditions, including tuberculosis, venereal disease and high blood pressure, can and should be treated in Vietnam prior to travel.
  • * BOAT DEPARTURE: People who have ODP files, and even Letters of Introduction, are not automatically eligible for U.S. resettlement if they clandestinely leave Vietnam by boat. There are many people with LOIs now in refugee camps in Southeast Asia who have found they cannot now be considered for resettlement. This is especially likely if the people are not the “principal applicant” on the LOI, as without their other family members they may be of low resettlement priority. In some cases, “family reunification” LOI holders may not be resettled if in a refugee camp in the region. This change, as well as the dangers of drowning or other misfortune, should be seriously considered by people contemplating illegal departures.
  • * TOURIST PASSPORTS: Occasionally Vietnamese citizens depart Vietnam legally on passports issued purposes such as tourism or medical treatment. Some of these individuals then contact our office to apply for admission to the U.S. as refugees or immigrants. While it may be possible to migrate in this way, there is no guarantee of success. Such applicants risk being found ineligible for resettlement in the U.S. Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.
About this text
Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Main Library 5th Floor, PO Box 19557, Irvine, CA 92623-9557;
Title: The United States orderly departure program
By:  International Catholic Migration Commission, Author
Date: 1990
Contributing Institution: Special Collections and Archives. The UC Irvine Libraries, Main Library 5th Floor, PO Box 19557, Irvine, CA 92623-9557;
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Material in public domain. No restrictions on use