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The History of Vietnamese Immigration
Last updated June 2, 2005

The History of Vietnamese Immigration
By Marc Povell

The history of Vietnamese immigration to the United States is relatively recent. Prior to 1975, most Vietnamese residing in the United States were spouses and children of American servicemen in Vietnam. On April 30, 1975, “the fall of Saigon” ended the Vietnam War and prompted the first of two waves of emigration from Vietnam to the United States. Vietnamese who had worked closely with Americans during the Vietnam War feared reprisals by the Communist party. 125,000 Vietnamese citizens departed their native country during the Spring of 1975. They were airlifted or fled Vietnam on U.S. military cargo ships and transferred to United States government bases in Guam, Thailand, Wake Island, Hawaii and the Philippines, as part of “Operation New Life.” Subsequently, they were transferred to four refugee centers throughout the United States: Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, and Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. Initially, Vietnamese immigrants were unwelcomed by the general American populous. A poll in 1975 showed a mere 36% of Americans were in favor of Vietnamese immigration. Fortunately, the Ford Administration supported the arrival of Vietnamese immigrants and passed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Act of 1975. This Act established a program of domestic resettlement assistance for refugees who fled from Cambodia and Vietnam.

In 1977, a second wave of Vietnamese refugees began fleeing Vietnam. This wave of emigration lasted until the mid 1980s. The second wave began as a result of the new Communist government’s implementation of economic, political and agricultural policies based on Communist ideology. These policies included “reeducation” and torture of former South Vietnamese military personnel and those presumed friendly to the South Vietnamese cause, the closing of businesses owned by ethnic Chinese Vietnamese, the seizing of farmland and redistributing it, and the mass forced relocation of citizens from urban to rural areas that were previously uncultivated or ruined during the war. During this time approximately two million Vietnamese fled Vietnam in small, overcrowded boats. This group of refugees would come to be known as the “boat people.” Most of the “boat people” fled to asylum camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines or Hong Kong and awaited acceptance by foreign countries. To assist Vietnamese refugees, Congress passed the Refugee Act of 1980 which reduced restrictions on entry to the United States. The Refugee Act of 1980 provided a definition of a refugee, created the Office of Refugee Resettlement, set the number of refugee admissions at 50,000 per year (unless in cases of an emergency), and allowed a refugee to adjust his or her status after one year to become a permanent resident and after four more years, to become a United States citizen. In addition laws were also passed to allow children of American servicemen and former political prisoners to enter the United States. In total, the United States accepted 531,310 refugees and asylum seekers from Vietnam between 1981 and 2000.

Once arrived, America’s newest immigrants were matched with one of nine voluntary agencies whose job was to coordinate the refugee’s eventual resettlement with local sponsors into communities throughout the United States. Churches and families that were interested in sponsoring a Vietnamese family promised to provide food, clothing and shelter to the refugees until they became self-sufficient. The sponsor was also responsible for helping the newly arrived immigrants find employment, registering their children for school, and general adjustment to American society. The goal of the government’s disbursement policy was not to overburden a particular city’s social resources and to assimilate the Vietnamese into mainstream society as quickly as possible. The government, however, had not considered the refugees’ need to be a part of their own community or that most Vietnamese were not used to living in cold climates. By the 1990s, large numbers of Vietnamese migrated from their initial resettlement locations to join family and friends in metropolitan areas that were beginning to establish ethnic Vietnamese communities. Currently forty percent of all Vietnamese Americans live in Orange County, California. Other smaller established communities exist in San Jose, Houston and the greater Washington, DC area.

Similar to other groups of Asian American immigrants, Vietnamese American communities have revitalized many urban areas. As a relatively recent immigrant group, most Vietnamese Americans are either first or second generation Americans. As many as one million speak Vietnamese at home, making it the seventh most spoken language in the United States. A recent survey shows that in 83% of Vietnamese American households, Vietnamese is the dominant language. Additionally, as refugees, Vietnamese Americans have one of the highest rates of naturalization among all immigrant groups.

Vietnamese Americans have adapted to American culture while keeping their traditions and religious values intact. Their value system includes high educational expectations and strong commitment to family ties. Because of the emphasis placed on education, a rapidly growing proportion of established Vietnamese Americans are now moving into professional, managerial, and entrepreneurial positions, especially in the high-tech sector and in locations such as Silicon Valley. In a relatively short time, Vietnamese Americans have added much to American society. Many have taken a profound interest in civic duty. Various cities in California, including Westminster and Garden Grove have seen Vietnamese Americans serve in public offices, while others such as Assemblyman Tran Thai Van, serve in statewide offices in California. Another notable Vietnamese American dedicated to public service is John Quoc Duong, who serves under President George W. Bush, as executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Similarly, Vietnamese Americans have made an impact on the entertainment and athletic industries. Dat Phan won the first season of NBC’s reality talent search program Last Comic Standing in 2003, while Dat Nguyen is a professional football player in the NFL, leading the Dallas Cowboys’ defense as their middle linebacker.

As a result of recent normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam, as well as continued high rates of poverty in Vietnam, it is expected that Vietnamese immigration to the United States will continue at a high rate, mainly through family reunification. According to the 2000 census, there are currently 1,223,736 Vietnamese Americans. They are the fifth largest Asian immigrant group behind Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian and Korean, however recent studies have shown that by the year 2010, Vietnamese Americans will surpass all other Asian groups, with the exception of Chinese Americans, to become the second largest Asian-American population in the United States.

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