Every year, the dental hygienist drives to federal immigration offices near Fort Snelling and prepares for the worst.

A Vietnamese refugee who fled his native country with his mother when he was a child, he’s lived with deportation orders for 16 years after a drug arrest at age 18. Now a father, husband, and Twin Cities homeowner who works for a large health care company, deportation is a sentence he’s desperate to appeal.

“Being sent back to Vietnam is the worst thing that could happen to me and my family,” said the man, who asked to not be identified for fear of a backlash from his employer and immigration officials.

His deportation has never been carried out because Vietnam has long refused to accept deportees from the U.S. who fled the country before 1995, as he did. But it’s a constant threat — once a year at a required immigration check-in, he learns whether he will be allowed to stay for another year.

The exercise has become especially harrowing now that the U.S. has sought a new agreement with Vietnam that would allow for the deportation of pre-1995 arrivals. The Southeast Asian community is rife with such stories as a broad push from the highest levels of the U.S. government opens new channels for deportations.

A record number of Cambodian deportees were sent back to the country last year, a country many people fled after a brutal 1970s regime left millions dead. The Laotian and Hmong communities in the Twin Cities have lobbied local politicians to step in on behalf of their communities.

“There has been tremendous fear,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a group advocating on behalf of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans nationwide.

A spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office said there are about 8,700 Vietnamese nationals with deportation orders living in the U.S.

Emigration

American voters’ support for deportation depends on who’s being targeted, polls have shown. While a majority want a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who came here as children, most — from both political parties — support deportations when they are triggered by criminal acts.

Still, critics of the nation’s deportation policies and others calling for immigration reform say people who have led productive lives since their conviction — going on to have families and longtime jobs in their communities — deserve a second chance.

The Minnesota hygienist was born in 1982, near Saigon, to a father who was a South Vietnamese soldier who had been captured and held in a communist prison. When he was 12, he emigrated to the U.S. with his mother under a program that offered citizenship to soldiers and their families. His parents separated, and he and his mother moved in with a relative in Minneapolis. He remembers walking into Sanford Middle School for his first day of formal schooling shortly after they arrived.

“I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t know the language. I was thrown into school right away,” he said.

While preparing for his first year of college, he was arrested for selling Ecstasy pills. He said he used the drug that summer while dancing at Minneapolis clubs. When someone at the club asked to buy many pills, he said he questioned it at first but eventually agreed. The buyer turned out to be a police informant.

At the court hearing in which he was sentenced to prison and tagged for deportation, he mostly stared at the floor, he said. Too ashamed to look up, he answered a string of questions from a Dakota County judge with one-word answers.

Years later, when he looked at the transcript of that day in 2001, he shook his head.

“I had no idea what was happening,” he said.

His lawyer told him he would get one year of work release if he pleaded guilty, a deal that would allow him to work by day and report to a detention facility each night. Instead, the first-time drug offender was sentenced to four years in prison, meaning that the classes he had begun at North Hennepin Community College would have to wait.

Worse, he said he was never told that he would face possible deportation by signing the plea deal. The judge said the court didn’t know what immigration officials might do as a result of the conviction but didn’t mention deportation, according to the transcript.

The judge then asked the man if he understood. He said “yes.”

It would happen differently today. A 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Padilla v. Commonwealth of Kentucky requires criminal defense attorneys to notify noncitizen clients if deportation proceedings could result from a conviction.

Legal thicket

The hygienist served 16 months of his four-year sentence before he was ordered deported in 2003. “As bad as the unexpected prison time, immigration was another big deal that hit me like a wrecking ball,” he said.

In the legal efforts that followed, he learned that he had missed getting citizenship in two ways. His estranged father had become a citizen years before, and if he had lived with him at his home in New Jersey for just a short while, he would have automatically become a citizen under the Child Citizenship Act. His mother became a citizen, too, but it was made official two months after he turned 18, too late to change his status.

“He missed being a U.S. citizen by a very small degree,” said Linus Chan, a University of Minnesota law professor who has studied the case.

When he sought to understand what appeals he may have, he learned that even a pardon from the governor or the president wouldn’t help. A drug crime like his is considered so egregious under federal law that a pardon doesn’t stop a deportation. That’s not the case for many other crimes, including aggravated felony or “high-speed flight” from an immigration checkpoint.

The law dates to 1996 when President Clinton signed legislation passed by a Republican-controlled Congress to make legal residents — people who live in the U.S. without full citizenship — deportable if convicted of a crime, from drug dealing to unlawfully voting. Immigrant-advocacy groups have tried to warn their clients that even minor crimes can lead to deportation orders with little chance of appeal, said Lenore Millibergity, interim director of the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota.

“The immigration law takes drugs or trafficking extremely seriously,” she said. “There are very few options.”

One option

The only possible option for the hygienist involves going back to Dakota County, where he was convicted. The prosecutor’s office could reopen his case and potentially vacate it, according to Chan, the U professor.

“It is entirely up to the prosecutor,” Chan said in an e-mail. “However, the prosecutor cannot do it solely for ‘immigration hardship/rehabilitation’ reasons; the underlying reason for reopening would have to be unrelated to immigration or rehabilitation.’ ”

Monica Jensen, a spokeswoman for the Dakota County Attorney’s office, said the office could not comment, saying “the law in these cases is in constant flux.”

The hygienist has so far avoided going to Dakota County for fear that asking to have his case reopened would somehow backfire.

On a recent weekday, he drove to Fort Snelling for his annual check-in. Anxious about what might happen, he walked into the ICE office and was given a two-page document to fill out and told to return in a year.

With that, he went home to his wife of 15 years, and two children, ages 13 and 5.

It was a huge relief but, he said, he’s never far from worry. “It’s something I fear every day.”