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The Orange County Poll : Gangs, Crime Feared Most by Vietnamese

February 05, 1989|STEVE EMMONS and DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writers

The first extensive survey of Orange County's Vietnamese community reveals tremendous fear of gangs and crime, strong ties to tradition and a great need for assistance in mastering English.

The estimated 100,000 Vietnamese who have settled in Orange County have experienced a complex transition between two cultures, but despite problems with assimilation, an overwhelming number (96%) say their lives in Orange County are going "very well" or "somewhat well."

Nevertheless, nearly two-thirds of the county's Vietnamese perceive at least some prejudice here, though most say they have not experienced it personally.

These are among the findings of the most recent Times Orange County Poll, which was conducted in Vietnamese and English. The poll of 400 adult residents was conducted Jan. 21 to 26 by Mark Baldassare & Associates of Irvine. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5%.

The poll paints a picture of a somewhat insular community, where Vietnamese is the main language in 83% of the households, 76% of the population still has contact with friends and relatives in Vietnam and 61% spend their money mainly in Vietnamese stores and restaurants.

Those surveyed were almost evenly divided on whether renewing U.S. diplomatic ties with Vietnam would have a good effect on Vietnamese residents in this country. They also were nearly evenly split on whether they would visit Vietnam if relations between the two nations were normalized.

"That's surprising," Baldassare said. "This is perhaps the most heated subject in the Vietnamese community today. To some extent it's a political issue, but I think it's also a personal issue. Some members of the community see benefits of future ties while others cannot forget the past."

Among the other findings of the poll:

- Slightly more than half of those surveyed disapproved of the recent decision to lower the quota on Vietnamese refugees coming into the United States so that more Soviet refugees could immigrate here. More than a quarter favored continuing some sort of immigration restrictions on Vietnamese refugees, however.

- Close to two-thirds said their households strongly adhered to Vietnamese customs and traditions, and another 35% said they adhered "somewhat."

- Almost half said the children in their families are not expected to marry someone who is Vietnamese.

Those surveyed were asked what they thought was "the most serious problem facing the Vietnamese people in Orange County today." No answer was suggested in the interviews.

Forty-one percent volunteered that gangs and crime constitute the biggest problem of all, and the concern was uniform regardless of age, income level or length of residency in the United States. The only variance was by gender; 50% of women considered gangs and crime the most serious problem, contrasted with 31% of men.

"Gangs and crime were so interlinked (by those being interviewed) that we could not distinguish one from the other," Baldassare said. "For people in the Vietnamese community, those issues are one and the same.

"This is one of the most significant findings of this poll. When you find four out of 10 mentioning it, it's quite clearly a pressing problem in the Vietnamese community. The issue of crime and gangs in Orange County as a whole is not ever noted as a serious problem by more than 10% of the population" in other polls.

Said one local Vietnamese resident who requested anonymity: "We have a tremendous problem with gang members. They extort money. At the restaurants, they eat free. The owners complain to other Vietnamese but don't tell police. If they tell, the police make arrests, but when these gang members get out on bail, the restaurant has trouble later.

"In Vietnam we would have put them in jail already. We had secret police who could do that. We need them here. I know the law says you cannot stop them and that this is a free country, but they know that too. That's why it's hard for police to stop them."

When asked directly, "How much of a problem are gangs and violent crime?" 87% of those surveyed said they considered them either a "big problem" or "somewhat of a problem." Only 13% considered them "not a problem at all."

Law enforcement officials say the Southeast Asian population has grown so quickly that police departments have not been able to keep pace with it. Departments have scrambled to recruit officers who speak Vietnamese, and officers complain that they need bigger budgets to fight the gangs.

Recently, Garden Grove and Westminster applied for a $300,000 grant to combat what they say is a rising tide of Asian gang activity.

Police in those two cities have established separate substations in Little Saigon, and both are kept busy. "Our detail down there can hardly keep up with the crime complaints," said Garden Grove Police Lt. John Urbanowski.

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