(CNN) -- An important part of Jimmy Carter's legacy has not received much attention, even amid the recent spate of tributes to the 39th president of the United States after entering a hospice facility.

The actions Carter took during his presidency continue to shape America decades after he left office. But they didn't help him at the ballot box.

Thanks to Carter's actions, hundreds of thousands of people fleeing persecution had the opportunity to reach the United States when he was president. And millions more resettled in the United States after he left office.

"He was well aware of the political cost," says Carter biographer Kai Bird, author of "The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter." When it came to tackling tough issues, Bird says, Carter didn't shy away from doing what he thought was right.

And that's where Carter found himself in the summer of 1979, making a decision that went against what polls said most Americans wanted.


Most Americans disapproved of Carter. Still, he took this step

The scenes on the other side of the world were devastating.

Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing government oppression in Southeast Asia threw themselves into the sea, with many drowning as they tried to escape.

A crisis that began before Carter took office was growing more serious by the day. In 1978, Carter ordered U.S. ships to pick up fleeing refugees by boat. A year later, the exodus only intensified.

And as world leaders gathered to discuss the major issues facing their countries, Carter took a drastic stance, announcing that the United States would double the number of refugees accepted monthly from the region, from 7,000 to 14,000. The measure, according to the press of the time, was intended to encourage other countries to take similar measures.

Many of the refugees who left Vietnam in the years after the fall of Saigon fled on boats and found safe harbor, like the group photographed here in 1978. But thousands did not survive the journey. (Credit: Fred Ihrt/LightRocket/Getty Images)

He was not politically popular. As writer Thu-Huong Ha noted in a 2016 article for Quartz, a CBS and The New York Times poll showed that 62% of Americans disapproved. And a Gallup poll indicated that 57% of Americans opposed the United States easing its immigration policies for refugees from the region.

Carter did it anyway.

"We are prepared to act with the compassion that has traditionally characterized the United States as it faces these human crisis situations," Carter said in a statement released by the White House announcing the new policy. "Thousands of human lives are at stake."

His family found freedom thanks to Carter's "political courage"

Bee Nguyen says it's something her family never forgot.

"My mother is what would be considered apolitical. My father is conservative. ... (President Carter) was the only political person that both of my parents spoke of with respect and affection, and they continue to do so to this day," says Nguyen, a former Georgia state representative.

That respect, Nguyen says, Carter earned with actions that changed the course of his parents' lives.

Nguyen says his parents fled Vietnam by boat in 1978. A Thai fisherman rescued them and they spent months in refugee camps in Thailand.

"My parents risked their lives. They left a country where they suffered the loss of civil liberties, where my father was imprisoned by his own government. They were looking for freedom," says Nguyen.

They found her in Iowa, where they moved in 1979.

"They were only able to do it because of President Carter's political courage," he says.

As #AAPIHeritageMonth comes to a close, I honor every day: my father – he served in the Vietnamese army, was imprisoned by his government & built a life in America as an engineer & pharmacist. My mother – she helped facilitate her family's escape by boat & raised 5 daughters. ♥️ pic.twitter.com/VZa8vYxQIj

— Bee Nguyen 🐝 (@BeeForGeorgia) May 25, 2023

Nguyen was born a few years later, and says what he heard from Carter growing up — and from then-Iowa Gov. Robert Ray, a Republican, who also worked hard to welcome refugees — shaped his own vision of America.

Over the years, Americans' views on their responsibilities toward refugees have fluctuated. Last year, according to a Pew Research Center poll, 72% of Americans said that taking in refugees from countries where people are trying to escape violence and war should be a very or fairly important goal of U.S. immigration policy. race and ethnicity.

For Nguyen, the stance taken by Carter and other politicians is as important today as it was when his parents arrived.

"It is important that we learn as a country, that we remember and understand that we, as a nation, from a values perspective and by law ... We promised as a nation to be a safe haven for people fleeing, for people whose lives are in danger," he says.

Carter's fateful decision that summer of 1979 was not the only step he took in that direction.

Carter signed a law that paved the way for millions of people to reach the U.S.

On the frigid day that Faith Akovi Cooper first set foot in the United States with her mother and siblings, Carter was no longer in office. But she says she sees a direct connection between the former U.S. president and the life he has led since that day in January 1993.

At the time, she was a refugee who fled the war in Liberia. Thanks to a law signed by Carter, the Refugee Act of 1980, his family was able to move to Reston, Virginia.

The law, signed by President Carter in March 1980, created the framework used to help those fleeing persecution around the world seek a better life in the United States.

"My family is here today because of that law," Cooper says. And now, as the International Rescue Committee's regional director of resettlement, asylum and integration in the southern border region of the United States, she says she is even more aware of the enormous impact the law has had.

"Millions of people have had the opportunity to rebuild their lives in America," Cooper says.

This family photo taken in Liberia shows Faith Akovi Cooper, right, and her mother, Abena Clement. Cooper says all his childhood memories were lost when his home was destroyed during Liberia's civil war, but a relative gave him this photo shortly after arriving in the United States. (Courtesy: Faith Cooper)

She was one of them. Rebuilding her life in the United States included pursuing a career in global health and eventually working for a major refugee resettlement organization.

More than three million refugees have arrived in the United States since 1980, including such well-known figures as actress Mila Kunis, singer Regina Spektor and Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar.

"Millions are taxpaying Americans who have contributed so much to our communities and our economy," Carter said in a 2021 statement to mark the law's anniversary.

More than 125,000 refugees from Southeast Asia fled to the United States immediately after the fall of Saigon, and even more would arrive during Carter's presidency. Although fewer refugees a year arrived in the United States after Carter left office, the country's refugee resettlement program created by the 1980 law became a sought-after avenue.

The law officially defined a refugee as someone with a "well-founded fear of persecution," nearly tripled the number of refugees the U.S. would accept, and created a process for adjusting that number in emergencies.

"Desperate refugees were drowning and dying exposed to our doors, but the United States lacked a legal structure to receive them in an orderly manner," Carter said in 2021.

Although Carter's earlier move to take in more refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was not politically popular, the Refugee Act passed Congress with near-unanimous support.

"This was a humanitarian crisis on which Republicans and Democrats agreed. And even in the midst of a very bitter primary campaign... we were still able to cooperate, because the problem was so massive and so important," recalled Stuart Eizenstat, Carter's top domestic policy adviser during his presidency, in a 2019 interview with HIAS.

The ink had barely dried when an unexpected challenge arose.

But it wasn't long before Carter found himself once again making an unpopular decision.

"We were challenged almost immediately, with crises that were not anticipated," Eizenstat said in the 2019 interview with HIAS.

One of the most significant was developed less than 161 miles (100 kilometers) off U.S. shores.

In April 1980, Cuba's then-President Fidel Castro proclaimed that any Cuban citizen who wanted to immigrate to the United States could do so. The catch? They were to depart from the port of Mariel, about 48 miles (30 kilometers) from Havana. And they had to have arranged for someone to pick them up on a boat and take them to Florida.

A U.S. Marine helps a Cuban boy get off a ship arriving in Key West, Florida, on May 10, 1980. (Credit: Fernando Yovera/AP)

A few weeks later, addressing the national convention of the League of Women Voters in Miami, Carter noted that the United States was a "country of refugees" that would "continue to offer an open heart and arms" to those fleeing Cuba.

The operation became known as the Mariel exodus. Carter referred to the ships as "freedom flotillas." But media coverage of those escaping oppression for the chance of a better life was quickly drowned out by reports that Castro had also seized the opportunity to empty prisons and psychiatric institutions.

In an interview with CNN on the network's first day of broadcast, June 1, 1980, Carter faced questions about a Cuban refugee revolt at an Arkansas resettlement center, where buildings were set on fire and hostages were taken.

According to José Manuel García, associate professor of Hispanic Literature and Latin American Studies at Florida Southern College, several thousand hardened criminals arrived in the United States during that exodus of 125,000 people. It was a small fraction of the group, Garcia says, who participated in the exodus and wrote a book and worked on a documentary that shares the experiences of others who made the journey.

Florida Democrats shake hands with President Jimmy Carter as he enters the Florida House of Representatives on Oct. 10, 1980, before signing a bill providing up to $100 million to help reimburse Florida and other states following an influx of arrivals from Cuba and Haiti. (Credit: Foley/AP)

Garcia was 13 years old when he left Cuba with his family. And he says many Cubans who made that same trip went on to build successful businesses and media careers in the United States.

But the bad reputation of the Cubans known as Marielitos took firm root, even going so far as to be mentioned at the beginning of the 1983 film "Scarface."

"Even years later, 40 years later, whenever I tell someone... the first thing that comes to mind is, 'You came with those criminals.' That's the image that has persisted," Garcia says.

Think about what you would say to President Carter if you ever met.

Carter, who was running for a second term, eventually changed his stance on boatlifting. Washington and Havana agreed that it would end just days before the 1980 elections. Analysts say Carter's handling of the crisis was a contributing factor to his defeat by Ronald Reagan.

Beyond the 1980 presidential vote, there was likely another, longer-term cost to Democrats, biographer Bird notes. The boatlift, according to Bird, helped bolster South Florida's conservative political landscape, as many Cubans who fled Castro's communist regime ended up voting Republican when they became U.S. citizens.

Among more conservative Cuban-Americans, Carter is not a popular figure, Garcia says. Many felt that his handling of the bailout was weak and that Castro easily manipulated it.

But Garcia says he sees Carter's legacy differently.

This family photo shows José Manuel García with his father, mother and sister in 1980, a few days after his arrival in New York after arriving in the United States in the Mariel exodus. (Courtesy: Jose Manuel Garcia)

"He was a humanitarian. And it was someone whose main goal was, 'We're going to help these poor people escaping communism. They want a better life and we're going to do everything we can to help them,'" he says. "I've had all these opportunities because of the Mariel exodus... and President Carter was willing to help us come to America."

Garcia says he's always wanted to interview Carter about that time. Now that the former president is receiving palliative care, he knows he's not likely to get the chance. But he keeps thinking about what he would say to him if they ever cross paths.

"It would be an honor for me to tell him, 'Listen, I appreciate what you did for me and my family,'" Garcia says.

Carter's actions may have cost him re-election, but Garcia says they gave him — and so many others — a chance to live the life they had dreamed of having.