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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Vietnamese Impact Adopted Country

SAN JOSE, California -- Hai and Son Nguyen escaped their homeland with a few suitcases and piles of worthless Vietnamese cash. They came to America and for years did domestic work as they started life anew.

Three decades later, they are successful entrepreneurs, and their 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' tale is a classic American immigrant story of hard work and prosperity, one replicated often among the more than 700,000 Vietnamese who became refugees to the United States.

Making up one of the biggest refugee groups in U.S. history, most Vietnamese arrived unprepared, with few resources. Today, even as many still struggle with isolation, high poverty rates and persistent crime, particularly among low-income youth, some in the community are increasingly making their voices heard outside their ethnic enclaves and becoming more a part of the nation's fabric.

San Jose, population 900,000, has the biggest concentration of Vietnamese of any American city: Nearly one in 10 residents has roots in the southeast Asian nation. San Jose is a prosperous bedroom community still growing in spite of a tech-induced economic slump.

Some Vietnamese residents have participated in the prosperity. In Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, Vietnamese residents own more than 5,000 businesses, according to De Tran, publisher of a Vietnamese-language weekly. Those businesses are no longer mainly mom-and-pops: The Viet Mercury's biggest advertisers are Vietnamese real estate developers and dentists, he said.

But in crowded apartment buildings and crumbling homes near San Jose State's campus, low-income families struggle day to day. Citywide, 13 percent of Vietnamese households received public assistance in 2000 compared to 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.

Political representation also is lacking. There are only a handful of Vietnamese American elected officials nationwide. Though most Vietnamese qualify to become naturalized citizens, experts said, they often opt not to because of language barriers, and so voting rates are lower than average.

Linda Nguyen and Madison Nguyen hope to change that in San Jose. The two women, who are not related, are among eight candidates who want to fill a vacant city council seat in a June 7 election -- and become the first Vietnamese American elected to a citywide public office here. If either candidate is elected, "this will mark the coming of age and political maturity of the community," said Tran.

But one of the biggest hurdles will be simply convincing former refugees that they have a stake in the political process. Even today, decades after they left, some still feel more connection to their distant homeland than to America. Many send money back to relatives and keep close tabs on social and political changes in Vietnam. "People have built homes in Vietnam," said Hien Duc Do, a sociologist at San Jose State University. "They call them Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo."