Vietnamese immigrants

Before the United States entered the Vietnam War during the early 1960’s, fewer than 1,000 Vietnamese people lived in the United States. By the time the war ended in 1975, the number of Vietnamese residents had risen to 20,000, most of whom were spouses of American military personnel serving in Vietnam. Immediately after the war ended, tens of thousands of desperate refugees were admitted to the United States. Over the next three decades, even larger numbers of immigrants came in a more orderly fashion. By the early twenty-first century, more than 1.6 million Vietnamese were living in the United States. Although these people constituted one of the most recent immigrant groups, they were also one of the most successful groups.

When the Southeast Asian country of Vietnam finally gained its full independence from France in 1954, it was partitioned into a communist North called the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and a noncommunist South, which became the Republic of Vietnam in 1955. These two ideologically opposed nations soon began a civil war for mastery of all of Vietnam. Following its Cold War precepts, the U.S. government supported South Vietnam against its northern communist enemy.Vietnam War;postwar refugeesVietnam War;postwar refugees[cat]SOUTHEAST ASIAN IMMIGRANTS;Vietnamese immigrants[cat]IMMIGRANT GROUPS;Vietnamese immigrants

Before this period, Vietnamese immigration had been practically nonexistent. Between 1950 and 1959, only 290 people from Vietnam became permanent residents of the United States. Most of these people were language teachers and students, along with a few people in commercial businesses. As late as 1964, only 603 Vietnamese were living in the United States.

The Vietnam War

The war in Vietnam intensified during the 1960’s, when the North began working to topple the South’s government in Saigon by force. To prevent a Communism;Vietnamcommunist takeover of South Vietnam, the U.S. government committed increasing amounts of military equipment and personnel to the South’s defense. This was not an easy task, as the South Vietnam government was both unstable and unpopular among its own people. By early 1965, the United States was sending substantial numbers of combat troops to fight for South Vietnam.

Although the U.S. military frowned on U.S. military personnel becoming involved with Vietnamese women, many soldiers married them. Many AmericansAmerasians;Vietnamese immigrants also fathered children with Vietnamese women, who then automatically became eligible for U.S. citizenship when the fathers acknowledged their paternity or married the children’s mothers. Gradually, the Vietnamese wives and children of Americans immigrated to the United States. By 1969, 2,949 Vietnamese were living in the country.

This slow immigration trend continued after American forces began withdrawing from South Vietnam in early 1973, while leaving behind Americans who continued acting in advisory, diplomatic, and business roles. As Hayslip, Le LyLe Ly Hayslip, the Vietnamese wife of an American contractor in Vietnam, describes in her powerful 1989 memoir, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, Vietnamese dependents of Americans sometimes faced hostility from Americans anxious to forget their nation’s discredited role in the Vietnam War. By the end of the war in 1975, about 20,000 Vietnamese immigrants were living in the United States.

The End of the War

In March, 1975, when it was clear that South Vietnam would fall to invading North Vietnamese communist forces, the U.S. government prepared for the evacuation of the 3,839 American citizens and their dependents still in South Vietnam. The government also planned to evacuate 17,000 of its South Vietnamese allies. However, a much larger number of Vietnamese also wanted to leave the country. The first step in evacuation program, Operation BabyliftOperation Babylift, was designed to take Orphans;Vietnamesewar orphans and other infants out of the country. The maiden evacuation flight crashed on April 4, killing more than 150 evacuees. The crash was a tragedy, but it helped to focus international attention on the plight of the South Vietnamese, who were about to be conquered by possibly murderous enemies.

On April 17, U.S. president Ford, Gerald R.Gerald R. Ford established the Interagency Task Force to launch Operation New LifeOperation New Life. U.S. ships were sent to the coast of South Vietnam to accept refugees, and relocation centers were set up in Guam;refugee campsGuam, the Philippines;refugee campsPhilippines, Thailand;refugee campsThailand, Wake Island, and Hawaii;refugee campsHawaii.

Meanwhile, as Communism;Vietnamcommunist forces encircled Saigon, Operation Frequent WindOperation Frequent Wind began on April 29. The United States sent in helicopters to collect Americans and refugees from various landing zones in Saigon. When the mission ended, 1,373 U.S. citizens and 5,595 others, primarily Vietnamese, had been rescued. After the communists occupied Saigon on April 30, many South Vietnamese tried to reach the waiting U.S. fleet by boats. South Vietnamese navy captain Do, KiemKiem Do refused to surrender the vessels under his command and instead used them to rescue about 30,000 Vietnamese refugees. Overall, the United States saved about 65,000 Vietnamese directly, with about another 65,000 making it to U.S. ships on their own in the final week of April, 1975.

Resettlement in the United States

In late spring of 1975, about 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States in one of the single largest short-term influxes of immigrants in the nation’s history. On May 23, 1975, President Ford signed the [a]Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, which established a sound legal basis for the resettlement of the refugees in the United States and the provision of special aid to them. The refugees were processed in four American resettlement centers.

Vietnamese orphans being evacuated aboard an American airliner in 1975.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Government officials originally intended to disperse the refugees through out the United States to avoid large concentrations in any individual areas. The refugees were assigned sponsors–both institutions and individuals–to help them ease into American life. Quickly, however, the refugees took advantage of their freedom by relocating to live close together in new communities. Many moved to California;Vietnamese immigrantsCalifornia’s Orange County and to the Gulf Coast ofTexas;Vietnamese immigrantsTexas andLouisiana;Vietnamese immigrantsLouisiana–places with climates somewhat similar to that of South Vietnam. After it became clear that communist control over their homeland was firm, the refugees realized they had become immigrants. On July 2, 1976, Vietnam was reunited as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Members of the first wave of Vietnamese immigrants tended to be better educated than average. Many came from the middle class. A substantial number could speak some English and already had some familiarity with American culture. Most of these refugees were aided by the fact that they came as families, not as individuals. Consequently. the numbers of men and women were nearly balanced, and the immigrants enjoyed the company and support of relatives of all ages.

Boat People<index-term><primary>Vietnamese boat people</primary></index-term>

As the communists were consolidating their power throughout Vietnam, only a trickle of new Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States–4,100 in 1976 and 1977 together. Another 8,859 Vietnamese immigrated to the United States as nonrefugees during these two years. In 1978, the Vietnamese government was becoming more repressive and many Vietnamese were finding life increasingly bleak, with little prospect of economic betterment. At the same time, Vietnam was becoming involved in new military conflicts. Its government invaded Cambodia to topple the murderous Khmer RougeKhmer Rouge regime and also had to defend itself against a Chinese incursion in 1979. The latter conflict brought Vietnamese reprisals against ethnic Chinese living in southern Vietnam.

Both ethnic Chinese and Vietnamese living in the south began trying to flee from Vietnam on hardly seaworthy boats in late 1978. During the following year, the world noticed the plight of these refugees, who were being called “boat people.” Risking their lives on the open sea in order to reach freedom, they were often brutally attacked by Thailand;piratesThai pirates and found they were unwelcome in other Asian countries. International concern led to an agreement in Geneva in June, 1979, that Western countries such as the United States would take in Asylum, political;Vietnamese immigrantsVietnamese refugees from their Pacific Rim countries of first asylum.

In response to growing international pressure, Vietnam agreed in late 1979 to establish the Orderly Departure ProgramOrderly Departure Program under the auspices of the United Nations High Commissioner for RefugeesUnited Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The program set up its office in Bangkok, Thailand, in January, 1980, under American leadership and UNHCR authority. However, it got off to a slow start and the flow of boat people and their sufferings at sea abated only gradually during the mid 1980’s.

The United States began resettling about half of all the surviving boat people in the United States. In 1979, the first 44,500 Vietnamese refugees of this second wave were admitted. As result, the U.S. Census of 1980 showed 261,729 Vietnamese living in the United States, up from 3,000 only one decade earlier. Passage of the 1980 [a]Refugee Act of 1980;and Vietnamese[Vietnamese]Refugee Act established the Office of Refugee Resettlement, U.S.Office of Refugee Resettlement within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. This help was needed very much by second-wave refugees, who tended to be poorer and from less well-educated backgrounds than earlier refugees, and who also had haunting memories of perilous journeys to safety.

Continuing Immigration

Despite Communism;Vietnampromises of Vietnam’s government to allow more people to leave the country, no more than 5,000 Vietnamese immigrated to the United States during any year between 1980 and 1985. In 1986, however, the number tripled to 15,256, only go down again afterward. Congress’s passage of the Amerasians;and Vietnam War[Vietnam War]Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987 opened an avenue to the United States for children fathered by Americans in Vietnam who were still living in that country. Refugees and immigrants from Vietnam reached a third wave peak from 1989 to about 1993, when their combined annual numbers rose from about 48,000 to 72,000 (1991, 1992) and 61,000. The last big peak of refugees was reached in 1994 and 1995 with more than 32,000 each year. Afterward, the refugee and immigrant numbers declined through the rest of the decade.

The demographic effect of continuing Vietnamese immigration and flight to America was reflected in the U.S. Census of 1990 that counted 614,547 Vietnamese living in the United States. By the 2000 Census, their number had doubled to 1,122,528. Census respondents who described themselves as only part Vietnamese added another 101,208 people to that figure.

In May, 1995, the United States and Vietnam established full diplomatic relations, a change that facilitated Vietnamese immigration to the United States. By the twenty-first century, the numbers of Vietnamese entering the country as regular immigrants exceeded those of refugees for the first time since the Vietnam War had ended. Between 2004 and 2008, about 30,000 new immigrants were entering the United States each year. The vast majority of them were relatives of Vietnamese already living in the United States. Of the 31,497 new Vietnamese who received permanent resident status in the United States during 2008, 28,316 were family members and relatives of existing residents, and only 2,404 were classified as refugees.

Vietnamese in the United States

According to the 2007 American Community SurveyAmerican Community Survey, there were 1,642,950 Vietnamese Americans, 95 percent of whom reporting being of purely Vietnamese heritage. Their male-female ratio was balanced, and they were, as a group, slightly younger than the American national average. About 77 percent of them resided within family households, compared to the national average of 67 percent, and they lived with significantly more relatives than the average American.

The Vietnamese trend to live in large households contributed to their average annual household incomes of $54,871 exceeding the national average of $50,740, even though the average incomes of Vietnamese American individuals were lower than the national average. As a very recent immigrant group, they were remarkable in having a rate of home ownership that matched the national average of 67 percent. However, their average household size was 3.6 persons, compared to the national average of 2.7.

Vietnamese Americans have generally done well in Education;Vietnamese immigrantseducation, reflecting the traditional emphasis on education in their culture. Of those in school, 30 percent were in college, compared to the national average of 26 percent. The percentage of Vietnamese Americans with college degrees was also a little higher than the national average. However, a troubling trend in the Vietnamese community has been a lower-than-average high school graduation rate. This trend reflects findings that many Vietnamese at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale have been failing in society.

Overall, however, Vietnamese immigrants have shown remarkable upward mobility and achievement in the United States. In 2007, their employment rate reached the average of 65 percent. Vietnamese women were employed at the same 59 percent level as the national female population. Vietnamese held to 32 percent managerial or professional positions, compared to 35 percent on average. With 25 percent, more than the average 17 percent were employed in service professions. There was a lag of Vietnamese in educational and government services. In general, with some unfortunate exceptions, Vietnamese immigrants have succeeded well in American society. In 2008, Louisiana Republican Cao, JosephJoseph Cao became the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress, signaling a significant civic accomplishment.Vietnam War;postwar refugees

Further Reading

  • Do, Hien Duc. The Vietnamese Americans. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. Written by a Vietnamese refugee, this book focuses on the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants and refugees resettling in the United States.
  • Do, Kiem. Counterpart: A South Vietnamese Naval Officer’s War. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1998. Memoir of the man who used navy craft to help rescue 30,000 Vietnamese boat people after the fall of Saigon.
  • Hayslip, Le Ly. When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. New York: Doubleday, 1989. This book, along with Hayslip’s second book, Child of War, Woman of Peace (1993), provides a harrowing account of one Vietnamese immigrant woman’s journey to America, revealing many facets of the Vietnamese immigrant experience.
  • Le, Cuong Nguyen. “Vietnamese Americans: History and Context.” In Asian American Assimilation. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2007. Concise description of factors leading to Vietnamese immigration to the United States.
  • Saito, Lynne Tsuboi. Ethnic Identity and Motivation: Socio-Cultural Achievement of Vietnamese American Students. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2002. Sociological study of the fates of first- and second-generation Vietnamese immigrant children and how they have done academically.
  • Schulzinger, Robert D. “The Vietnamese in America.” In A Time for Peace: The Legacy of the Vietnam War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. Sympathetic description of Vietnamese refugees in America and their path to assimilation and success.

Amerasian children

Amerasian Homecoming Act of 1987

Asian immigrants

Cambodian immigrants

Freedom Airlift

Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975

Laotian immigrants

Nguyen v. Immigration and Naturalization Service

Orderly Departure Program


Vietnam War