Civic Engagements: The Citizenship Practices of Indian and Vietnamese Immigrants

Civic Engagements: The Citizenship Practices of Indian and Vietnamese Immigrants

by Caroline Brettell

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For refugees and immigrants in the United States, expressions of citizenship and belonging emerge not only during the naturalization process but also during more informal, everyday activities in the community. Based on research in the Dallas–Arlington–Fort Worth area of Texas, this book examines the sociocultural spaces in which Vietnamese and Indian


For refugees and immigrants in the United States, expressions of citizenship and belonging emerge not only during the naturalization process but also during more informal, everyday activities in the community. Based on research in the Dallas–Arlington–Fort Worth area of Texas, this book examines the sociocultural spaces in which Vietnamese and Indian immigrants are engaging with the wider civic sphere.

As Civic Engagements reveals, religious and ethnic organizations provide arenas in which immigrants develop their own ways of being and becoming "American." Skills honed at a meeting, festival, or banquet have resounding implications for the future political potential of these immigrant populations, both locally and nationally. Employing Lave and Wenger's concept of "communities of practice" as a framework, this book emphasizes the variety of processes by which new citizens acquire the civic and leadership skills that help them to move from peripheral positions to more central roles in American society.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Civic Engagements is a well-written and analytically astute book that will interest scholars in a variety of fields dealing with immigration, race and ethnicity, and civic and political participation, as well as religion, cultural studies, gender, and the family."—Sofya Aptekar, Journal of American Studies

"Overall, this is a well-written and well-organized book."—Helen B. Marrow, International Migration Review

"Brettell and Reed-Danahay have written an insightful, inventive, and thought-provoking book. Exploring how immigrants to the US from Vietnam and India carve out places of civic engagement in the process of becoming American, their work reveals that immigrant incorporation into mainstream America begins in an unexpected place: the ethnic enclave. . . . Highly recommended."—R. A. Harper, CHOICE

"Brettell and Reed-Danahay have written a thoughtful and enlightening book based on detailed ethnographic research in one of America's new immigrant gateways. Through wonderfully rich case studies and careful analysis, Civic Engagements provides important insights into how Vietnamese and Indian immigrants are learning to become American while also maintaining strong ethnic identities."—Nancy Foner, Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

"Civic Engagements is a graceful comparative look at two 'new American' communities. This book illustrates a crucial point about citizenship—that it is not to be measured simply by attainment of legal status but by engagement with others in activities that demonstrate belonging."—Karen Isaksen Leonard, University of California, Irvine
"Civic Engagements is an eye-opening study of how Indians and Vietnamese 'become American' in distinct ways while reinforcing a strong sense of their own ethnic identity. This is no zero-sum story of mainstream assimilation as a vanishing act of ethnicity, but of active involvement in the multiple centers that make up the civic sphere. Citizenship, as it emerges here, is not just about rights granted, but participatory actions taken by immigrants to establish a dual sense of belonging, in Dallas and in diaspora."—Rubén G. Rumbaut, University of California, Irvine; co-author of Immigrant America: A Portrait

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Civic Engagements

The Citizenship Practices of Indian and Vietnamese Immigrants
By Caroline B. Brettell Deborah Reed-Danahay

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2012 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-7529-8

Chapter One

Arrival, Settlement, and the Construction of Cultural Landscapes

MAI P., A MOTHER OF TWO in her early forties who was born in Vietnam, arrived in DFW in the 1980s, but this was not her first destination in the United States. Mai first came to America as a young child, as part of what she calls "the first wave" of refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975. "My Mom and Dad wanted to escape, so Dad had a plan. He knew that a U.S. warship was in the harbor waiting so he chartered a boat to take us out to it." Her family spent a few months in Guam to be processed as refugees, and then were sent to a refugee camp in the Unites States, at Indian Town Gap in Pennsylvania. A Baptist family sponsored them and they moved to a small town in the southeast where they spent two years. The sponsors were pleasant and helpful, but the town had no other Vietnamese living in it. Mai's family eventually made contact with relatives who had already settled in New Orleans. "My parents saw that there was a strong Vietnamese Catholic community down there, and we had a large extended family already there, so we moved down." She and her two brothers attended Catholic schools and went to college. Her older brother had become an engineer and moved to the Dallas area, and in the 1980s her family relocated again to be near him. "My Dad had passed away and so my brother became the head of the family." Mai finished her college education at a university in the DFW region and settled in Tarrant County. She married another former Vietnamese refugee and now works as a computer professional. Mai feels that the most important issue for Vietnamese parents is to raise their children so they can adapt to living in the United States. Her own children do well in school, but she bemoans the fact that neither of her children can fluently speak Vietnamese.

Salim K., a native of India, also arrived in DFW in the 1980s and, like Mai, had spent time elsewhere in the United States first. After completing both bachelor's and master's degrees at the Bombay branch of the Indian Institute of Technology,1 Salim decided to pursue a doctorate in nuclear engineering in the United States. He chose to enroll at Midwestern University (a pseudonym) because it offered him a scholarship and because his wife's uncle had been a Midwestern student and had told him about it. When Salim and his wife arrived on the Midwestern campus in the fall of 1969, they were met by a host family who were kind to them and sympathetic to the fact that they had never experienced such cold weather before. This family helped them obtain winter clothes and transportation, and invited them to talk about India and their religion (Islam) at their church. "America was not as diverse then as it is now," Salim commented. "Indians were a novelty." In 1973, Salim and his wife had a baby girl, and a year later they moved to the Boston area, where their son was born. They were the first Muslim family in the community where they lived, but other families moved in and eventually several families worked together to start a mosque. In 1986, Salim was offered a position at a major nuclear facility. The family moved to Texas and settled in Plano, a northern suburb of the city of Dallas. Shortly afterward, Salim and his wife became American citizens. They had decided they were going to make their lives in the United States. Salim noted that in those early years it was difficult for his children at school because there were few Indians in their classes and often no other Muslims. "Now it is different for Indian children because the Indian community and the Muslim community are both bigger."

The experiences of Salim and Mai underscore the differences between refugees and educational and economic migrants. A first-generation immigrant who came to the United States as a young man, Salim earned an advanced degree and achieved a high income within years of arrival. Mai is a 1.5 generation immigrant, and her refugee parents struggled and worked hard so that their children could gain economic and social power. In contrast to other Indians, like Salim, for whom education and work opportunities stand out as major reasons for coming to the United States, very few of the Vietnamese interviewed for this book gave these as major reasons. Instead, they emphasized "political" motives and forced migration.

Although these two migration stories are unique in many respects, they also illustrate some common themes in the immigrant experience. Along with their respective families, Mai and Salim initially arrived in another part of the United States before moving to Texas. Although both families were attracted to this region by a growing economy, each articulated the important role of the extended family in their migration. Salim's wife's uncle paved the way for him at Midwestern, and Mai's relatives drew her first to New Orleans and later to DFW. These stories also demonstrate the feeling of "otherness" experienced by the two families after their initial settlement. Mai spoke of her family's isolation from other Vietnamese when they were settled in a small southern town where, as Catholics, they were also quite different from the majority, who were Protestant. Salim describes being the first Muslim family in his Boston-area community. Both Salim and Mai acquired an education and sought a professional occupation after arriving in the United States.

To better understand the reasons that immigrants move to the DFW metropolitan area, and its unique qualities as a receiving context, in this chapter we describe this setting. We briefly discuss overall immigration trends before turning to the ways in which Vietnamese and Indians in particular have claimed space in DFW through the construction of cultural landscapes. We use the term cultural landscape to refer to ethnic commercial centers, cultural institutions, and the virtual and imagined spaces of ethnic media. Establishing such spaces for forms of sociality based on shared national origins that transcend family or religious institutions is often an initial step in the process of emplacement by which newcomers enter the public sphere and establish their local social and civic presence.

The DFW Context

The DFW metropolitan area lies "outside of the large urban agglomerations at the eastern and western flanks of the country" (Jones 2008: 4) that have been most associated with immigrant incorporation and, as such, provides a new context for immigrant settlement. It has, however, particular features that not only attract immigrants, such as Salim and Mai, but also shape their experiences once they arrive. This region is complex in that it includes two major cities—Fort Worth and Dallas—as well as several large suburban cities, such as Arlington and Plano; it is therefore fragmented and quite diverse in terms of settlement patterns (see Map 1.1). Fort Worth and Dallas were both established as cities in the mid-1800s and at first grew primarily due to their roles as transportation hubs with major railroad stations. Cattle, farming, and later oil were the major bases of the economy. There is a rivalry between the two cities and each is viewed and promotes itself differently. Fort Worth is seen as a western city, and its Stockyards neighborhood attests to the strong cattle industry there, whereas Dallas is seen as more eastern and was able to develop into a larger city with a more vibrant economy (at the expense of Fort Worth, in the minds of some in Tarrant County). Separated by suburbs like Irving and Arlington, the two major cities each support a newspaper (the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News), major museums and performance centers, and universities. Both cities have significant populations of Latinos and African Americans whose histories are intertwined with those of the white-dominated power bases that long reigned in each city. Although Fort Worth has its share of elites and philanthropists, the majority of DFW's wealth is concentrated in the northern sector of Dallas and in its northern suburbs.

The strong economy of DFW, despite its ups and downs during previous recessions and the post-9/11 crisis, is a major factor in its ability to attract immigrants. Its growth, however, has been relatively recent compared to cities in other regions of the United States. Economic and demographic expansion in Tarrant County and Fort Worth began in the 1950s with the post-World War II defense industry, when what are now Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter established bases in Fort Worth. A General Motors plant that opened in Arlington in 1954 caused that city to grow from a few thousand inhabitants to almost 45,000 by 1960. Fort Worth's growth was slower; it gained only about 80,000 inhabitants (to reach a total of 356,268) during that decade. Between 1950 and 1960 the population of Dallas grew by just over 245,000 (to more than 680,000) and the city limits expanded from 40.6 square miles in 1940 to 279.9 square miles by 1960. Dresser Industries, an oil and gas firm, relocated to the Dallas area in 1950, and Texas Instruments, a local company founded in the 1930s, expanded into the electronics business during the 1950s, developing the integrated circuit in 1958. Continued expansion of the regional economy in the 1970s was spurred by the completion of DFW International Airport, which again made the area an important transportation hub. By the mid-1980s, DFW was ranked "third behind New York and Chicago as headquarters for companies with more than $1 million in assets" (Payne 2000: 423). In the 1990s, the area ranked first in the nation in employment growth. The economy was also becoming more diversified. The health care industry and higher education institutions are now major employers in the region; there are eighteen four-year and graduate-level colleges and universities. Recent drilling for natural gas, especially in the Barnett Shale in Fort Worth and Arlington, is currently providing revenue windfalls for local governments and individuals. Corporations based in the region include defense contractors, such as Raytheon; retailers, such as RadioShack, Pier 1 Imports, and JCPenney; and Nokia, Exxon Mobil, and American Airlines. By 2008, DFW had twenty-four companies on the Fortune 500 list—the "fourth-highest concentration among U.S. metro areas." There is an entrepreneurial spirit in this region, and it is particularly marked in Dallas, where being a can-do city for business is part of its self-image.

The civic environment and political climate that provide the context for the development of forms of civic engagement among immigrants in DFW shape and are shaped by the region's location in Texas, home of former president George W. Bush and now classified as a "red state" that has had a Republican in the governor's office since 1995. Tarrant County tends to vote Democratic more often than areas closer to Dallas, and at the time of this study the mayor of Fort Worth, Mike Moncrief, was a Democrat. Arlington, however, is now considered the "Republican stronghold" in Tarrant County, even though its former mayor was a Democrat. It is also worth noting that in the 2008 election, Dallas County voted Democratic, which was attributed in part to the high proportion of Hispanics in the county. During our research, both Texas senators were Republican, and although the majority of congressmen from the area are also Republican, some state legislators, such as Lon Burnam from Fort Worth and Rafael Anchia from Dallas, are highly visible Democrats. As we illustrate in subsequent chapters, those members of our research populations who interacted with politicians frequently did so with members of both parties.

There is one other dimension of the "culture" of Texas and of the DFW region that is best illuminated by drawing a comparison with California—another high-immigration state. Although California has been more strongly committed to big government and safety nets, and has a high tax rate to support these commitments, Texas has no state income tax and emphasizes laissez-faire markets and individual responsibility. This approach transmits a message to immigrants arriving in Texas that they are essentially on their own in terms of governmental support, although at the local level a few nonprofit organizations offer services to newcomers. In Texas no sweeping anti-immigrant legislation that is equivalent to California's Proposition 187 has been passed, but a number of bills designed to deal with illegal immigration have been proposed at the state level, and some DFW-area communities—specifically Farmers Branch—have garnered national attention for passing local ordinances to regulate illegal immigration (Brettell and Nibbs 2011).

At the local level, various forms of urban governance operate in the suburban communities that surround Dallas and Fort Worth and together comprise the DFW region. It is worth noting, however, that only in the early 1990s did the city of Dallas become politically inclusionary and hence more representative of and responsive to the area's growing diversity. Dallas moved from a citywide election process to council district elections, with each district electing one of the city's fourteen councilors. In 2010, the suburban community of Irving wrestled with a similar change that would establish a more inclusive and representative system. Since 1996, Arlington's system of government includes eight city council members, five of whom are elected by and to represent a single district, and three of whom, like the mayor, represent and are elected by the city at large. In Fort Worth, the mayor is elected at large, but each city council member is elected by his or her district. The counties in the region are all members of a broader board, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG).

Religion plays an important role in this region and is closely connected to the economic and political climate. Considered to be in the so-called Bible Belt, DFW has a heavily Protestant slant—mirrored in the names of two large private universities that stand at the eastern (Southern Methodist University) and western (Texas Christian University) ends of the region. There is also a Catholic institution of higher education in Irving (University of Dallas), and equal numbers of Southern Baptists and Catholics, the two largest groups, reside in the area. The region has had a substantial Jewish population since the late nineteenth century, and there are several prominent synagogues. The conservative political climate is linked to right-wing religious institutions, and there are several "mega-churches," such as The Potter's House, that increasingly use technology to reach members. The religious context of the area however, is quite diverse and includes a wide range of institutions, including those that are more liberal. It is difficult to gauge the influence of these trends on the religious participation of Indian and Vietnamese immigrants (which we address in Chapter 3), but certainly the overall climate of religiosity means that the religious participation of immigrants is viewed positively, even if their religions (especially Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam) are "new" to the area. There is reinforcement for being affiliated with a church or temple, although attitudes toward mosques have been shifting since 9/11.

Immigration in the DFW Region

Not surprisingly, given the economic growth described in the preceding pages, since the 1970s the DFW region—the largest metropolitan area in Texas—has been an increasingly important destination for immigrants. The economy has attracted both highly skilled and well-educated immigrants, such as those from India, who are drawn to the area by the telecommunications, health, educational, and financial industries, as well as immigrants who have less education or insufficient English language skills (as is the case for many Vietnamese refugees) but have nevertheless found employment in construction or manufacturing, or in the low- or unskilled service sector. In 1975, when Vietnamese refugees first arrived, the economy was growing fast and they were able to find jobs relatively easily. The economic crisis at the end of the first decade of the twenty- first century, however, has made it increasingly difficult for newer groups of refugees to find such jobs (Meyers 2009).


Excerpted from Civic Engagements by Caroline B. Brettell Deborah Reed-Danahay Copyright © 2012 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Caroline B. Brettell is Professor of Anthropology at Southern Methodist University. Deborah Reed-Danahay is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for European Studies (CEUS) at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

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