Conversations between the U.S. government and Vietnam have immigration advocates concerned about the fate of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants, many of whom arrived in the U.S. as refugees.
A State Department spokesperson confirmed the meeting to HuffPost but declined to divulge the full details of the “private diplomatic conversations.” The spokesperson noted, however, that “the U.S. Government and the Vietnamese Government continue to discuss our respective positions relative to Vietnamese citizens who are now subject to final orders of removal.”
The prospect has been a source of concern for civil rights groups, who fear the two governments could be renegotiating the memorandum of understanding (MOU) the countries established in 2008. The agreement dictates the individuals who are eligible for deportation.
Katrina Dizon Mariategue, director of national policy at the nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) told HuffPost that a possible change in the memorandum could leave roughly 8,600 Vietnamese immigrants, who have orders of removal, subject to deportation. Many of these individuals received the orders after being convicted of crimes. But Mariategue points out that they’ve already served their time and most have long avoided contact with the criminal justice system, holding steady jobs and establishing families.
“We can’t say for sure whether this week’s meetings between the United States and Vietnam will ultimately result in a change in the MOU, but we do know that the Trump administration has been pushing hard to escalate deportations of Southeast Asian Americans,” she said.
“We’re already receiving emails from individuals expressing their concern about these meetings and how their families will be separated because of it,” she added.
According to the MOU, Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. prior to July 12, 1995, are currently not eligible for deportation. The agreement hasn’t been changed since it was signed. However, the Trump administration’s adherence to the MOU has been questioned. Mariategue explained that in August the government tried to deport individuals who arrived before the 1995 date ― something the administration admitted to in court. The government was not successful.
Ted Osius, the former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam, revealed in an April issue of Foreign Service Journal that he was instructed to pressure the Vietnamese government to repatriate more than 8,000 people ― most of whom were refugees who had “fled South Vietnam on boats and through the jungle” after the Vietnam War. Osius said that the Trump administration’s repatriation efforts ultimately resulted in his departure from his diplomatic post last year.
“The majority targeted for deportation — sometimes for minor infractions — were war refugees who had sided with the United States, whose loyalty was to the flag of a nation that no longer exists,” Osius wrote. “And they were to be ‘returned’ decades later to a nation ruled by a communist regime with which they had never reconciled. I feared many would become human rights cases, and our government would be culpable.”
“The majority targeted for deportation — sometimes for minor infractions — were war refugees who had sided with the United States, whose loyalty was to the flag of a nation that no longer exists.”
With rumblings of a change in the MOU ahead, the Vietnamese community is beginning to express concern, Mariategue said. As a SEARAC report details, detention and deportation take an immense toll on family members, including added financial stress as well as the emotional and physical stress of having families broken apart.
“A revised MOU will almost certainly lead to increased deportations, and this impacts not just a single person with a removal order but extends to the individual’s wife, children, parents and community at large,” Mariategue said.
Vietnam is one of nine countries that Immigration and Customs Enforcement classifies as “recalcitrant” because their governments routinely refuse to issue the travel documents required for the U.S. to carry out a deportation. Along with the thousands of Vietnamese nationals awaiting deportation with final orders of removal as of September, according to ICE, an additional 88 are confined to detention centers.
But a change in the MOU would be consistent with Trump’s increased crackdowns on the Southeast Asian community and added pressure on countries to take in those with final orders. Back in July, the administration slapped visa sanctions on high-ranking officials from Laos and Myanmar, both considered recalcitrant, amid disagreements over deportations.
Such sanctions eventually proved successful against Cambodia, a country that has long been uneasy with the concept of repatriations.
While Cambodia consented to take in a limited number of deportees following a 2002 agreement, protests and backlash from the Cambodian-American community along with growing humanitarian concerns prompted the government to stop issuing travel documents for deportation last summer. However, the Trump administration responded in September, blocking high-ranking Cambodian officials and their families from traveling to the U.S. Threatened by the visa sanctions, the Cambodian government looked into accepting about 26 deportees. The number of travel documents nearly doubled by the end of the year. In April, the largest group of Cambodians, more than 40 individuals, were deported in U.S. history.
“We are seeing increased enforcement efforts, not just to detain those who are already vulnerable to removal but to pressure countries to expand how many people they are willing to accept overall,” Mariategue said. “It is clear that they are not taking into account factors such as impact on families and communities, nor the humanitarian implications of deporting refugees.”