In its insatiable quest to rid the U.S. of immigrants, the Trump administration has been rounding up Vietnamese refugees who have been in the country for more than a quarter of a century and trying to send them back to Vietnam — despite a formal bilateral agreement that refugees who arrived here prior to the 1995 normalization of relations between the two countries would not be sent home.
In a number of cases, the refugees have been held in detention centers for months as the government sought to obtain travel documents from the Vietnamese government, and despite a Supreme Court decision that said the government could not detain someone for an extended period of time if it was unlikely the home country would accept the deportee.
After the end of the Vietnam War, and after the North Vietnamese communist government unified the country, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese — many of whom fought alongside or cooperated with American forces — fled for safety, often boarding rickety boats to cross the South China Sea. In many cases, the refugees were stateless, because they were citizens of South Vietnam, a country that dissolved with the end of the war.
Nearly 1.3 million eventually settled in the U.S., some 200,000 in and around Orange County’s Little Saigon.
That large a population is bound to include some people who break the law, and upward of 10,000 Vietnamese have been ordered deported by immigration judges after being convicted of often serious crimes in American criminal courts. But for more than three decades after the war ended, the Vietnamese government refused to accept deportees from the U.S., viewing the refugees as political enemies or possible American spies.
That changed in 2008, when the George W. Bush administration reached an agreement under which Vietnam would accept the return of deportees who had arrived in the U.S. after July 12, 1995. The wording of the pact is significant:
“Vietnamese citizens are not subject to return to Vietnam under this Agreement if they arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995, the date on which diplomatic relations were re-established between the U.S. Government and the Vietnamese Government. The U.S. Government and the Vietnamese Government maintain their respective legal positions relative to Vietnamese citizens who departed Vietnam for the United States prior to that date.”
For a decade that has been interpreted as a flat protection for the refugees. But the Trump administration argues in court filings — immigrant rights organizations are suing to halt the detentions and deportations — that the second sentence in effect negates the first, so the U.S. can deport Vietnamese refugees if they have committed acts that render them ineligible to remain in the U.S.
“The agreement does not in fact prohibit such removals,” the government argued in court documents. “Rather, it provides merely that pre-1995 aliens cannot be removed under the terms of the agreement itself.”
That’s a specious argument. Until the agreement, Vietnam would not accept any deportees from the U.S.; after the agreement, it began accepting what are called post-1995 deportees. So the only mechanism for returning people to Vietnam falls under the agreement, regardless of U.S. laws. The Trump administration is simply trying to break the terms of the deal — and so far has been successful in at least 11 cases, though it’s unclear why Vietnam agreed to let the deportees in. According to reports, the deportees have had trouble finding places to live and getting permission to work in Vietnam.
News accounts of the efforts have focused on refugees who arrived here as young (usually) men with limited social or family structure. A number of them fell in with gangs or individually committed crimes of varying seriousness, from drug possession to robbery and a few rare murders. Yet the issue here isn’t the crimes some refugees committed, but the circumstances of their arrival in the U.S., and the letter of the agreement with Vietnam.
This is yet another instance in which the Trump administration has just bulled its way forward to try to reduce the number of immigrants living in the U.S. If the government believes that it is in the nation’s best interest to deport Vietnamese refugees convicted of crimes, then it should reopen the 2008 agreement and create a lawful mechanism to do so.