The Nguyen Family: From Vietnam to Chicago, 1975–1986

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The Nguyen Family: From Vietnam to Chicago, 1975–1986

Book excerpt

By: Al Santoli

Date: 1993

Source: Dublin, Thomas, ed. Immigrant Voices: New Lives in America, 1773–1986. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

About the Author: Al Santoli (b. 1949) is the senior vice-president of the American Foreign Policy Council and director of its Asia-Pacific Initiative. He is a specialist on security issues in the Asia-Pacific region and an author of works on military history, including Everything We Had: An Oral History of the Vietnam War.


In the mid- to late-1970s, massive numbers of Vietnamese refugees settled in the United States. The first wave of refugees left South Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in 1975, when their country was invaded by communist North Vietnam, following the withdrawal of United States support from the South. These were mainly well-educated, English-speaking upper or middle class Vietnamese, many of whom had been working for or associated with the U.S. government. They were airlifted out of the country by the United States to temporary refugee camps in other parts of Southeast Asia, and then resettled in the United States.

The emigration of refugees from South Vietnam continued throughout the 1970s, rising from approximately 1,500 per month in 1975 to more than 60,000 per month in 1979. However, the later waves of migrants were very different from those who had left immediately after the Communist invasion in 1975. The later refugees consisted mainly of poorer people with lower levels of education, who fled Vietnam in small boats. Many of these "boat people" perished at sea, while others were successful in reaching neighboring countries. However, the massive numbers involved and the concerns about the costs of accepting so many refugees led many countries to refuse them entry. In 1979, a United Nations Meeting on Refugees and Displaced Persons in South-East Asia in 1979 helped to resolve the situation by gaining formal agreement on the part of final resettlement countries such as the United States to take more Vietnamese refugees and to process their applications faster, in return for agreed temporary refuge in camps in Southeast Asian countries. By the end of 1979, nearly a quarter of a million Vietnamese refugees had been resettled in the United States.

Refugees from the first wave of migrants who left Vietnam for the United States, such as the family in this extract, were instrumental in establishing community organizations to help later arrivals, often with the support of federal and state agencies. The fact that they could mostly speak English and were well-educated helped their own assimilation into U.S. society and their ability to work with the government in this way. However, as the extract demonstrates, they initially encountered high levels of public hostility and discrimination on arrival in the United States. This was partly due to the high level of opposition among the general public to the Vietnam War, as well as concerns about refugees taking much-needed jobs in a time of economic recession and resentment about the assistance provided by the government to the refugees, which had not been available to other groups of immigrants.

As officially recognized refugees, the Vietnamese have been eligible to receive a wide range of social and welfare benefits in the United States to assist their resettlement. These have included cash and medical benefits on arrival, English-language and employment training, and assistance in finding homes and jobs. Those who meet certain criteria are also eligible for welfare assistance on the same means-tested basis as U.S. citizens, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children; Section 8 (subsidized) Housing, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid and food stamps. However, the Vietnamese refugees were encouraged to find jobs and become financially independent as soon as possible, which meant that many had to take low-status and low-paying jobs for which they were over-qualified, bringing about a decline in their socio-economic status. They were also resettled throughout the country to spread the support costs, under the Refugee Dispersion Policy, but many subsequently drifted back to areas with large Vietnamese populations and informal support networks.


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The Vietnamese were one of the largest groups of refugees in recent decades, and their mass exodus from Vietnam resulted in the establishment of new national and international policies and legislation for dealing with political migrants. Their arrival in large numbers in the United States brought about a new distinction in the treatment of refugees and other immigrants in the provision of welfare, which resulted in considerable resentment from other immigrant groups who did not receive the same benefits as the Vietnamese.

The Vietnamese population of the United States continued to grow throughout the 1980s as new immigration policies allowed the entry of former military personnel and political prisoners, along with their family members. Around half of the Vietnamese American population in the United States now lives in California, but there are also substantial communities in Texas, Virginia, Washington, New York and a number of other states.

In general, the Vietnamese have been very successful economically in the United States, particularly the first wave immigrants who achieved average income levels comparable to the U.S. population as a whole by the mid-1980s. The success of the Vietnamese community is likely to be due to a combination of the government assistance that they have received, as well as their own educational ability or entrepreneurial skills. Additionally, the Vietnamese have drawn more heavily than other immigrant groups on their own family and community networks for support, which may have been a key factor in their success. Vietnamese can now be found in a wide range of occupations including professional jobs, retail, catering, and light manufacturing. In general, the community has experienced a high level of cultural assimilation, and their children have largely adopted American lifestyles and are achieving educational success. At the same time, fairly high levels of delinquency have been reported among Vietnamese youths, a phenomenon that may reflect continuing perceived or actual discrimination against them in American society.



Hien Due Do. The Vietnamese Americans. Westpost, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999.

Kibria, Nazli. Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.


Menjivar, Cecilia. "Immigrant Kinship Networks: Vietnamese, Salvadoreans and Mexicans in Comparative Perspective." Journal of Comparative Family Studies 28 (1) (Spring 1997): 1-24.

Wood, Joseph. "Vietnamese American Place Making in Northern Virginia." The Geographical Review 87 (1) (1997): 58-72.

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The Nguyen Family: From Vietnam to Chicago, 1975–1986

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