This editorial was first published in The Dallas Morning News. Guest editorials don’t necessarily reflect the Denton Record-Chronicle’s opinions.
At a recent naturalization ceremony in Dallas, former first lady Laura Bush rightly emphasized that Texas is “a land of immigrants.” Our state, she said, “is a place where people come, year after year, to build a better life.” It’s a state “that thrives due to the prosperity, ingenuity, transformation and generosity of immigrants. And we are a much richer state for all the cultures that have settled on our land.”
One of those cultures is that of the nearly quarter-million Vietnamese-Americans who call Texas home. That’s second only to California, where more than a half-million Vietnamese-Americans reside.
Among the Top 10 metro areas with the largest Vietnamese populations, Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown ranked third (103,525), and Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington ranked fourth (71,839), according to the last census in 2010.
The numbers have grown since then, as Vietnamese business owners, artists, teachers, doctors, nurses, lawyers, restaurateurs, politicians and entrepreneurs of all stripes continue to contribute to our society and economy. So much so that many Texans think of pho and spring rolls as no less American than pizza or tacos.
Just how many Vietnamese call America home? As of 2017, more than 1.3 million people born in Vietnam resided in the U.S., the sixth-largest foreign-born group in the country. Nationwide, the country’s 2.1 million Vietnamese-Americans have a higher median income than native-born Americans and own more than 310,000 companies.
In the early 1990s, Houston’s Wendy Duong became the first Vietnamese-American appointed to a judgeship in the U.S. Like hundreds of thousands of others, she and her family fled their homeland when Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam, fell to the North Vietnamese in April 1975.
In May 1975, President Gerald Ford, a Republican, led the fight, along with religious and labor leaders, to pass the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act. The legislation provided funding for resettlement and granted immediate refugee status to more than 130,000 South Vietnamese, many of whom had fought alongside U.S. forces in a war that claimed more than 58,000 American lives and about 3.1 million Vietnamese lives.
In 1979, as millions fled communism, war and famine in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, President Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, doubled the number of Southeast Asian refugees accepted by the U.S. from 7,000 to 14,000 a month. Carter said his administration was acting “with the compassion that has traditionally characterized the United States when confronted with such situations of human crisis.”
Between 1975 and 1997, under three Republican and two Democratic presidents, the U.S. took in more than 1.25 million Vietnamese, Cambodian, Laotian and other Southeast Asian refugees.
But a recent decision by the Trump administration ignores this history and threatens to betray a solemn promise we made to the South Vietnamese people when we pulled out of Saigon — we acknowledge and respect your sacrifice and your service and will provide you and your families refuge.
Since 2017, the administration has adopted a “zero tolerance” policy and taken steps to deport nearly 9,000 Vietnamese refugees convicted of crimes in the U.S., including legal permanent residents who’ve lived here for more than 40 years. Most of the immigrants’ run-ins with the law happened decades ago when they were young and adjusting to life in a new country. All have paid their debt to society, either through jail time, parole, community service or fines.
Remarkably, the Trump administration — in clear violation of a 2008 agreement reached under President George W. Bush — would also deport thousands of Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the U.S. before July 12, 1995, the date the U.S. and Vietnam established diplomatic relations. The agreement acknowledges that the great majority of Vietnamese who arrived in the U.S. before 1995 were refugees — and onetime U.S. allies — from South Vietnam fleeing retribution and persecution from the Communists who took control in 1975.
After pushback by the Asian-American community and Democratic lawmakers, the Trump administration appears to be backing away from its initial aggressive stance on deportation. That’s due in large part to Vietnam’s unwillingness to repatriate large numbers of refugees or amend the 2008 agreement.
But that doesn’t mean that those already detained by the Department of Homeland Security, or the approximately 1,500 Vietnamese-Americans in Texas that could be deported under a reinterpretation of the agreement, are home free.
“There’s a lot of concern among the Vietnamese community in Texas and nationwide,” said Rep. Hubert Vo, D-Houston, the first Vietnamese-American to be elected to the Texas Legislature. “The humanitarian spirit of the agreement should be honored.”
Vo, who fled South Vietnam with his parents and five siblings in 1975, said many who arrived in the U.S. after the war have become American citizens, started families, and contributed to the land they proudly call home. “We have natural-born citizen children and grandchildren,” he said. “We started businesses to serve the needs of the community, and have worked diligently to make sure that we contribute to this great country that welcomed us during a time of political strife.”
Yes, he said, under U.S. immigration law noncitizens who commit crimes can be deported. But the 2008 agreement made an important exception for Vietnamese refugees who fled after the war. “All administrations should honor the agreement,” said Vo. Putting the agreement in limbo, he said, “has really upset the Vietnamese community — many have joined in rallies and spoke against this action.”
Eric Tang, director of the Center for Asian-American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Trump administration’s attempts to reinterpret the 2008 agreement and deport longtime U.S. residents has “pulled many Vietnamese-Americans away from the Republican Party.”
“What they see is an administration that is deporting for deportation’s sake,” said Tang. The “pretense of refugee crime and criminality” among the Vietnamese-American community is recognized as false, he explained. “What Vietnamese-Americans see is an administration asserting its right to deport anyone, anywhere, at any time. And that I think has led many Vietnamese-Americans, who for the longest time had supported Republican administrations, to break from this one.”
Vietnamese-Americans see the deportation of pre-1995 refugees as “cruel and unusual” said Tang, because “the country that they knew — South Vietnam — no longer exists.” We agree with Tang that the 2008 agreement acknowledges the “moral debt” that America owes to those who lost their homeland after the Vietnam War. We also agree with Vo, one of the more than 2.1 million Vietnamese-Americans who help make America great, that the “humanitarian spirit” of the 2008 agreement must be honored.
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