Legal Adaptation Among Vietanmese Refugees in the United States: How International Migrants Litigate Civil Grievances During the Resettlement Process1


  • 1

    For their comments on previous versions of this paper we thank Brian Gran, Karl Monsma, Neal Slone, Daniel Strouthes, and the reviewers of the International Migration Review.


This article examines an overlooked dimension of adaptation among international migrants: how they use the host society's legal system to seek redress for grievances that arise during the resettlement process. The article terms this process legal adaptation and focuses on foreign-born plaintiffs in civil litigation. A sample (N=137) of state and federal civil cases with at least one Vietnamese litigant is used to analyze the temporal patterns in legal adaptation among Vietnamese refugees from 1975 to 1994. Several aspects of Vietnamese litigation match their macro-level resettlement process, such as civil rights and intraethnic litigation occurring later than other types of cases. But civil suits with a Vietnamese plaintiff and a native defendant tended to occur earlier than civil suits with a native plaintiff and a Vietnamese defendant. The article identifies the role of legal organizations and international grievances as the sources of Vietnamese refugees' rapid legal adaptation.

The best aspects of the American legal system are the appeals process, access to the courts, and especially the court of equity. This concept of equity never existed in Vietnam. We had the Napoleonic Code where everything is written, and if it is not written, it basically does not exist. You know, too, that under the Code you are guilty until proven innocent…I think the biggest problem is with translators. You know, at its worst, justice translated can be justice denied. So much can be lost in the translation, even by a very good translator. So many American legal concepts do not exist in Vitnamese law.

(Vietnamese-American lawyer quoted in Tenhula, 1991:95–96)