BP Leaves Immigrants High and Dry

A third of the fishers affected by BP’s catastrophic oil spill are Vietnamese—and they don’t have equal access to restitution payments and other aid. Brentin Mock reports on one of America’s most unique immigrant communities.

On May 7, 200 Vietnamese-American fishermen crowded into Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church in New Orleans East. They expected to soon be put out of business by BP’s catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and had gathered looking for a little bit of hope from U.S. Coast Guard Captain Edwin M. Stanton, the morning’s speaker. Many wore Walkman-like devices that provided translations of English into their native tongues. They couldn’t have liked everything they heard.

BP’s restitutions barely skim the surface of the fishermens’ incredible need. As damages escalate, lawyers of all stripes are floating around like catchers trawling oysters for pearls.

After giving the fishermen his phone number, Stanton warned, "But I don't speak Vietnamese." Without a trace of urgency, he continued, "I don't even know if I have a translator at my command post, but I realize I should probably tell BP to have one or two hired."

It’s a little-known aspect of the oil spill story: An estimated third to a half of the 11,000 commercial fishermen impacted by the disaster are Vietnamese, yet BP and Coast Guard officials have done precious little to accommodate this community.

BP’s claims office in Delaware lacks Vietnamese-speaking adjusters, in spite of the oil company's "intent to compensate fishers within 48 hours," according to BP spokesperson Hugh Depland.

The fishers today have two options: Sign up for BP's "Vessels of Opportunity" program, where they can be trained to deploy booms and skim oil, or file a claim, which would reimburse them up to $5,000 for their losses. The first option is less than ideal, as only a fraction of those trained will be awarded jobs. The second option is stymied not only by language barriers, but also because $5,000 will hardly make up for what could end up being a year or more of severely depleted income.

There could be a third option: Hire Vietnamese-American fishers fluent in English to translate for and assist other fishers through the cumbersome process.

Indeed, the history of the Vietnamese community in the Gulf shows they've had to rely on each other to get through a number of crises since the Vietnam War. By the late 1970s, over 2 million Vietnamese refugees had left their homeland seeking asylum in other nations. More than half of them ended up in the United States. Today, close to 15,000 Vietnamese Americans live in the tight-knit community of New Orleans East where they are known not only for their fishing skills, but also for strong political organizing.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, their neigborhood was one of the first rebuilt, mostly through their own residents’ efforts under the leadership of St. Mary Queen of Viet Nam’s leader, Father Vien The Nguyen.

What's been exceptional about the Vietnamese community’s organizing is that it is multigenerational, even as new waves of immigrants continue to arrive. In April, the church led an environmental justice tour with the Micah Project and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Two busloads of residents, about half of whom were elderly, were ushered around East New Orleans by members of the Vietnamese Young Leaders group. They made a final stop in the Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuge, amid gorgeous scenery of tall minty grass, singing birds, and sparkling fish.

This scene was rudely disturbed by the view of petrochemical plants and refineries in the background. Most of those on the tour didn't speak English, but they recognized and understood the sheen of oil floating on the bayou waters, apparently from refinery leaks.

Those leaks are nothing compared to the deluge from Deepwater Horizon. The plumes of oil now clogging the Gulf of Mexico threaten to obliterate hundreds of species of underwater fish, crabs, oysters, and shrimp. This is the source of a third of the seafood consumed in America, and it’s also how thousands of fishers along the coast—many of them Vietnamese and Cambodian—feed themselves and their families.

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When BP spokesperson Hugh Depland told fishermen at the May 7 meeting that much of the oil will dissolve through "natural processes," it stirred a round of laughter. The laughs came not because this isn't true, but because it is irrelevant to the livelihoods of fishers. As the oil shoots up from sub-surface to surface, and then sinks back down again with the help of chemical dispersants, leagues of fish that come into contact will be tainted, meaning no catch this year and probably for years to come, since many fish reproductive faculties will be spoiled.

BP’s restitutions barely skim the surface of the fishers’ incredible need. As damages escalate, lawyers of all stripes are floating around like catchers trawling oysters for pearls. On television, their advertisements urging oil spill lawsuits are ubiquitous.

The fishers lives are increasingly politicized. Coastal state members of Congress are calling for offshore drilling moratoriums citing the protection of fishers. Meanwhile, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu recently said, "It's very interesting to me, and very concerning, that I literally never had one senator from the anti-oil and gas states to come to me to offer to help one fisherman after Katrina and Rita, when their boats were literally shattered in pieces, their nets were torn up and their homes were destroyed."

Senator Landrieu is standing vigorously by the idea that offshore oil drilling is safe and necessary, all present evidence to the contrary. Last week, though, she introduced the Oil Spill Claims Assistance and Recovery Act, which if passed would provide $20 million for nonprofits to aid claims seekers. Meanwhile, Congressman Anh "Joseph" Cao, the first Vietnamese-American House member, announced a "rapid response" team that will, among other things, provide translators for Vietnamese and Cambodian fishers. Some of the team members are affiliated with Mary Queen of Viet Nam Church.

Cao and even Landrieu realize that the best way to help the fishermen is to give them the funding and resources to help themselves. BP, though, has shown that they are clueless about this. The clearest example came last week during a BP job-training session specifically designed for Vietnamese fishers. The one translator BP produced to instruct hundreds of Vietnamese fishers gave up interpreting 20 minutes in to the four-hour session. The fishers couldn't understand him. Reason being: He spoke the wrong Vietnamese dialect.

Brentin Mock is a New Orleans-based reporter who contributes regularly to TheRoot.com, GOOD, TheGrio.com, The American Prospect, and is a staff reporter for the investigative journalism nonprofit The Lens.