A wave of worry swept through Minnesota’s Southeast Asian refugee community Thursday as the news spread that the Trump administration has proposed deporting some Vietnam War refugees who arrived in the country before 1995.
The news was reported in the Atlantic magazine and confirmed by members of Congress and a nonprofit group that works with immigrants, all of whom said the administration wants to rework a 2008 agreement with Hanoi that prevented the deportation of war refugees who had come to the United States before the two countries normalized their relations on July 12, 1995.
Some 9,000 individuals nationwide could be affected by the decision.
The news “just sent alarm bells going off in my head,” said Sia Her, executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans. She said she had been on the phone for much of Thursday with worried refugee communities, including the Karen, Karenni, Burmese and Laotian communities in the Twin Cities, who fear that the proposal to deport some Vietnamese immigrants could mean more deportations for their communities as well.
In an article published this week, the Atlantic said a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi had confirmed that the Trump administration wants to reinterpret the 2008 agreement so pre-1995 refugees who were already subject to deportation — either for committing a crime or because they were in the country illegally — would no longer be granted protection from deportation. The new rule would not include those refugees who became U.S. citizens.
The Trump administration first tried to deport pre-1995 Vietnam War refugees last year, according to Phi Nguyen, the litigation director for the nonprofit advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. About 100 people nationwide were detained, some for up to 13 months, as the federal government pressured Vietnam to take them back, according to Nguyen. She wasn’t immediately sure if any of those detainees were living in Minnesota.
Nguyen said a stalemate between the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency and Vietnam prevented those deportations from taking place, and in October the remaining detainees were released. Nguyen said she and other refugee advocates heard that U.S. and Vietnamese officials planned to meet again, and numerous sources told her office that the meetings were taking place.
“We don’t really know what will happen,” she said. “It’s part of a continuing push from the U.S. to Vietnam to change this policy, and thus far Vietnam has been resistant, which has helped to protect the thousands of people who are potentially at risk.”
Some 22 members of Congress, including U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, have sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security expressing concern over the federal government’s new posture on Vietnam War refugees. Their letter said it’s only the latest in a series of measures that have targeted refugees from other Southeast Asian nations, including Cambodia and Laos, with Cambodia on pace to see record-breaking deportation numbers this year.
A high-profile Cambodian case last year known as the Minnesota Eight put a spotlight on refugee deportations locally. Like other Southeast Asian refugees fleeing war in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cambodians had arrived in the United States legally and obtained green cards and legal permanent resident status. Although they could have applied to become full-fledged U.S. citizens, many refugees didn’t, and that made them vulnerable to deportation if they committed a crime.
Those deportations have been more likely to happen since Congress passed a law in 1996 called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that opened more pathways for mass deportations. In the case of many refugees living in Minnesota, deportations were delayed for years because Southeast Asian nations refused to accept the refugees back into their country. That changed in Cambodia in 2002, and the Trump administration this past summer levied sanctions against Myanmar and Laos in an effort to force them to start accepting deportation cases.
Her, of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, said many of the people here who face possible deportation have lived in Minnesota for decades, raising families, holding down jobs and contributing to their communities. The deportation push has the refugee community scared, she said.
“For members of our Southeast Asian communities, they’re speaking to a growing level of fear of government, and fear of mainstream Americans,” she said.