Oil Spill Impacts Vietnamese-American Workers

The BP well spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico is making a major dent in the business of local shrimpers, oystermen and crabbers. Many of these coastal workers are of Vietnamese origin, and those who speak limited English have at times run into trouble while attempting to seek help. Guest host Allison Keyes speaks with Vietnamese-American Congressmen Anh "Joseph" Cao (R-LA) about what is being done to help this community.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

We turn to the oily mess in the Gulf. President Obama was not happy about the blame game on Friday.

President BARACK OBAMA: I have to say, though, I did not appreciate what I considered to be a ridiculous spectacle during the congressional hearings into this matter. You had executives of BP and Transocean and Halliburton falling over each other to point the finger of blame at somebody else. The American people could not have been impressed with that display, and I certainly wasn't.

KEYES: Today BP says it's siphoning off about 20 percent of the crude oil that's been spewing from the blown oil well. But now there's word that some of that spilled oil may be heading toward the Florida Keys and the Atlantic Ocean.

Shrimpers, oystermen and crabbers on the Gulf Coast are trying to cope with an oil mass that marine researchers fear could doom their catches for years. A huge percentage of those dependent on the Gulf are Vietnamese-American. And those who speak only Vietnamese have run into red tape while trying to get help.

Congressman Anh Joseph Cao is a Republican from Louisiana representing a good chunk of New Orleans and a great many Vietnamese-speaking businesses. Thanks, Congressman, for joining us.

Representative ANH JOSEPH CAO (Republican, Louisiana): Thank you for having me.

KEYES: First, let me ask you, what do you think of BP's and Transocean's response so far? Are they doing a good job?

Rep. CAO: Well, they are trying their best to shut down the oil spill, but obviously they are struggling with it. And the longer they struggle, the more the people down here will suffer. So I'm very concerned of the slow pace of shutting down the leak and I hope that they will do their best to shut this leak down as quickly as possible.

KEYES: Do you think they've been doing their best at trying to fix this? I mean, they've had so many different attempts at fixing it that just haven't worked at all. I mean, I realize they've had some success today, but what do you think about how they're doing?

Rep. CAO: Well, I was somewhat disappointed with the lack of preparation in the event of a disaster of this magnitude. Obviously many of the techniques that they are using are new technology and these technologies have not been tested. But at the same time, they should've been looking into this scenario, working to try to solve this problem even before the spill began.

KEYES: What's been happening to the shrimpers and crabbers that make a living there, especially those of Vietnamese background?

Rep. CAO: They are struggling tremendously. I had the opportunity to speak to many of them over the past week and they are frustrated and very much concerned with the inability to make money to pay for their mortgages, to pay for their boat payments, to continue paying the house utilities, sending their children to school. So, people are struggling and people are fearful of what might happen.

And based on what I've been hearing so far, a lot of the oil is not all on the surface. And what I've been hearing that much of it is underneath the surface of the water and might be able to reach the marshes, and therefore contaminate the spawning eggs and that can affect the fishing industries for years to come.

KEYES: Can you briefly share a story of maybe one of your constituents that they've told you?

Rep. CAO: Yes. I was able to meet one fisherman about, I believe it was a little bit over a week ago we had, I was present at a town hall meeting over in the New Orleans East community, and a group of them approached me and said that BP has not done enough to serve the Vietnamese-American fishermen.

Much of the programs that were implemented to help fishermen lacked the language accessibility. Many of the Vietnamese fishermen, they do not speak English well. And even though BP had some interpreters, many of the interpreters either, one, they did not speak English well, or, two, they did not speak Vietnamese well. So, there was a tremendous language barrier between what is available to help the fishermen and their ability to be able to obtain or to be involved in those programs.

KEYES: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking to Congressman Anh Joseph Cao, a Republican from Louisiana who represents a big chunk of New Orleans and Vietnamese fishermen who are having difficulties after the oil spill.

Talk to us a little bit about the intricacies of the language. I mean, I know there's a way to translate, but this time you've got to translate technical terms and that kind of thing, is it easy to do or do you need a special kind of translator to do it?

Rep. CAO: I believe that, I guess the programs would require a person that is both proficient in Vietnamese and in English. Before I became a lawyer, before I became a U.S. congressman, I served as an interpreter, a court interpreter for attorneys during depositions and during trial. And the skills necessary to do good interpretation require a tremendous amount of knowledge of language.

And, obviously, oftentimes it's extremely difficult to translate words literally from English into Vietnamese. And a person must be able to understand what the phrases or what the language of the provisions are saying in order to explain to people what some of these programs would entail. So the act, the job of interpretation requires a person very proficient in both Vietnamese and English in order to serve the people well.

That is why I implemented a quick response team. And in this response team, we were able to have very good Vietnamese/English interpreters, and imbedded in this response team, a claim representative from BP so that they can work directly with the Vietnamese fishermen to help them continue with their businesses or to help them with the programs during the interim.

KEYES: But aren't there a fair number of people, though, that aren't then able to hear about the temporary jobs? I mean, if the paperwork isn't in English, if there are not enough translators, are they missing out on jobs, on compensation, on disaster loans, that kind of thing?

Rep. CAO: Well, initially they were missing out, but a number of Vietnamese organizations have come to New Orleans to assist the Vietnamese-American community. One that I know extremely well is Boat People SOS. And they have the resources and the people with the language skills to help many of the Vietnamese-Americans here.

And then, also, some of the churches, the Vietnamese churches (unintelligible) are getting involved. And obviously in the parishes there are a good number of people who can speak the language, both languages well, and they are helping the Vietnamese-American fishermen. So, in the beginning many of the Vietnamese-American fishermen were left out of the programs, but now I believe that they are able to become more involved, to become more knowledgeable about these programs because of these different organizations.

KEYES: For our listeners that don't know the history, can you tell us a bit about what brought the Vietnamese to that part of the world?

Rep. CAO: When Vietnam fell to the communist forces in 1975, there was a large fishing community under the direction of a Catholic priest - decided to settle in New Orleans. And at that time, Archbishop Hannan, working with - who is now an auxiliary bishop - Dominic Luong in Orange County, they were able to bring this group of Vietnamese over and brought them through Catholic Charities to New Orleans East.

And the community has settled there since then. It's a very close-knit community. People live and worship in that community. The lives of community evolved around the parish. So it's one of the more unique Vietnamese-American communities in the United States.

KEYES: Curious, fishing is still banned in that area, right? So, what are people doing to survive right now?

Rep. CAO: Many of the fishermen applied for some of the relief money being offered by BP. The maximum amount being allotted at this point in time is $5,000. So they are trying to apply for that program. At the same time, they are trying to involve in the cleanup program, as well as the laying down of booms. So that's what they're trying to do, but obviously, they continue to struggle to survive and to make ends meet.

KEYES: What happens if this isn't fixed soon? I mean, the scientists are saying that the repercussions from this could go on for years. I mean, if there are no shrimp and there are no oysters, do the fishermen need to be trained for other jobs? Is the government prepared to do that?

Rep. CAO: Actually, I spoke with the Economic Development Administration last week, presenting that very scenario in which if the fishing industry, the shrimping industry were too slow to recover, whether or not they will have planned to train some of these fishermen so that they can do other things. So we are looking into that at the federal government level for the long term, looking at workforce development, looking at other job opportunities for these fishermen in the event the fishing and shrimping industry would be damaged for the long term.

But there is also a difficulty with respect to the Vietnamese-American fishermen: Many of them are not educated, and they have the language-barrier problem, so that even to train them to do new things would also be extremely difficult. But given the fact that the Vietnamese-Americans are resilient, they are hard-working, I think that they will survive.

KEYES: Republican Congressman Anh Joseph Cao represents Louisiana's second district, including much of New Orleans. Thank you so much for joining us.

Rep. CAO: Thank you for having me on your show.

(Soundbite of music)

KEYES: And we want to hear from those of you directly affected by the oil spill. Are you a fisherman living along the Gulf Coast, or do you live there? How has the spill impacted your work? Or tell us what you've seen on the shoreline. You can call our comment line at 202-842-3522. That number again: 202-842-3522. Remember to leave your name and tell us how to pronounce it. You can also go to npr.org, click on TELL ME MORE and blog it out.

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