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Law in Translation

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Posted by Zoe Sullivan on Tue Oct 16 2012

NEW ORLEANS:  There are a lot of languages spoken these days on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, many beyond English, Spanish, and Creole French.  One of the big languages here now is Vietnamese. As refugees started coming to the United States after the Vietnam War, quite a few made their way here for one big reason: fishing.

Those immigrants who already knew how to fish found they could make pretty good money in the Gulf. Mini-fishing empires developed. But then disaster struck.

Daniel Nguyen is Vietnamese-American, born in Louisiana. “It all started April 20, 2010. I remember that day,” Nguyen told The Life of The Law.

On that morning, a fireball swallowed a deepwater drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico. None of the fail-safe mechanisms worked, and the well began vomiting thousands of gallons of oil in what would become the largest oil spill  in U.S. History.

Nguyen described how he got involved with relief efforts. “At that time, I was still bussing tables downtown, and a friend of mine came to eat at the restaurant that worked here and said “look, the fisher folk are displaced….we need interpreters. So, I said ‘OK, I’d be willing to volunteer my time.’”

The Vietnamese fisher folk had largely been self-reliant. But self-reliance wasn’t enough as the BP disaster tossed them into a foreign world—that of the US legal system. A complex claims system was the only way they could get compensation for all the income they were losing as fishing shut down in the Gulf.

Vietnamese immigrants made up roughly a third of the shrimpers here, and shrimpers were hard hit. For them, the spill illustrated how fragile their solid livelihoods really were.  And Nguyen says, it showed how much the outside world didn’t know how to communicate with them.

“BP had people coming in from Vietnam who were using the wrong dialect, offiensive dialects. There’s post and pre-1975 language. With post-1975 language, you have a split, you have American-based Vietnamese and you Vietnamese-based Vietnamese, and that’s considered Communist Vietnamese, so they were using Communist terminology, which was really offensive to people here, who fled from the Communist regime.”

Nguyen says the Vietnamese community in Louisiana started getting organized after Hurricane Katrina.  But the community development organization where he volunteered, MQVN,  had a whole new set of problems on its hands after the BP disaster

 ”We had 50-100 fisher folks lined up outside of our office starting at midnight.”

Daniel and his colleagues were helping people file compensation claims with the Gulf Coast Claims Facility.  In the process, they found out that those in the fishing community weren’t just losing income—they were losing their own food supplies as well. Vietnamese fishermen relied on their catch to feed their families, and to barter for other goods and services. But he compensation process was aimed more at purely commercial fishermen.

Nguyen explained that important elements of the industry were ignored. “One of the things that wasn’t being compensated for was subsistence use.”

Leanne Hanh sells her catch at a New Orleans farmers market on weekends. She was born in Vietnam and came to the U.Sin 1983, when she was 13. She came to Louisiana when she married. Her boat and her husband’s were grounded after the oil spill, but BP had promised to rent local fishing boats during the cleanup. Hahn says for her, that never happened.

“I do own a boat, too. And it’s go now, too, but then they didn’t call me to work, and we had to wait. Because everybody signed a contract, so we all have to wait to hear the phone call, sit at home to wait for the phone call.”

But fruitless waiting  or bad interpreters weren’t the biggest problems facing the Vietnamese fishing community in Louisiana. After the oil spill there was a lot of people who um, felt that they were signed up for legal representation without fully knowing it,” Nguyen explained to The Life of The Law. “And then lawyers, or the attorneys would just take their claims and checks and we couldn’t really do anything about it because they were represented by an attorney.”

Nguyen and says the whole experience made clear vulnerabilities that some in the community had already perceived. But despite the bad experience they’ve had, many are still turning to the

legal system to try to regain some of what they lost from the oil spill. Some have joined class action suits against BP in the hopes that bundled together, their claims can make a dent in the system.

Attorney Ravi Sangisetty is a Louisiana native who’s working with the Vietnamese community on their claims. He described some of the barriers he has come across.

“Speaking to you about what I think about the legal system, there’s just in general a lack of access for poorer or middle class folks. Uh, I mean I get it all the time, I can’t take the case, or I can’t take this case or that case because it’s just, they can’t afford it. I mean, if we’re talking about communities that are disadvantaged in a  lot of ways, those problems are exacerbated. It’s just even worse.”

Sangisetty is optimistic that the class action suits may succeed where individual ones failed, if only because private attorneys will be more interested in the profit from representing many clients at once. And, in binding together as a class, the Vietnamese fisher folk may have found an approach to the legal system that best matches their own immigrant experience. “You’ve got a real self-sufficient attitude,” Sangisetty affirmed. “And they’re insular in that they will rely on members of their community and kind of navigate a disaster like this together.”

BP offered a settlement in April of 2012, but many fisher folk worry the spill could create long-term problems for the ecosystem they depend on. Scientists are trying to determine the spill’s impact on Gulf marine life. There are no guarantees that the fisheries will bounce back. But the settlement is on the table right now. That creates a dilemma for Vietnamese fisher-folk. They have to decide whether to chart a course towards class-action, or tie up at the dock, take the money, and give up the right to future claims.