Joseph Cao believes a letter he received as a boy from his father helped steer his life’s course—although he didn’t recognize it at the time. Cao’s father, an officer allied with American forces in South Vietnam, had been captured by the North Vietnamese in 1975, at the close of the Vietnam War, and sent to a communist “re-education camp” where he would remain imprisoned for six years.
Cao was eight years old. He would never live with his parents again, and he would not see them for almost 16 years. While his mother chose to stay in Vietnam with five of her children, Cao and two siblings joined an aunt and uncle in a large wave of Vietnamese immigrants who came to America after the fall of Saigon through President Gerald Ford’s Indochinese refugee resettlement program. Because neither relative could afford to take all three children, the siblings were separated. Cao and an uncle landed at a refugee settlement in Arkansas and later moved to Indiana with the help of an elderly couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Harold Schrock, whom Cao came to call his “mamoo” and “papoo.”
“They were very generous to us,” Cao says. They helped Cao and his uncle find a small, government-subsidized apartment. Cao’s uncle got a job at McDonald’s. Cao enrolled in school.
“Those first years in the United States were actually very happy years for me,” Cao recalls. “Those were the years where I was able to grow up in this society, to learn the American culture and have a lot of friends.” The people in Goshen, Indiana, “were very supportive and very receptive. I did not feel any kind of prejudice.”
Cao was about 10 years old when he received a letter from his father in prison. “He was telling me to study hard, to work hard, and to give back to my community,” Cao says. “At the time, I probably just read the letter and put it away. But I guess the whole idea came back and stayed with me.”
The words of his father, who died in 2010, become more poignant for Cao as he ages. As a young man, Cao earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Baylor University, a Baptist university in Texas, and joined the Society of Jesus in Louisiana. After serving with the Jesuits, he completed a Master’s degree in philosophy from Fordham University, in New York, and a law degree from Loyola University New Orleans, where he also taught philosophy and ethics. Cao served as counsel for Boat People SOS, a non-profit serving Vietnamese refugees, before opening a private practice specializing in immigration law.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Cao’s home and office in New Orleans East, the region that was among the most devastated by the floodwaters — an area that also serves as the center of the city’s Vietnamese community. Comprised almost entirely of war refugees, the community rebuilt so quickly that it became a symbol of hope for the city. “Of course it comes from our background of adversity, it comes from our background of losing everything,” Cao says.
Comprised almost entirely of Vietnam war refugees, New Orleans East rebuilt so quickly after Hurricane Katrina that it became a symbol of hope for the city.
“Before that, the Vietnamese community was very isolated,” he says. “After Katrina, the Vietnamese-American community became the focus of the resiliency of the people of New Orleans.”
It also changed the course of Cao’s career. Cao, active throughout the rebuilding, was at a meeting to fight the creation of a nearby landfill when a visiting politician asked if they had a representative in public office. Cao decided he would run. In 2008, Cao became the first Vietnamese-American ever elected to Congress and the first Republican to represent the 2nd Congressional District of Louisiana since 1891.
As a member of Congress, Cao unleashed more than $150 million in federal aid to help New Orleans rebuild, secured $1.5 million for the New Orleans Crime Coalition, brought in $1.6 million to various local programs aimed at protecting and improving the lives of families, and secured $3.5 million to improve health care delivery.
Cao served one term, losing his seat to a Democrat. He is now running for U.S. Senate.
“I am the real example of the American Dream,” he says. “I try to explain to my own daughters that there are people in the world that are suffering, and eventually we would hope that they would grow up to help those in need.”
“I think our kids listen to our stories,” he says. “Even though they pretend not to listen, they do.”