– Thousands of Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. who were previously protected under an agreement largely for refugees fleeing post-war Vietnam could face detention and deportation in coming months.
The Trump administration’s efforts to remove the Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades, have drawn sharp criticism from immigration advocates.
“Often folks are being deported to dangerous situations and a country where they know neither the language nor have any community connections any longer,” Greg Walgenbach, director of Life, Justice and Peace from the Diocese of Orange, California, told CNA.
“Will families have the ability to make arrangements for them to be received in the country to which they are returned?” he asked. “These are all questions that in the haste to show a ‘tough on immigration’ approach, the U.S. government is casting aside humanitarian concerns and the dignity of the human persons involved.”
Walgenbach said individuals should have the chance to have their cases reviewed to see if anything has changed that might allow them to stay. Families should be able to communicate with their members and be given time to make arrangements.
“Especially until immigration laws are changed to be more compassionate and just, the human dignity of every immigrant must be upheld,” said Walgenbach, whose diocese has a large Vietnamese community.
A 2008 repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments states that Vietnamese citizens are not subject to return to Vietnam if they arrived in the U.S. before July 12, 1995 – the date when the two governments re-established diplomatic relations. Much of this population consists of refugees who fled post-war Vietnam, fearing persecution under the communist government.
Vietnam refuses to take back immigrants who fall under the agreement, meaning that those who have been detained with final deportation orders are in a legal limbo.
Most of the 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. are legal residents and not in danger of deportation.
But about 8,600 of them are under final deportation orders and are at risk of imminent detention. Of these, 7,821 have criminal convictions, a spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Reuters.
However, Ted Osius, U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam from 2014 to October 2017, said that “[t]he majority targeted for deportation—sometimes for minor infractions—were war refugees who had sided with the United States, whose loyalty was to the flag of a nation that no longer exists.”
Osius spoke against the deportation policy in the April 2018 issue of The Foreign Service Journal, published by the American Foreign Service Association. He said U.S. government efforts against such immigrants were among the actions that had prompted him to resign.
“[T]hey were to be ‘returned’ decades later to a nation ruled by a communist regime with which they had never reconciled. I feared many would become human rights cases, and our government would be culpable.”
Many of the immigrants had supported South Vietnam during the Vietnam War and the Vietnamese government would consider them a destabilizing force, Osius told Reuters.
“These people don’t really have a country to come back to,” he said.
Some of the immigrants had committed serious crimes, Osius acknowledged, although immigration advocates say that many of the convictions are decades old. Osius said that the repatriation agreement had meant that they would be left alone.
Immigration lawyers have said that some detained Vietnamese immigrants have been held for as long as 11 months because Immigration and Customs Enforcement cannot deport them.
Previously, arrested Vietnamese immigrants with final deportation orders who had arrived before 1995 would be released within 90 days, under supervision orders. In 2017, 71 Vietnamese people were deported to Vietnam, compared to 35 the previous year.
In February, several groups filed a class action lawsuit in Los Angeles federal court seeking to challenge the indefinite detentions.
One of those detained, Hoang Trinh, came to the U.S. in 1980 at the age of four when his family fled postwar Vietnam. He became a legal resident, married and raised two children in Orange County, California, The Washington Post reported in March.
He has spent at least seven months in detention under Immigration and Customs Enforcement. For a 2015 drug charge he spent a year in prison, then was arrested in 2017 for possession of marijuana. He was then ordered to be removed from the U.S. Trinh is a party to the lawsuit.
Phi Nguyen, litigation director with Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, charged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is acting “in complete disregard for the law.”
“The only thing that has changed is that our administration wants the Vietnamese government to completely abandon the repatriation agreement.”
Nguyen said that her parents fled Vietnam after her father was imprisoned for three years, during which he suffered from forced labor and starvation.
The fate of these immigrants is a subject of international discussion. Katina Adams, a spokeswoman for the State Department’s East Asia bureau, said the U.S. and Vietnamese governments continue to discuss their positions on Vietnamese citizens now in the U.S.
Reuters cited a senior Vietnamese official who said Vietnam needs to accept those who went to the U.S. after the war, not as a consequence of it.