SAN JOSE, Calif.—North Vietnamese forces were attacking Saigon as Hai and Son Nguyen escaped with a few suitcases and piles of worthless South Vietnamese cash. They came to the United States and for years did domestic work as they started life anew.
Three decades later, they are successful entrepreneurs, and their American-born daughter, Linda, is a city council candidate. If she wins, she will become the first Vietnamese American ever chosen for a citywide office in this Silicon Valley city.
The Nguyens’ is a classic American immigrant tale of hard work and prosperity, one replicated often among the more than 700,000 Vietnamese who came as refugees to the United States.
But, a generation later, not all have been so successful.
Making up one of the biggest refugee groups in U.S. history, most Vietnamese arrived unprepared and with few resources. Today, many still struggle with isolation, high poverty rates and persistent crime, particularly among low-income youth.
But down across town, in apartment buildings and homes near San Jose State’s campus, low-income families struggle. Citywide, 13 percent of Vietnamese households received public assistance in 2000, compared with 4 percent of all households, census data show.
“We have a small subgroup among Vietnamese refugees who are in the professional class—I don’t want to minimize that—but mostly Vietnamese tend to be less well educated and less fluent in English,” said C.N. Le, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.