During his visit to Vietnam this past week, President Clinton urged the Vietnamese people to embrace the free market, pointing to the "peace and prosperity" that it has brought to millions across the globe, including the Vietnamese who now live in the United States. Arriving on American shores as refugees over twenty years ago, Vietnamese Americans, the President claimed, have been fully integrated into American labor markets, enterprises, and professions.
In fact, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees suffer the highest per capita welfare participation rates of any race or ethnic group in the U.S. In 1990, 46 percent of all Southeast Asians in the U.S. lived below the poverty line and their median income was only $18,300 (compared to $31,100 for whites). And 45 percent of Southeast Asian students in this country fail to complete high school.
To laud the supposed wonders of the free market to the people of Vietnam, President Clinton fictionalized the conditions of their compatriots in the U.S. and ignored the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees who live in deep poverty, are stuck on welfare, or forced to toil in American sweatshops. In the noxious tradition of American presidents, Clinton heaped insult upon injury to the Vietnamese to advance his own agenda.
The vast majority of Vietnamese refugees were boat people who survived a harrowing sea journey only to spend extended periods in U.S. refugee camps. Between 1975 and 1991, just over a million were allowed to settle in the United States with the help of sponsoring organizations and families. Although refugee assistance programs were created to "integrate" Vietnamese refugees into the primary labor market, many of these programs were dismantled before they could forge a real impact.
By the late-1980s, Congress killed most refugee assistance programs and Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees were stripped of the nominal protection previously offered by their refugee status. They were quickly reclassified as permanent residents, and were fully subject to the new wave of anti-immigrant legislation that came to dominate the early-to-mid 1990s.
The combined impact of failed refugee adaptation programs and anti-immigrant measures has resulted in the deepening of poverty among most Vietnamese Americans. In states such as California, welfare participation rates among Vietnamese Americans has reached as high as 75 percent. Because welfare invariably fails to offer enough for a family’s basic survival, many Vietnamese American adults and children–particularly women–have been forced into low-wage labor in industries ranging from garment work, to microchip factories, to farm work.
Mass poverty has inevitably led to the expansion of Vietnamese youth gangs, which are subcontracted by business owners to "regulate" the informal, highly exploitative, and ephemeral industries of the ethnic enclave.
Nearly 70 percent of the Vietnamese community in the Bronx–home to the largest concentration of Southeast Asian residents in New York–are receiving some form of public assistance. With the recent cuts to city welfare programs, many of these Vietnamese adults and children have been compelled to take up sweatshop labor. Indeed, in his efforts to "end welfare as we know it," President Clinton signed into law a number of draconian measures that stripped the immigrant poor of vital benefits, particularly food stamps.
From its work in the Vietnamese community of the Bronx, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence has documented hundreds of cases wherein Vietnamese welfare participants have been either dropped from welfare rolls without explanation, pushed off of welfare as a result of unreasonable workfare requirements, and systemically denied existing job training programs-meanwhile, city officials demand their seamless transition from welfare to work.
On any given day, one can tour the waiting areas of Bronx welfare centers and find Vietnamese women struggling to hold on to whatever benefits they are still entitled to. Invariably they are accompanied by a Vietnamese interpreter–usually a child as young as nine-years-old.
In the post-Cold War era Vietnamese refugees are no longer useful to help America recover from its own internal war over Vietnam. No longer do images of boatloads of Vietnamese refugees safely arriving in American cities and suburbs work to ease a guilty national conscience. In the post-Cold war, it has been all too easy to forget the Southeast Asian refugee community entirely, to terminate virtually all refugee assistance programs, to allow refugee families to slip deeper and deeper into urban poverty.
And yet, as President Clinton makes the first U.S. presidential visit to Vietnam since the rise of Ho Chi Minh City, these Vietnamese refugees, now re-cast as American success stories, are once again evoked. They are fictional characters, designed to convince the Vietnamese people of a prosperity that awaits them upon pledging citizenship to the free market.