As one of the most stable of the Southeast Asian states, Thailand has served as a conduit for thousands of immigrants fleeing communist governments in other countries. However, immigration of Thai nationals to the United States has been limited, making Thais one of the smallest and least noticed Asian American populations.
Prior to the twentieth century Thailand, or Siam as it was long known, was a political backwater, a country that had avoided colonialism and had limited contacts with the West. In absence of significant knowledge about the Western world or the United States, few Thais had compelling reasons to come to the United States. Not until the United States became involved in Vietnam’s civil war during the 1960’s did Thais become exposed to American culture. Many of them soon saw the United States as a potential refuge from political and economic turmoil. Thailand was the only Southeast Asian country to escape destruction during the ensuing Vietnam War. Its own military government allied with the United States during the war but managed to keep the conflict from crossing its borders or bringing a destructive communist insurgency like those that devastated its eastern neighbors.
Throughout the Vietnam War, American servicemen used Thailand as a haven for rest and recreation from the fighting. Thais were thereby introduced to American culture, and a few thousand Thais began immigrating to the United States every year. Among the most numerous Thai immigrants were wives of American soldiers and sailors. They contributed to a growing concentration of Thai Americans around
Marriages between American military personnel and
The Thai American community remained small through the 1970’s, as large numbers of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians were admitted to the United States as political refugees. Because Thailand had a pro-Western government, Thais wanting to go tot he United States could not claim refugee status. Consequently, the number of Thais in the United States remained a small fraction of the numbers of other Southeast Asian immigrants. The already small rate of Thai immigration became even slower during the 1980’s and 1990’s, as Thailand’s increasing political stability brought democratic reforms and economic growth that promised better lives for most Thais. However, the Asian financial crisis of 1997 and a new military coup in Thailand in 2006 spurred increased immigration to the United States.
The 2000 U.S. Census reported that more than 110,000 Thais were living in the United States–a figure one-tenth that of Vietnamese residents and barely 1 percent of the total Asian American population. Because of its small size, the Thai American community has received much less attention than most other Asian American communities. The few Thais living in the United States are also spread too thinly across the country to maintain strong cultural ties.
According to 2007 census data, Thai Americans rank among the middle of Asian groups in their education level; nearly 40 percent of adult Thais had college degrees. Their income levels were the average for all Americans. As a group, Thai Americans are much older than most Asian communities, with only 15 percent of the community below the age of eighteen.
Two specialized forms of Thai immigration are typically associated with underground economies:
Larsen, Wanwadee. Confessions of a Mail Order Bride: American Life Through Thai Eyes. Far Hills, N.J.: New Horizon Press, 1989. Memoir of a Thai woman who came to the United States to marry an American. Ng, Franklin. The History and Immigration of Asian Americans. New York: Garland, 1998. Wide-ranging examination of how Asians immigrated to the United States, their role in the country’s economic and political system, and their continued influence in the modern United States. Osborne, Milton. Southeast Asia. 9th ed. St. Leonards, N.S.W.: Allen & Unwin, 2005. History of modern Southeast Asia through the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the refugee movement from the region. Portes, Alejandro, and Rubén Rumbaut. Immigrant America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. Collection of personal stories of immigrants, their struggles within their home country, their struggles to reach the United States, and their lives in their new country. Zia, Helen. Asian American Dreams. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001. Details the creation of an Asian American community in the United States by a once isolated immigrant group.
Captive Thai workers
“Marriages of convenience”