When Vietnamese refugees first settled in the coastal town of Seadrift, Texas, they encountered prejudice and resentment from some of the locals. It culminated on Nov. 25, 1979, when the Ku Klux Klan came to the fishing village. They menaced the Vietnamese fishermen who were competing with native white fishermen and told them to get off the water and get out of town. This was part of the hostile reception given to some of the 130,000 Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. after the fall of Saigon.
Four decades later, the Vietnamese are now a fixture along the U.S. Gulf Coast. The arc of the Vietnamese resettlement experience is instructive history, and it offers a lens through which to view current attitudes toward immigrants.
The Trump Administration wants to slow the rate of legal immigration to this country, essentially turning down the burner on America’s melting pot. The president believes too many immigrants are not assimilating into American society and they are expanding the underclass.
Trump wants to admit newcomers based on skills and education rather than through family-based immigration, which is how many Vietnamese got here after the early wave of refugees at the end of the Vietnam War.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many of those later refugees made their way to the Gulf Coast, drawn by balmy weather and fishing, a trade they knew well.
“Really [the KKK] don’t like us. Seem like discrimination and they wanted to try to push us out. But we not give up easy,” says The Nguyen, in heavily accented English. At 61, he’s one of the few Vietnamese crabbers around town who remembers the bad old days.
Nguyen joined the exodus from Vietnam and arrived in Seadrift in 1978 as a skinny, bewildered 21-year-old. He launched a crab boat in San Antonio Bay, whose placid waters are patrolled by pelicans and plied by sea trout and black drum.
From the beginning, there was bad blood between the Vietnamese fishermen and Texans, complicated by the language barrier. People were angry that the newcomers were getting help from Washington and the Catholic Church, which sponsored them. What’s more, Vietnamese worked around the clock, and put out too many crab traps.
“When I was crabbing you would put a crab trap here. You would go maybe 40 feet down, you’d put another crab trap. You’d space ’em,” says Diane Wilson, a self-described fourth generation fisherwoman in Seadrift. “When the Vietnamese came and first started doing it, they would put ten [crab traps] where there had been one. So they didn’t know and nobody told them.”
Then tensions escalated. A local white crabber was shot and killed in a dispute with Vietnamese fishermen over fishing territory. Two Vietnamese men were charged with murder, and acquitted on the grounds of self defense. That’s when the Ku Klux Klan showed up and things got ugly.
“After the shooting it was like pow,” Wilson says, making an exploding motion with her hands. “Several houses got burned. Several boats were set fire to. And I think a large number of Vietnamese left because they were afraid.”
Nguyen says he didn’t know anything about the KKK before the shooting. “When that guy got killed, they show up. They burn 2, 3 crab boats. I left after that.”
Nguyen and other Vietnamese crabbers fled to Louisiana for their safety. Two years later, Klan intimidation of the Vietnamese had expanded to Galveston Bay. Klansmen burned crosses in the yards of Vietnamese shrimpers and rode around the bay in a shrimp boat with a shrimper hanging in effigy. Ultimately, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Vietnamese Fisherman’s Association filed a federal lawsuit that successfully stopped the Klan’s activities and disbanded their paramilitary militia.
“A lot of what people were saying at the KKK rallies is almost word for word what we hear nowadays from the alt right, such as ‘Put America First’,” says Tim Tsai, an Austin filmmaker who is producing a documentary on the shooting incident.
“This anti-immigrant sentiment has shifted toward Latino immigrants. But at the time, Vietnamese newcomers were the target,” he adds. “A lot of it was spurred by economic uncertainty, the idea that immigrants are taking away our jobs and livelihoods.”
A few years later, when things had calmed down in Seadrift, Nguyen and other Vietnamese crabbers came back. Nguyen started a family and opened a bait shop on the town docks, which he still runs. He has four boats that bring in crates of blue crabs every afternoon.
Forty years later, Seadrift is more a mosaic than a melting pot.
Vietnamese live culturally distinct from the native Texan population — they speak Vietnamese and celebrate the Lunar New Year. But the men who make a living on the bay are no longer sabotaging crab traps. They’ve united against common foes: heavy regulations, ocean pollution, and cheap imported shrimp.
“We work together now,” says Nguyen, sitting on the dock as brown pelicans swoop in to filch leftover bait fish. “If they got something, we get together. Fundraise, church, all that. We good friends together.”
Houston’s Little Saigon
A hundred and fifty miles up the coast from Seadrift, Houston is home to more than 80,000 Vietnamese — the largest population outside of California. Like the Astros, the NASA space center and flooding bayous, the Vietnamese are now part of what makes Houston…Houston.
You can drive down Bellaire Boulevard — the main street of the district known as Little Saigon — and read street signs in Vietnamese, see the South Vietnamese flag fluttering outside of Pho noodle houses, listen to Radio Saigon, and visit the Vietnam War Memorial.
“Now you see Don’s Café, a very popular banh mi shop. You start to see more and more Vietnamese-named businesses as we go along,” says Thao Ha, from behind the wheel of a jumbo SUV. She came to Houston with her parents in 1975 and is now a sociologist at MiraCosta College in California.
According to Ha, the flinty fishing towns along the coast were not the only places unwelcoming to Vietnamese back then.
“There was some racism, some bullying from the neighborhood kids that told us to go back to our country, called us gooks and things like that,” she says.
Even though the refugees encountered racism, they knew they had the full support of the federal government, which had brought them from Indochina to the United States.
“And it’s the complete opposite now where [the current Administration] is doing everything they can to turn away immigrants,” Ha says, “to turn away asylum seekers, to push out those who are already here. So if the Vietnamese were coming right now en masse then we would not be having the same opportunity.”
Make them citizens
After the triumph of communist forces under Ho Chi Minh, escaping Vietnamese refugees carried with them a fiery anti-communism. Like the Cubans before them, many Vietnamese became staunch Republicans. That political fidelity continues today. Steven Le, a conservative family doctor, represents Little Saigon on the Houston City Council, and supports much of the president’s aggressive immigration agenda.
“Obviously I think all countries should have borders and make sure there’s not a lot of illegal immigration happening,” he says from his office in city hall. “But on the legal side, we should keep that process going.”
“We made that mistake as a country back in early 1900s with the Chinese Exclusion Act,” Le continues. “We find later on these are good, law-abiding citizens contributing a lot to the country. There should not be a process to deter legal immigration.”
Dr. Le believes there’s a way to make sure the foreign-born integrate with the larger community.
“I find the easiest way to assimilate and to be proud that you are an American is to actually make them a citizen,” he says. “Plain and simple.”
According to a recent study by the Migration Policy Institute, the Vietnamese in America are thriving.
Compared to other immigrants, Vietnamese have higher incomes, are less likely to live in poverty or lack health insurance, and are more likely to be naturalized U.S. citizens, though they lag in English proficiency.
A thriving Asian-southern fusion
Mike Trinh is proud to be part of the prosperous Vietnamese-American business community of Houston’s Little Saigon. After becoming a champion kick-boxer, Trinh opened Mike’s Seafood.
“All I can say is, the immigrant mentality, we work our butt off for everything. We carve a niche out of nothing,” he says.
Mike’s specializes in Vietnamese-Cajun seafood, an Asian-Southern fusion that has taken Houston by storm. Trinh leads us into the kitchen, with bubbling vats of shrimp and the air pleasantly piquant.
“We spice, we season everything,” Trinh says, “Onions, garlic, everything. Vietnamese community we like a lot of flavor. Some people put ginger, some people put lemongrass. Everybody has their own twists of how to do things.”
Across town, in an historically Vietnamese apartment complex named Thai Xuan Village, My Linh Tran is just getting home from school. She’s a 22-year-old math and science teacher who’s also navigating two cultures. Tran stands outside her parents’ apartment, that looks onto an elaborate Buddhist shrine in the courtyard.
“I know among a lot of my American friends there is a shock because I’m still living with my parents. But they don’t understand,” she says, smiling. “It’s a choice. And if I can, and if my boyfriend is okay with it, if we get married I want to continue to stay with my parents. And he seems okay with it.”
Tran’s parents want her to retain as much of her Vietnamese identity as possible.
“They don’t really like it that I have an American accent when I speak Vietnamese,” she says, “but they don’t understand the fact that I have a Vietnamese accent speaking English as well.”
The Trump Administration has recently removed the phrase “a nation of immigrants” from official terminology. Yet, in Houston, city officials boast their city has become the most diverse in America. And the Vietnamese are deep in the heart of it.