The issue of deportations is not new to the Vietnamese community. Following the mass exodus of our people from Vietnam – men, women, children – Vietnamese communities formed all around the world in countries that were willing to take in refugees. The forced migration of Vietnamese people around the world did not suddenly transform us into model citizens. In dealing with the trauma of war and survival, some refugees acted out violently or turned to drugs to cope. Our struggles are not excuses of course for domestic violence or gang activity, but they should give us an understanding of how some people could make poor decisions in their youth. Our struggles should give us some empathy.
We all know the story of our parents fleeing Vietnam to escape the incoming Communist regime. Our elders served as soldiers, translators, support staff, and in many other roles against the North, and many feared that if they stayed in Vietnam, they would die. The story that is less familiar is of how we struggled in America. While we have much to be proud of today, we did not magically become law-abiding, productive members of society the moment we arrived in refugee camps or landed in our new homes. We suffered, we struggled, and not all of us have endured or thrived. It is the reality of our existence that some of us turned to gangs, violence, and drugs to cope with the trauma of being refugees.
Non-citizens who did commit crimes could be stripped of their legal status and were subject to deportation. However, there was one catch with us – we could not be shipped back to Vietnam. Before 1995, the US and Vietnam had no diplomatic relations. The Vietnamese government would not suddenly accept deportees from America just because America chose to strip them of their rights (not to mention that these deportees were among those who chose to leave Vietnam in the first place – Vietnam would not allow them to return). Some of these refugees were ordered to be deported, but since they could not go anywhere, a group of refugees formed in America who had no legal status. They were allowed to stay in the States, but had to check in regularly to make sure that they were not getting into any more trouble. Many turned their lives around, created their own families, and some even became role models.
Then enters the Trump administration and the anti-immigrant rhetoric of 2016. The hunt is on to find immigrants that can be kicked out of the country. The Vietnamese are no different. Where there may have been one or two cases of Vietnamese deportations a year, dozens were now being picked up within months. These usually occurred at the check-ins, where the deportee – someone’s mother or father, a local activist, a quiet neighbor – would show up, and then never return home. Families would find out about their loved ones being detained days later, and by then their relative had already been moved to various detention centers around the country (mostly Sacramento and Atlanta). The current estimate of Vietnamese deportees who have been detained or deported is in the hundreds. Thousands more are still here with deportation orders who have not yet been detained.
Like much of our public discourse today, the discussion around immigrant rights have devolved to simple platitudes, such as “they’re criminals.” This is no different in our community. I was recently involved in a Facebook debate on this matter (I know, how stupid of me to use Facebook for debate and discussion). It did not take long for the discussion to be reduced to “you must be a criminal if you defend criminals” and “knucklehead.”
Even outside of the keyboard warriors who believe that the quickest way to make an intelligent point is to make it personal, there is a general discomfort among the Vietnamese to discuss deportation because they believe that doing so means taking a stand to defend the defenseless – convicted criminals.
So I’m going to take this opportunity and do it for you: YOU CAN BE FORGIVEN FOR COMMITTING A CRIME.
Let me break this down. These deportations are objectionable because it means that there is no such thing as forgiveness. Remember that these deportees have been in America for years, and that they have already served out their sentence. They cannot commit other serious crimes because they are required to submit to regular check-ins. Regardless of what these folks do – create a family, go to church, volunteer in the community – they can still be swept up in the anti-immigrant rhetoric that is so pervasive these days and disappear overnight. No matter how long ago the crime was – 5 years, 10 years, 20 years – they cannot redeem themselves.
“But that’s the law you knucklehead!”
Yes, this is the law, but a law that had no way of being enforced when the crime was committed. So this means that the refugee who committed the crime is tried, punished, and then released. Even after serving out that term, the refugee could not be deported, so the refugee was told to be good and check in. The refugee does so, settling in to a new life, falls in love, has children, and gives back to the community to atone for past mistakes. Years after the refugee has served the sentence for the crime, America says “you don’t deserve to be here!”
“That’s right! They don’t deserve to be here!”
Who does? The law-abiding good Vietnamese people? In predominantly Vietnamese-owned nail salons, restaurants, and numerous other businesses, people have committed tax fraud and tax evasion. How many of our parents or aunts and uncles lied on government forms to get welfare, reduced lunches, and insurance? How many of our men who survived the war would drown their sorrows of a lost country in bottles of beer or cognac and come home to beat their wives and children? None of this is an excuse for crime, but if we have grown past how our families learned to survive and are now law-abiding citizens, should the government be able to go back in time to those survival days as justification to kick us out of the country now? Even if we were caught before and already served our sentences?
“Well they ain’t American because they ain’t citizens!”
Well…what can I say? It’s true. Citizens can’t be deported, everyone else can. There are lawsuits that challenge how these deportations are being done, but when it comes down to it, non-citizens have fewer rights and if they lose legal status, the risk of deportation is real. Even a person who has legal status in the United States can be deported (for example, you can be deported for using too many public benefits!). The only way to respond to this is the point I made at the beginning, which is that we should be empathetic, particularly since those who are being deported will be sent to the country whose government is the one we fought all those decades ago. That government was the one we fled because we feared torture, imprisonment, education camps, and death.
The issue of deportation is not new to the Vietnamese community in the sense that we have been immune to it, but for the vast majority of us, we are just learning about it. We are waking up to the reality that there are Vietnamese people who are subject to deportation. For some of us, what we do is simple – we fight as our people have always done, we fight for survival, we fight for our family and our home. For others, if no one in their family is affected, they will continue to ignore the deportations and believe that the world is simple. What I would hope for you – the reader, is to try and empathize. People make mistakes, people make bad decisions, and those mistakes and decisions have to have consequences. At some point though, those consequences have to end. Join the call to stop the deportation of those who have learned from their mistakes, and have done their best to make amends. If you like stories like this, subscribe to Chopsticks Alley.
Partner, Justice At Work Law Group