The fall of sympathy

Attorneys pressing a federal lawsuit allege Trump administration wants to crack down on refugees affected by U.S. war in Vietnam

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were turned into refugees after the United States pulled out of their country in 1975.

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese were turned into refugees after the United States pulled out of their country in 1975.

Archival photograph

A national alert to Vietnamese-American communities is causing anxiety for refugees in Sacramento, many of whom worry that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is renegotiating an agreement with Vietnam to allow more deportations.

While DHS is staying mum about whether the negotiations are underway, a recently filed federal lawsuit suggests that Trump officials have a direct motive for changing their arrangement with the country that a U.S. war battered four decades ago.

The fear in Sacramento started in early December when the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, or SEARAC, sent out a national alert that DHS officials were meeting December 10 with the Vietnamese government to renegotiate a 2008 memorandum of understanding. The current accord states that Vietnam will only accept deportees who came to the United States after July 12, 1995.

“Now, the US government seeks to continue its policy of separating families, this time putting all Vietnamese community members with final orders of removal at risk,” SEARAC wrote, while also circulating a petition sponsored by six national nonprofits to stop the talks.

“This renegotiation of the 2008 MOU with Vietnam is another example of this administration’s willful, calculated, inhumane and hate-filled efforts to dehumanize and mistreat non-European immigrants and refugees,” said Dr. Carolee Tran, a Vietnamese-American psychologist in Sacramento who fled during the 1975 fall of Saigon as a little girl.

Tran said the news is being met with concern throughout the region.

Homeland Security didn’t return phone calls and emails from SN&R, but a class-action lawsuit filed this year by Asian Americans Advancing Justice outlines exactly why Immigrations and Customs Enforcement might want to change the agreement. The civil action from AAAJ was filed on behalf of a handful of refugees who’d legally entered the country after the war, lived in it most of their lives and were now being held in “unwarranted and indefinite immigration detention” based on minor run-ins with the law.

Those plaintiffs included Hoang Trinh, a 41-year-old baker who lives in Orange County and came to the United States in 1980 when he was 4. According to the suit, ICE issued a final order of removal against Trinh after he faced a simple drug charge in 2015 and then was caught with a marijuana plant.

Another plaintiff from Orange County, Vu Ha, came to the United States in 1990 when he was 10. Ha had a few arrests in his youth but stayed out of legal trouble in his adult life. He’s now facing final orders of removal for not paying a traffic citation.

Under the current agreement, detainees such as Trinh and Ha cannot be deported because Vietnam won’t accept nationals who emigrated before 1995. The suit from Asian Americans Advancing Justice emphasizes the significance of that date.

“The end of the Vietnam War caused hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese refugees to flee to the United States by boat or by air to escape political persecution and death,” attorneys Phi Nguyen and Laboni Hoq wrote in their filing, adding these were often refugee families “with close ties to the United States military.”

The attorneys also referenced another legacy from the war.

“Abandoned children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women—known as ‘Amerasians’ and pejoratively referred to as ‘the dust of life’ in Vietnam—were also among the waves of Vietnamese immigrants who resettled in the United States before July 12, 1995,” the attorneys wrote. “In addition to growing up fatherless, Amerasians were roundly shunned by Vietnamese society for being mixed race and born out of wedlock and, in many cases, rejected by their own mothers.”

The suit alleges that in 2017 ICE began changing its procedures around Vietnamese refugees with legal issues, suddenly issuing final orders of removal against them.

“ICE has undertaken its detention campaign without any evidence that Vietnam will accept pre-1995 immigrants,” the suit reads.

Two months ago, after AAAJ pressed its case, Homeland Security officials briefly relented. In a sealed portion of the case reportedly obtained by NBC News, its attorneys wrote they were releasing pre-1995 Vietnamese refugees from ICE holding facilities because deportation talks in August between U.S. and Vietnamese officials had broken down.

Government leaks to The Atlantic now have Southeast Asian advocacy groups convinced Homeland Security is taking another crack at changing the rules with Vietnam.

For Holly Cooper, an immigration attorney who teaches at UC Davis, that move would fall in line with a broader pattern from ICE. Cooper notes that a renegotiation between Homeland Security and Cambodia in 2002 is now allowing ICE to round up and deport Cambodian refugees all over the country—the change in terms suddenly exploited in the last two years.

“The fear that’s going through the Vietnamese community right now is because another Asian community just had this happen to them,” Cooper noted. “And the negotiation process often happens in a very mysterious way that’s clouded from the public.”

For Hoang Chi Truong, a Vietnamese-American author who lives in Sacramento, the recent move to deport members of her community is building solidarity with other targeted groups of refugees and migrants.

“We didn’t choose that war, and that’s what people are choosing to forget now,” Troung said, referencing child refugees and her own story she wrote about in her memoir Tiger Fish. “No one wants to be a refugee. … What the administration is doing right now is dangerous—and America, to me, is not this.”