Vietnamese in the US accuse Trump administration of betraying wartime immigrants with deportation policy

  • Advocates say a 2008 agreement between the US and Vietnam protects them from being removed, but the government disagrees
  • Demonstrations were held in Southern California and New Orleans with another planned in Houston on Thursday evening
PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 10:15am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 December, 2018, 9:29pm

Vietnamese people across the US are protesting against what they say are efforts by the Trump administration to deport members of their community and betraying a deal allowing refugees who fled the once war-torn Southeast Asian nation.

Advocates said the government has been trying to deport Vietnamese immigrants who came to the US before 1995, with an immigration judge handing them a final order of removal – generally because they committed a crime.

While protesters and advocates argued that a 2008 agreement between the US and Vietnam protects them from deportation, the Trump administration said the agreement does in fact allow them to be removed and that Vietnam has an obligation to take back the affected immigrants.

In many ways, the Vietnamese situation is a special case. The reality for most immigrants who commit a crime is that they get deported. But the Vietnamese issue has touched a nerve in part because of the long-standing ties with a community that often fought side by side with Americans and paid a high price for that commitment.

The ongoing debate has concerned many in the Vietnamese community who came to the US after the 1975 fall of Saigon and worry they could face persecution in Vietnam – a country where they have few if any relatives or connections.

“These folks already did their time. It’s not fair for something like this to come back and bite them,” said Minh Nguyen, who heads the community organisation VAYLA New Orleans.

They have every right to be here. They were protected. They are permanent residents
Minh Nguyen

The city has a large Vietnamese community, many of whom are refugees or children of refugees.

“They have every right to be here. They were protected. They are permanent residents. … They never had to worry about being deported and now all of a sudden they are at risk.”

The debate stretches back months. A group of Vietnamese immigrants filed a lawsuit in February, saying the administration was holding Vietnamese immigrants and intending to deport them even though the activists say they were protected under the 2008 agreement between the US and Vietnam. The agreement set up parameters for deporting Vietnamese citizens who came to the US after July 12, 1995 – the day the two countries re-established diplomatic relations – but advocates argue it bars pre-1995 immigrants from being deported.

A 2001 Supreme Court ruling also limits the amount of time immigration authorities can detain someone to six months if there is no reasonable prospect of the person’s home country taking them back.

Phi Nguyen, one of the lawyers representing the Vietnamese immigrants, said in a court filing that the Department of Homeland Security had stated it no longer believed Vietnam would take back pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants and was beginning to release those in its custody. Although officials said they would continue to negotiate with Vietnam, Nguyen said advocates breathed a sigh of relief as the immediate risk seemed to lessen.

Then in December, they heard that the US and Vietnam were meeting again to discuss the issue, she said, raising concerns again.

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Elaine Sanchez Wilson, a spokeswoman for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Centre, said they were told by a congressional aide who did not want to be identified that the two sides were meeting to discuss the return of Vietnamese citizens subject to final orders of removal.

“We are gravely concerned with the Trump Administration’s cruel effort to deport Vietnamese refugees who should have our country’s protection,” the organisation’s head, Quyen Dinh, said in a statement.

Advocates have held events in Southern California and New Orleans to publicise the issue and were planning an event in Houston on Thursday evening. More than 20 members of Congress signed a letter last week saying that sending Vietnamese refugees back would tear families apart and disrupt refugee communities in the US.

The State Department confirmed there was a meeting between US and Vietnamese officials on December 10 and 11, but declined to say what it was about. Brendan Raedy, a spokesman for the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said in an email that the department does not comment on the details of diplomatic negotiations.

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But the administration made clear that it does believe it has the right to deport Vietnamese immigrants who came to the US before the key 1995 date.

Raedy said the 2008 agreement governs deportations for people who arrived after the 1995 normalisation date but also allows each side to “maintain their respective legal positions regarding individuals who arrived before July 12, 1995”.

“The US position is that every country has an international legal obligation to accept its nationals that another country seeks to remove, expel, or deport,” he wrote.

He said 11 Vietnamese nationals who arrived in the US before 1995 have been removed to Vietnam since July 2017. But potentially thousands more people could be affected.

As of September 17, 2018, there were 8,634 Vietnamese nationals in the United States with a final order of removal, 7,781 of whom were convicted criminals, he wrote. There were also 71 Vietnamese nationals in ICE detention with a final order of removal, 66 of whom were convicted criminals, he said.

Vietnam is one of nine countries the US considers uncooperative in accepting the return of their nationals ordered removed from the United States, he wrote.