Immigration Background and Process

(Map of the City of Alexandria and the surrounding area. Red indicators designate individual residences. Yellow indicators designate Vietnamese businesses. Green indicators designate Vietnamese places of worship.)

While there certainly were immigrants from Vietnam living in the United States prior to 1975, the first massive wave of immigrants began after the fall of South Vietnam to communist forces on April 30, 1975. As 1975 began, forces from North Vietnam swept through the South with increasing speed and efficiency. “On March 10th they were in Ban Me Thuot. By March 25th, they had taken back the imperial city of Hue. By the 30th, Danang toppled; by April 1st Nha Trang; by April 4th, Dalat.”[1] As the communist backed forces drew ever closer to the southern capital at Saigon, and eventually captured it, people struggled to make plans to evacuate. With the fall of Saigon imminent, “American self-preservation” kicked in and members of the U.S. government stationed in Saigon began “too-little, too-late efforts to make rash lists of ‘key’ or ‘politically sensitive’ Vietnamese to evacuate quickly fall to personal friendships and eventually simple last-minute bribes, where if someone holds off the hordes at gunpoint, they earn their families a golden ticket onto the helicopters.”[2] In this fevered attempt to leave the country in haste, the United States government helped to evacuate roughly 50,000 Vietnamese citizens, leaving numerous behind to either live under communist rule, or find their way out of the country later.[3] This speedy exit consisting of Vietnamese citizens with ties to the U.S. government constitutes what is known as the first wave of Vietnamese migration to the United States. Once out of Vietnam, every refugee was sent to various refugee camps controlled by the U.S. government. As we will discuss, this initial wave of refugees settled in Alexandria mainly because of these governmental ties.

Many of the first Vietnamese refugees who were sponsored out of the refugee camps and came to Alexandria were sponsored because of their relationships with CIA and military personnel that were made during the Vietnam War. The connections that the Vietnamese refugees had in the Pentagon were the most significant for these first wave immigrants.[4] Some of these Pentagon employees being CIA operatives and some of them having been to Vietnam during the war connected them with some of the refugees that managed to make it out of Vietnam. Men in the military also were responsible for sponsoring Vietnamese refugees and getting them out of camps. Edward Lansdale was a “military figure who wrote letters to liberate his friends and intimates from the camps,” one in particular was Pham Duy, a singer who wrote propaganda songs for the United States during the war.[5] Lansdale is known as one of the prominent military figures who sponsored refugees in the northern Virginia area. He had so many of his friends from Vietnam in the northern Virginia area that he held a gathering at his house where refugees formed self-help programs.[6] After sponsorship, in most cases, sponsors helped these refugees find jobs and places to live; some sponsors would go as far as helping pay bills until these refugees could get become financially secure.[7] Had these refugees never made these vital connections in Vietnam many of them would have never been able to leave the camps in the United States until a charity or a Catholic Church group sponsored them. It was these vital connections that also initially helped them pay bills or find a job. After these first refugees found their way out of camps others would need to be sponsored too and they usually found sponsorship through charities.

After the initial wave of Vietnamese refugees settled in Alexandria, subsequent waves utilized the help of charitable organizations as well as family members who had already settled to help them find jobs and housing in Alexandria. One of the most prominent groups that helped with Vietnamese resettle in Alexandria was an organization called Indochinese Refugees Social Services (IRSS). Founded partly by a woman named Jackie Bong-Wright, herself a first-wave refugee, this organization “provided temporary and emergency housing” at a facility called Welcome House.  With the help of grant money they also expanded their services to “include an employment service that found jobs for refugees and trained them in job skills- professional cleaning, gardening, and house painting.”[8] Training Vietnamese refugees for such jobs was an important task, but one that often left these refugees wanting more. Many of the migrants who ended up in Alexandria had extensive educations from Vietnam, and both men and women often had attended college in Vietnam for more than 5 years, earning advanced degrees.[9] Similarly, many individuals had extensive military and government careers, but upon entering the United States, they were taught that instead of saying they worked in the military, they should simply say “‘I work with my hands’.”[10] Moving from highly respected professions to those that we will discuss later had an impact on these refugees self-esteem and led to a need for counseling services. Almost without exception, “in pre-1975 South Vietnam, men had been in middle-class occupations, in sharp contrast to their position in the lower tiers of the occupational structure in the United States,” a phenomena that left many depressed.[11] Luckily, Indochinese Refugees Social Services helped get these refugees the counseling and medical treatment they needed and to heal these issues that arose from what was often described as “cultural problems.”[12] In a related manner, IRSS and other social service groups helped Vietnamese immigrants deal with “changes in the relations of men and women” that were experienced when women more readily found work in Alexandria.[13] While the immigration and settlement process was different for each person, organizations like Indochinese Refugees Social Services and people like Jackie Bong Wright sought to provide services that would help all migrants settle into life in Alexandria.

[1] Andrew Friedman, Covert Capital: Landscapes of Denial and the Making of U.S. Empire in the Suburbs of Northern Virginia (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2013), 170.

[2] Friedman, 171.

[3] Ibid, 173.

[4] ibid, 177.

[5] Ibid., 179.

[6]Ibid., 179.

[7] Ibid., 178-181.

[8] Jackie Bong Wright, “About Jackie: Autumn Cloud’s Summary,” accessed November 3, 2015,

[9] Certificate of Marriage, Thanh Van Nguyen to Tuyet-Mai Thi Dinh, 19 December 1977, Arlington County, Virginia. Department of Health. Copy found on

[10] Friedman, 176.

[11] Nazli Kibria, Family Tightrope: The Changing Lives of Vietnamese Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 109.

[12] Janis Johnson, “Virginia Officials Worry Over Rise in Refugee Health Costs,” The Washington Post, July 10, 1980.

[13] Kibria, 108.