Illustration: Jonathan Djob Nkonda for Bloomberg Businessweek

Thousands of Vietnamese Refugees in the U.S. Fear Trump Will Send Them Back

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- At the Banh Mi Cho Cu bakery in Westminster, Calif., in Orange County’s Little Saigon, Andy Trinh, 42, the affable only son of the family that owns the business, worries as he works.

When U.S. President Donald Trump travels to Hanoi for a summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un scheduled for Feb. 27 and 28, he may seek to make progress on another goal: persuading Vietnam to accept Trinh and 8,700 other Vietnamese refugees the White House is trying to deport. Lawyers, community activists, and members of Congress have spoken out against the effort, calling it an unfair attempt to rip up a 2008 agreement, signed by former President George W. Bush, that was thought to protect the majority of the refugees from deportation. “I don’t think it’s right,” says Trinh, taking a break while his mother and sister wrap sandwiches. His father, a former South Vietnamese soldier who fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War, slices freshly baked baguettes nearby.

Since his family fled Vietnam by boat in 1979, Trinh has spent most of his life living with his parents and six sisters in Little Saigon, about 30 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, home to the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam. Beginning in 2017 he spent 11 months in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention for growing marijuana while on probation for a previous drug-dealing offense. Possessing pot plants became legal in California on Jan. 1, 2018, while he was in custody. “I’ve never been convicted of any violent crimes,” he says. “It’s just a mistake that I did. We’re all human. I didn’t realize this mistake I made would change my life.”

Thousands of Vietnamese Refugees in the U.S. Fear Trump Will Send Them Back

The 2008 accord between Vietnam and the U.S., which covered deportation arrangements for each country’s nationals, was believed to protect Vietnamese refugees who came to the U.S. before the normalization of relations in July 1995. Many of these are like Trinh’s father, former soldiers who had fought on the same side as U.S. forces and now have families. The text specifies that pre-1995 refugees aren’t subject to return under the terms of the agreement. But the Trump administration is interpreting that to mean refugees aren’t explicitly protected, either, and should be deported like other non-U.S. citizens who don’t have or have lost legal residency. The agreement “does not preclude the removal of pre-1995 cases,” says Pope Thrower, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi. Spokesmen for both ICE and the embassy say countries are obligated to take back their nationals when another country seeks to expel them, but officials failed to get Vietnam to accept more than 6,000 pre-1995 refugees with criminal records during talks in December. White House representatives didn’t respond to questions about whether Trump intends to bring up the refugees on this trip. 

The Trump administration’s tougher immigration policy has targeted all those who don’t have legal residency in the U.S., not just Vietnamese. Committing a crime is one way to lose residency rights; others include failing to notify the government of a change of address, or spending too much time overseas. About 90 percent of the Vietnamese refugees with deportation orders committed some kind of crime, according to ICE.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius resigned last year in protest after being asked to carry out the reinterpretation of the agreement. In an article he wrote for the Foreign Service Journal in April, he called it a “repulsive policy.” Now an executive at Google in Singapore, he declined to comment for this story.

“Throughout Southern California, there is just a very high level of fear,” says Democratic Representative Alan Lowenthal, whose district covers a large part of Little Saigon. Lowenthal was one of 68 members of Congress who signed letters urging the Department of Homeland Security not to reinterpret the 2008 agreement and to halt further moves to deport the refugees. “This is a community that came as entrepreneurs,” he says. “They’ve been here 25-30 years, they’re very active in the community.”

The policy shift affects more than those facing deportation. Add the number of people who would lose a spouse, parent, colleague, or employee, and the number stretches to the tens of thousands, says Tung Nguyen, who helped organize rallies in January in other large Vietnamese communities, including San Jose, Seattle, Houston, and New Orleans. “We are asking the government to have consideration for our refugee experience,” says Nguyen, who was facing deportation himself before being pardoned by former California Governor Jerry Brown last year. He’d been convicted of murder at age 16 for acting as a lookout during a fight in which someone was stabbed to death. “The U.S. was in Vietnam,” Nguyen says. “That’s why we’re here, and that’s why we are asking the government to consider that, to allow us the opportunity to remain with our families. We already paid our debt to society.”

While there’s no data on the nature of crimes committed by the refugees the U.S. wants to deport, lawyers and advocates say that many were nonviolent offenses, such as drug possession or driving-related infractions. “We’re talking about people who were traumatized, who fled war, who lived in bad neighborhoods,” says Phi Nguyen, the Atlanta-based litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which filed a class-action lawsuit in federal court in Los Angeles last year against DHS, ICE, and the U.S. attorney general, seeking to prevent the government from rounding up and holding pre-1995 Vietnamese refugees for longer than the maximum six months allowed by law. ICE says it deported 122 Vietnamese nationals in the year ended Sept. 17, 2018, up from 71 the previous year. The deportees include 11 who arrived in the U.S. before 1995, ICE data show, despite the 2008 agreement.

Vietnam has little interest in taking back refugees who grew up opposing a government they consider foreign and have few, if any, resources left in the country to help them, says Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They really don’t want to do this, and they don’t think they should have to,” he says. “These are people who fled, they’re hostile to the regime. They just don’t want this hassle.” But the Vietnamese government wants good relations with the Trump administration as a counterbalance to China, its historical adversary. Some kind of compromise could be possible, Hiebert says. Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

For the refugees possibly facing deportation, the uncertainty is a deterrent to business. Tin Nguyen, 43, lives in Houston and wants to open a fast-food franchise with his wife to help them support their second child, now 2. He’s lived in the U.S. since 1993, when his family fled Saigon, but he ran away from home as a teen in Oklahoma, where his parents got jobs in a meatpacking plant. When he was 19, he was convicted as an accessory to armed robbery for not reporting his friends. He later opened a beauty salon in Texas, but his deportation order made him too nervous to keep the business going. Today he works nights as a machinist, putting in 12-hour shifts making far less. “If I open a business now, it will take at least six months to a year to get it going,” he says. He finds it difficult to understand why living clean and owning a business as an adult can’t be taken into account. “In the last 15 years, I didn’t even get a speeding ticket,” Nguyen says. “Just been supporting my family, that’s it.”

Andy Trinh worries about his family’s business, too. It’s traditional that the son in a Vietnamese family takes over when his parents retire, but that may not be possible for him. While he was detained by ICE, his sisters helped cover the rent on the house where his wife and 14-year-old son live and paid his daughter’s tuition for college, where she’s studying medicine. They didn’t tell their parents about the detention, making up cover stories about Andy being on a trip.

While Trinh’s mom, Chiem, knows her son was arrested, she still doesn’t know that he faces deportation. She starts to cry when the subject of his troubles even comes up. “Only a little mistake, a little mistake,” she repeats as the tears well up and she recounts 40 years of hard work, rising before dawn to open the bakery to support her seven children after their home and business in Vietnam were seized and her husband was released from prison camp. “I don’t want anybody to have to go back to Vietnam.”

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Robert Friedman at rfriedman5@bloomberg.net, Jillian Goodman

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