Nam Nguyen came to the United States as a refugee in 1985. He was 9 years old and an unaccompanied minor.
Orphaned in the wake of the Vietnam War, Nguyen left the country on a boat in 1984 for an Indonesia refugee camp, where the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees sponsored his asylum request.
Under a 2008 agreement between the Vietnam and the U.S., Nguyen is protected from deportation along with any other Vietnam refugees, who entered the U.S. prior to 1995. (This is when diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored.)
Vietnam has faced pressure to change the agreement under President Donald Trump’s administration, placing individuals like Nguyen at risk for deportation.
“I’m the main person who supports my family, so if I ever get deported, it will be hell for them,” Nguyen said. “I don’t think the Trump policy is fair. I’m worried, scared, nervous, depressed. My wife and I don’t talk about this immigration stuff because every time we talk about it, she cries. She doesn’t know if I’m going to be taken away from the family and who will pay the bills.”
He checks in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement on an annual basis, with his next check-in scheduled for February 2019. “Every time you check in is very scary, you don’t know if you’re going to get arrested or detained.”
The Trump administration has pushed to deport around 8,600 refugees from Vietnam. Most of them fled because of the Vietnam War. In October 2017, Ted Osius, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, resigned in protest against the new immigration policy.
According to Katrina Dizon Mariategue, the director of national policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), six Vietnam refugees, who entered the U.S. prior to 1995, have been deported under Trump.
Rounding Up Refugees Who Were Rehabilitated And Living Crime-Free Lives
Over 1 million refugees came to the U.S. in the 1970s and 1980s from southeast Asia after the fall of Saigon.
Due to the diplomatic relations between Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, roughly 16,000 outstanding deportation orders for this group of refugees had gone unfilled. But the Trump administration refused to accept this state of affairs.
“Trump has made a concerted effort to target recalcitrant countries,” said Mariategue. “Under the Trump administration, all these people living crime-free and rehabilitated are being round up and subject to deportation. They already served their sentence but ICE is trying to remove them.”
In an email, an ICE spokesperson stated, “ICE/DHS, working closely with our colleagues at the Department of State, have brought the list of recalcitrant countries down from 23 in May 2016 to 9 as of writing.”
“Each country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals who are not eligible to remain in the United States or any other country,” the ICE spokesperson additionally asserted. “The United States itself routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked and ongoing U.S. government efforts have ensured that the majority of the world’s countries do likewise.”
ICE declined to comment on ongoing negotiations with these countries.
Countries have no obligation to accept refugee deportations, but under the Trump Administration, sanctions and diplomatic pressure have been used to coerce them into accepting deported refugees.
“A lot of these refugees came with little resettlement support so we saw a lot of families being resettled in neighborhoods with high poverty and crime rates. A lot of them grew up in that environment,” added Mariategue. “We’re seeing a lot of them didn’t know the benefits, that they had to naturalize, and they would be eligible for deportation.”
As Mariategue noted, crimes that would result in mandatory deportation without the opportunity to see an immigration judge expanded under President Bill Clinton.
A Level Of Targeting Not Seen Under The Previous Administration
Since 1998, 4,568 refugees from Laos have been issued deportation orders, with 206 of those carried out. The Homeland Security Department implemented visa sanctions on Laos in July as a tactic to try to expedite deportation orders.
Refugees from Cambodia are currently experiencing the rate of deportations the Trump Administration is pushing to achieve with Laos and Vietnam. Since 1998, deportation orders were issued to 2,400 Cambodian refugees, with the majority of them due to criminal convictions.
The Trump administration has doubled the rate of prior Cambodian refugee deportations. Of those refugees, 880 were deported.
“Before the current administration, there wasn’t the targeting we are seeing now. It’s a catastrophic jump,” said Sina Sam, a commissioner on the Washington State Commission of Asian Pacific American Affairs, who is working with several refugees currently facing deportation. “The most in one year was 70 deportees to Cambodia. Now, since the new administration, in one flight alone was 43 of our community members. This next flight is expected to be 46.”
The U.S. deported 43 Cambodian refugees in one flight in April 2018, the largest group ever, and in December, a similar sized group is slated for deportation.
Visa sanctions against Cambodia were issued by the Trump administration in September 2017 to pressure Cambodia to accept more refugee deportations.
‘Deportation Acts More Like Punishment’
One of the pathways pursued by many of these Cambodian refugees, who have recently been put at risk of deportation, are pardons from their state governors for their past criminal convictions. They want to take their pardons before immigration courts to have their deportation orders lifted.
Phal Sok recently had his deportation order terminated on November 26, 2018, after he received a pardon from California Governor Jerry Brown.
Born in a refugee camp in Thailand, Sok came to the United States in 1981 with his parents 61 days after he was born. His parents soon split up, and he lived with his dad until he passed away when Sok was 16 years old.
“I ended up on the streets and was tried as an adult at age 17,” Sok shared. He was convicted of three counts of armed robbery and sentenced to 23 years in prison but was released on parole in July 2015 after California passed legislation reforming sentences for juvenile offenders.
However, ICE immediately detained Sok upon his release.
“I accepted a deportation order to Thailand. I took the order. After it came through, they held me. Several months later, I was interviewed by the Cambodian Consulate. I was taken around the country,” Sok recalled. “At the six-month mark, ICE released me under an order of supervision. Four months later, I was told to report to ICE. I was expecting a travel document. I was detained again.”
During these periods of detention, Sok connected with members in his community in California and taught himself about immigration law so he could fight his own case.
Sok was eventually released from detention in December 2016. He went through immigration proceedings and organized efforts to receive a pardon, which eventually led to the termination of his deportation order. He got involved with the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition, where he currently works as an organizer.
“Even if immigration is labeled as civil, even though laws and things have changed, deportation acts more like a punishment,” declared Sok. “There’s a lot of loss of rights.”