In Vietnam she was a rich woman, but in the U.S. she toiled stocking convenience store shelves. Why did Thao decide to immigrate?


It was a couple of years ago that Thao, my cousin by marriage, traveled from Vietnam to the United States with the intention of committing a crime. She had accepted a job at a convenience store in Arlington, Texas, a fraud punishable by arrest, deportation, and possibly even jail time. I’d learned of her intentions several months earlier when she informed my in-laws that she planned to divorce her husband, Binh, because he had cheated on her. This seemed an unfortunate but hardly surprising bit of news. Vietnamese men, in my experience, have a well-earned reputation for straying. While I found Thao’s unwillingness to abide Binh’s infidelity refreshing, the most pressing topic of concern related to her finances. Binh owned and operated a successful export business and was a wealthy man by Vietnamese standards. Therefore, although we listened with rapt attention to the account of Binh’s infidelities (he’d bought the girlfriend a house), what we really wanted to know was how much of their money she might claim.

In her favor was Vietnam’s surprisingly progressive divorce legislation, which mandates an equitable division of a marital estate. There were, however, significant obstacles to divorces lacking mutual consent, and Binh had refused to cooperate with ending the marriage, leaving Thao perilously short of cash.

We gamed the odds for her remaining in the U.S. (poor), the chances of her finding a suitable job and home in Vietnam (slim and slimmer), and the likelihood of her being able to remarry (none).

Thao told us she planned to return to Vietnam to convince her husband to accept the divorce, and if he refused she would fly back to the U.S. and begin working. Although she possessed only a high school education, spoke little English, and had never held a job, Thao insisted she could earn enough money in Texas to support herself in Vietnam for a significant period of time. This was, she confessed, only one reason to return to the U.S., however. Her real goal would be to find a way to stay here permanently.

Thao’s predicament became a source of much worry and discussion at my in-law’s kitchen table during our weekly family dinners. We would eat, tsk-tsking at Thao’s sorrowful lot, clucking at the poor character of her husband, and batting around her prospects. We gamed the odds for her remaining in the U.S. (poor), the chances of her finding a suitable job and home in Vietnam (slim and slimmer), and the likelihood of her being able to remarry (none). One topic that never came up was the wisdom of her choice to come to the U.S. The potential for Thao to improve her situation by working in the U.S. was, at least for my wife and in-laws, a given. I disagreed. If I had felt entitled to voice an opinion (most of the conversation took place in a rapid-fire Vietnamese), my advice would have been simple: stay home.

My wife’s family left Vietnam in 1981, part of the more than seven hundred thousand so-called Boat People who began fleeing the country in 1975, an exodus that continued for more than twenty years. They paid ten thousand dollars for a cramped space on a rickety fishing boat bound for Malaysia, endured a year in a refugee camp, and finally were able to immigrate to the U.S. when my wife’s eldest sister, fresh from her own stint in a camp in the Philippines, sponsored them.

The ensuing decades brought the family both prosperity and frustration. My father-in-law, trained as an engineer in Vietnam, worked for a time as the produce manager at a greengrocer, but he soon quit, disillusioned by the menial aspects of his job and the bigotry of his co-workers and bosses. My mother-in-law, descendant of a prosperous family with roots in Vietnam’s imperial city, Hue, currently works stocking shelves in a drugstore; the oldest sister sells knock-off designer purses, shoes, and sunglasses from a street stall in Manhattan; a cousin bakes bread for a big box retail store; an aunt and uncle work as janitors at a school in Houston. The more successful include the two doctors among my wife’s four sisters (she’s one); another operates a real estate business, and yet another is a successful fashion designer.

The uneven outcomes found within my wife’s family parallel a similar imbalance among the nation’s 1.6 million Vietnamese-Americans. Recent Census figures determined the median annual family income for Vietnamese-Americans to be fifty-five thousand dollars, less than the national figure, but still respectable. Overall poverty rates, however, were higher than average, with over 13 percent below the poverty line, and though the Census found that many Vietnamese-Americans hold jobs as managers, professionals, and businesspeople, most have yet to discard the newly-arrived migrant’s sense of community insularity: they lag behind their fellow Asian-Americans in English-language proficiency, with a full 45 percent of households termed, delicately enough, “linguistically isolated” by the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

The years following the war in Vietnam were characterized by grinding poverty, due in part to the fatigue and damage caused by decades of fighting, the isolation from the West, and the government’s repressive political instincts. Vietnam also committed vast economic mistakes, errors that Truong Chinh, a former Secretary-General of Vietnam’s Communist Party, conceded, in the deadpan rhetoric of the socialist five-year planner, were due to “‘leftist infantilism,’ idealism, and the…contravention of the objective laws of socio-economic development.” Centralized economic control, agricultural collectivization, and an emphasis on inefficient heavy-industrial enterprises (largely at the behest of the Soviet Union), resulted in poor-paying jobs, resentment at the inability to own property and engage in commerce—an essential aspect of Vietnamese culture and self-perception—and for people like Thao and Binh, a daily struggle simply to survive.

Change began in 1986 when the government began the far-reaching economic reforms known as Doi Moi (literal translation: new change). Agricultural collectivization ended, the economy re-opened to trade and foreign investment, and businesses could once again be privately held. The reforms unleashed a surge of pent-up mercantilist energy: Vietnam’s gross national product has more than doubled since then and the poverty rate has fallen by more than 50 percent. In 2007, the World Bank predicted that within the next five years, Vietnam would become a global “middle-income” nation—bureaucratic evidence that a Second World actually exists.

Thao met and married Binh in 1986, after he followed her home from church one Sunday. At the time, Binh worked as a part-time bus tout on the crumbling roads from the highland city of Dalat to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). He watched the peasant women transport sacks of coffee from the mountain farms to the urban markets, and he bragged to Thao that he could make more money with the coffee than they could. The reforms allowed him to prove it.

By the time I met Thao and Binh in 1998, they were well-established in Ho Chi Minh City’s burgeoning upper-middle class. Thao passed her time shopping, sipping coffee with friends in the city’s plentiful cafes, and working out at a health club. A night out with them meant a luxurious meal prepared by their live-in cook, beers at the rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel, and late-night cocktails at a nightclub frequented by Vietnamese classical musicians who amused themselves singing jazz standards. They sped around town on fashionable motorbikes—for Thao, a Honda Dream II, an aptly named scooter clamored after by the city’s striver set, and for Binh, a Harley-Davidson knockoff called a Husky. Thao dressed in custom-tailored silks and foreign-made denim. Binh, a confident, handsome man, drank capably, smoked plentifully, and paid for everything.

Thao shared a single room in a three-bedroom house with her sister-in-law, a U.S. citizen who helped Thao land her job. Her half of the room came to two hundred and twenty-five dollars per month.

By 2006, Binh’s coffee business was earning about three thousand dollars a month, or about three times the country’s annual per capita income. Thao and Binh educated their children (Candy, twenty; Tigon—a mispronunciation of Tiger—fifteen; and at age fourteen, the youngest and only male, Boy) in private English-language academies; each month Binh gave Thao eight hundred dollars in walking-around money; they enjoyed regular vacations to the beach towns of Nha Trang and Da Nang, and built a home in a gentrifying section of Ho Chi Minh City. The house had six bathrooms, four balconies, two computers, two televisions, a large kitchen, and a Jacuzzi.

After she arrived in Arlington, Texas, Thao worked a ten-hour day, six days a week, cooking, cleaning, and minding a cash register in a low-end convenience store. Her boss, a Vietnamese-American man who had emigrated to the U.S. when he was eight, started Thao at six dollars per hour, cash, and increased it to seven after a month. Thao shared a single room in a three-bedroom house with her sister-in-law, a U.S. citizen who helped Thao land her job. Her half of the room came to two hundred and twenty-five dollars per month. Another fifty-five dollars went to her cell phone, which she used for daily calls to California, where her eldest daughter was studying for a pharmacy degree. Thao sent her daughter another one hundred and fifty dollars each month to help with her bills and spent another twenty-five dollars monthly on a calling card to speak to her children in Vietnam. Thao gave thirty dollars a month in gas money to her sister-in-law, who drove her to work. She spent fifty dollars per week on food, which she cooked on the flattop at work. Her fourteen hundred dollar airline ticket, divided over the six months she could remain here legally, came to two hundred and thirty-three dollars a month. Altogether, her monthly liabilities totaled eight hundred and ninety-eight dollars, slightly more than the eight hundred dollars she spent in Vietnam each month for pleasure.

As many as 40 percent of the many millions of people allowed legal entrance to the country each year will violate the terms of their visa and overstay, largely in order to work or to seek work.

Thao had hoped to have the time and money to continue improving her English, perhaps with classes at a community college, but the long hours and low pay made that impossible. Her only social outlet was at a Vietnamese Catholic church where she sang in the choir. Her rudimentary English precluded television, movies, and the newspapers. For her, America was a thing that happened to other people.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) believes that as many as 40 percent of the many millions of people allowed legal entrance to the country each year will violate the terms of their visa and overstay, largely in order to work or to seek work. Even if only a small fraction of these seventy million individuals plan to stay long-term and take a job, this still represents a huge pool of illegal labor. “There were 1.3 million visitors to the U.S. from France in 2005,” USCIS spokesman Chris Bentley told me. “I doubt 40 percent of them are overstaying. The vast majority go home. We’re talking about individuals from Third World nations here.”

As for the Vietnamese, various logistical and geographic reasons exist for their low numbers here in the United States illegally: the geographical distance, the high rates of domestic internal migration, and the existence of naturalized and American-born family networks able to arrange legal migration. The U.S. government, meanwhile, rarely approves Vietnamese non-immigrant visa applications, with rejection rates running as high as 90 percent. Bentley, at USCIS, explained that Vietnam’s poverty makes proving that a visitor is “in fact not intending to become an immigrant” very difficult. “The assumption,” he said, “is going to be you’re not coming here to tour or study… You’re coming to stay.”

These discriminatory beliefs play out in a variety of ways. For example, if the U.S. consular officials abroad had known Thao was seeking a divorce, she likely would never have received her visa. A wealthy foreigner may be legitimately interested in a leisure tour of the States; a single woman, traveling alone, with a broken family and no clearly defined source of income is, in the eyes of the U.S. government, an illegal immigrant. Even with her visa, Thao’s entry into the U.S. was complicated: she was detained on arrival at the airport in Texas, along with eight other Asian travelers from her flight. Customs agents questioned her and the others for several hours. Finally, after repeatedly assuring the officials that she had a family—and husband—waiting for her back in Vietnam, Thao was released. Three of her group of nine were refused entry.

An ongoing debate within my family involved the risks Thao had undertaken by working illegally. I felt she had exposed herself to significant peril by taking the job at the convenience store, while my in-laws and wife dismissed my concern. They believed the likelihood that anyone would catch Thao was minimal. I wasn’t so sure.

Since 9/11, federal authorities have developed a wide array of new tools to detect, detain, and deport illegal workers. The Absconder Apprehension Initiative, begun as part of the Patriot Act in 2001, declared “absconders” and “fugitives” a priority for the Department of Homeland Security, as well as subordinate agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In response, ICE created the Fugitive Operations Teams (FOTs), enforcement units deployed around the country to “identify, locate, arrest, and remove criminal aliens, fugitives, and other immigration law violators.” The FOT program began small, with Congress funding just eight teams in 2003, but by 2006 that number had increased to fifty-two, and another twenty-five were funded the following year, enough to place at least one FOT in each of ICE’s Detention and Removal Operations offices around the country. ICE’s 2006 annual report stated that the FOTs were averaging about four hundred and thirty fugitive arrests per week, often via sweeps like “Operation Return To Sender,” which netted over two thousand illegal aliens in a single month in 2006 and “Operation Panda,” which an ICE newsletter bragged had “crushed” and “decapitated” Chinese alien smuggling rings in New York City. ICE also cracked down on businesses that hire illegal labor, with worksite arrests increasing over 1,000 percent since 2002. Meanwhile, the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act authorized forty-three thousand new bed spaces for detainees awaiting “removal,” and the Secure Fence Act legislated eighteen thousand new border agents and seven hundred miles of protective fencing along the southern border.

This certainly seemed an impressive mass of immigrant-hunting stuff. But it didn’t help me calculate the odds of Thao being arrested and deported. I spoke with Gabriel Garcia, head of ICE’s Human Smuggling and Trafficking Unit, to better understand the agency’s enforcement efforts. ICE, he said, focused on the “criminal continuum” of illegal migration, an “infrastructure of crime” stretching from “source country to traffic country to destination country.” At first, this seemed to validate my worries for Thao, but then Garcia admitted that financial and personnel realities required ICE to be “strategic” with its resources, which in real terms, meant it only targeted aliens who pose a threat to national security, employers who hire illegal aliens in “sensitive industries,” egregious violators of labor laws (sweatshops and dangerous jobs), and employers whose business model depends on illegal labor. Because Thao didn’t fit any of these categories she would probably never show up on an ICE radar screen. If she worked for a larger employer she might have had to worry about the ICE targeting it and getting caught in an FOT raid. A single convenience store wasn’t much of a concern.

Thao’s greatest risk seemed to be bad luck. Even before the recent legal controversy in Arizona, the Immigration and Nationality Act granted government agents the authority to inquire as to any individual’s right to “enter, reenter, pass through, or reside in the United States.” It also requires legal non-citizen residents to carry “proof of alien registration” with them at all times. For someone in Thao’s position, these provisions leave even a quick walk to the corner store fraught with unpredictable peril. Marcy Forman, the director of ICE’s Office of Investigations, described an American society in which no illegal immigrant entirely blends in. “We get a lot of telephone calls,” she said. “You’ll have disgruntled employees who may not be happy about illegals,” or people that “just like to tell law enforcement officials about criminal activity.” Thao, for her part, told me she never worried about authorities. She was concerned, however, that by cooperating with this article she would let the government know that people violated their tourist visas for work. This bothered her. She didn’t want to ruin things for anyone else.

Beyond the circumstances of chance, though, the U.S. government doesn’t possess the resources to threaten a single illegal worker like Thao. Twelve million illegal immigrants—5 percent of the entire civilian labor force—just won’t be policed into non-existence. Take the pursuit of the nation’s “fugitive aliens,” that subset of deportable aliens who have disappeared instead of fighting removal or quitting the country. DHS estimates that there are over six hundred thousand fugitive aliens at large today. To track this population, the government had just the seventy-five FOTs (today the number is one hundred and four). Or consider the Document and Benefit Fraud Task Forces (DBTFs), created in 2006 to go after illegal workers using fake social security numbers and other forged documents. The DBTFs managed to conduct just two hundred and eighty-five worksite investigations in its first year, and made only one hundred and eighty-nine arrests leading to a paltry eighty convictions. A report that same year by the Center for Immigration Studies noted that the U.S. has only ten thousand full-time immigration enforcement officials; and ICE uses just ten percent of its investigative resources to enforce rules against visa fraud, workplace violations, and overstaying. Few apprehensions take place beyond the border and other ports of entry. At the very least, then, Thao probably wouldn’t be arrested.

Certainly many illegal immigrants benefit from coming to the United States. The sheer volume and determination of those who come here stands as evidence of that. So yes, if the American Dream ever existed, it still does. If it was ever available to someone who came here illegally, it still is. The chances for financial success are real and unreal…they are achievable, but often impossibly remote. If your goal is to enter this country, make a million dollars, and remain here permanently…this can be done. If you are only here to work and send money home to your family…this too is possible. Yet in some ways asking whether an illegal migrant should come here isn’t the right question, at least for me. What’s most interesting to me is that someone like Thao—an immigrant little different from the millions of others who come here each year—risked so much and gained so little, and yet her experience didn’t alter her (nor my family’s) sense that her journey here was the right thing to do. Perhaps this only means that the immigrant’s home is truly awful, or there is a belief in what’s possible here that confounds reality and that is resistant to the skepticism of someone like me.

Thao flew back to Vietnam in June when her tourist visa expired. She did not return home a rich woman. Six months at the convenience store netted her only about three thousand dollars, much of which she spent buying clothes and cosmetics to give to family and friends as gifts. The remainder went to her daughter, Candy, who would be studying at a school in Texas (she would take up residence in the same half-room in which Thao had lived). Thao’s plans for her next move in Vietnam seemed vague at best. She had no prospects for work, and no immediate interest in finding any. It was one thing to take a dead-end job in the U.S. where she was a stranger and an alien and quite another to do so beneath the gaze of her former social peers in Ho Chi Minh City. She would live in the large house with her children until the divorce was final and then sell it. After that she did not know what she would do.

A few months later my mother-in-law told me she had spoken to Thao in Vietnam. She had recently been hired as a nanny by a wealthy family of American expatriates who worked for one of the many international companies that now invest in Vietnam. Her job paid one hundred and seventy-five dollars per month for two days of work each week, enough money to cover her monthly expenses. Happily, the English Thao had picked up while in the U.S. helped her get the job, and she very much liked working with children. She has no plans to return.

Editor’s note: the names of Thao and Binh have been changed for this article.

Theodore Ross is an editor of Harper’s Magazine. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper’s, Tin House, Black Clock, Boulevard and other publications. His last article for Guernica, <a href=”new”>“The Huckster,” appeared in April.

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