Last week, the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice filed suit against Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the detainment of dozens of Vietnamese refugees across the country. Beyond the ethical dubiousness of the detentions, they represent a profound sacrifice by the Trump administration—of a long-standing pledge by the United States government to Vietnamese refugees and to Hanoi, in favor of campaign promises to crack down on immigration.
In January of 2008, under former President George W. Bush, the U.S. signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Vietnam that all Vietnamese refugees without criminal convictions—as well as anyone who came over prior to July 12th, 1995, the date the two countries restored diplomatic relations—would remain in the U.S. The agreement laid the foundations for Hanoi to accept the deportations of those who did not fall in those categories.
The memorandum remains intact, but the administration is apparently disregarding its pledge to Hanoi and to Vietnamese refugees. AAAJ has counted around 40 Vietnamese nationals who arrived in the country before 1995 and have been detained for deportation but whom Hanoi will not receive, citing the 2008 MoU. Those 40 Vietnamese nationals remain in detention with no end in sight (unless the lawsuit filed last week secures their release). The organization counts as many as 10,000 more Vietnamese with final removal orders, a majority of whom arrived before 1995.
Washington's "abrupt and harsh change in policy is walking back its commitment to them without rational basis," says Laboni Hoq, litigation director at AAAJ's Los Angeles branch.
Advocates say there are several parallels between the Vietnamese refugees affected and those affected by the Trump administration's closure of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the subject of an ongoing stalemate in Congress, and the termination of certain countries' Temporary Protected Status designations, which secure residency status for escapees from natural and political disaster. The detained refugees, like former DACA and TPS recipients, had been protected by immigration policy invalidated—formally or, in the refugees' case, just in practice—by the Trump administration.
"Like these other categories of immigrants who were afforded protection from detention and deportation until the recent abrupt and harsh change in policy, pre-1995 Vietnamese refugees have put down roots and contributed to our society," Hoq says. "At the very least they must be treated humanely and allowed basic due process."
Of the 40 detained, some have been kept in detention for over 180 days. "A basic premise in immigration law is that the government should only detain immigrants to effectuate removal," Hoq explains. With Hanoi refusing to accept the detainees, the government is without just cause to detain them. Failing to provide bond hearings also violates the refugees' rights, Hoq says.
As with most developments in immigration and other U.S. policy, the detentions mark a radical departure from previous administrations.
An ICE spokesman told Pacific Standard the agency does not comment on pending litigation, filed by various AAAJ offices across the country, together with Reed Smith LLP and Davis Adams, LLC.
"Many Vietnamese individuals detained by ICE in recent months are hardworking community members who came to the U.S. as refugees in the '70s and '80s fleeing violence and persecution as a result of U.S. occupation in Southeast Asia," says Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center advocacy group. "Many have committed crimes in the past but have served their time, started families, transformed their lives, and have been checking in regularly with ICE."
Tung Nguyen, an Asian- and Pacific Islander-American community organizer, is one such person. Nguyen was subjected to a removal order after he was convicted of charges related to a fatal robbery committed when he was 16 and ended up serving close to two decades at San Quentin State Prison. He was released in 2011 after an executive order by California Governor Jerry Brown.
Nguyen spoke at the AAAJ-LA press event Thursday announcing the lawsuit. There, he raised a central concern at issue in the detentions: There has been no formal reversal of the 2008 MoU with Hanoi; the detention of dozens of Vietnamese refugees hinges on the administration's disregard for that commitment. Just after his inauguration, President Donald Trump signed an executive order making "efforts and negotiations with foreign states" conditional on their acceptance of deportees. Trump had reportedly aimed to pressure Hanoi into taking back detained refugees, but the administration has yet to indicate formally any official reversal of the existing policy toward pre-1995 refugees.
The Trump administration "say[s] we're in the process of changing the agreement and will let you know when we make those changes. But at the same time, they are already arresting people," Nguyen tells Pacific Standard.
Indeed, coupled with suggestions that new steel and aluminum tariffs could upend Washington's alliance with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the U.S.'s credibility on the international stage could be put in question. From the start of his presidency, Trump threatened to overturn longstanding international agreements, large and small, including Washington's generations-old commitment to the One-China Policy.
Nguyen says that, with the lawsuit underway, he will continue to advocate against the detentions. But he fears speaking out under an administration that seems to target immigrants for speaking out against its immigration policies. Still, he remains committed to fighting for Vietnamese refugees locked up without due process. "I'm drawing attention to myself, but to be honest I feel relief the lawsuit happened. We brought to the public's attention the conditions faced by Vietnamese refugees."