The US and Vietnam make a deal, Vietnamese immigrants suffer

By Guest Columnist Feb 05, 2008

by Raha Jorjani What if someone told you that you had two weeks to pack your bags and leave the country? On January 22, 2008, the United States and Vietnam made an agreement for the forced return of hundreds of Vietnamese immigrants to Vietnam. Vietnamese community members are gradually finding out that their lives are about to change in an unthinkable way. More specifically, the Department of Homeland Security and the Deputy Foreign Minister for the Government of Vietnam entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which would allow for the repatriation of Vietnamese immigrants who had entered the United States on or after July 12, 1995, and had subsequently been ordered removed from the United States. What does that mean? In the United States, even after a person is ordered removed, their actual removal or deportation cannot take place until the Department of Homeland Security has secured travel documents for that person. No travel documents, no deportation. There are countries with which the United States has no diplomatic relations or repatriation agreements, and it is primarily individuals from those countries that end up in this situation. These countries include Cuba, Iran, and Vietnam. So what happens to people the US wants to deport but can’t? They remain in the U.S. in a type of limbo supervised release status. They have to periodically report to the Government, keep the Government informed of what they are doing and where they are doing it, and promise not to break any laws. A life-long supervised parole. These individuals can work and live in the United States, but they can’t get their greencards or become citizens. These individuals occupy this status until their actual deportation can take place. For many, that day may never come; but that day has come for approximately 1500 Vietnamese immigrants living in the U.S. Imagine getting up one morning thinking it’s going to be a day like any other. You drink your coffee, get the kids ready for school, and head off to work. You’re a single mother taking care of 2 small children. At work, you counsel battered women on how to protect themselves and change their situation. You were once in that position and it led to a substance abuse problem. You were convicted of a drug offense and you were ordered removed from the U.S. over ten years ago. They couldn’t remove you so you got a second chance. Since then, you’ve been rehabilitated and had two children whose lives depend on you. You are obeying the laws, staying sober, providing a vital community service, and raising your children. On your way back home from work, you pick up the mail and there’s a letter from the Department of Homeland Security. It informs you that your removal order from 1996 is being carried out in 2008. It provides you with information about a flight that is leaving in 15 days and taking you back to Vietnam. You cannot see a Judge, you cannot explain your position, and what you do with your children is your problem. 15 days to wrap up over a decade of your life in the U.S., say goodbye, plan for a new life, find a place to live in Vietnam, pack your bags, and leave, likely for good. For many Vietnamese immigrants, when the MOU of January 22, 2008 goes into affect, the above scenario will be a reality. The day after news of the MOU was released, Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) authored a letter co-signed by at least 12 other Representatives expressing serious concern about the agreement for individuals who may be subject to human rights abuses upon returning to Vietnam, and asking that no implementation of the agreement take place until agreed to by Congress. Advocates have received calls from community members who are concerned about being detained upon arrival in Vietnam. The conditions and extent of their potential confinement remain unclear. Sudden and forced expulsion from the United States with little notice and no due process should be considered cruel and unusual punishment. It doesn’t take a lot to imagine the severe emotional, psychological, physical, and economic devastation that can arise for individuals, families, and communities as a result of these actions. A nation that respects human rights would do better. Raha Jorjani is a Staff Attorney in the Immigration Law Clinic at the UC Davis School of Law. The Clinic’s work includes providing legal assistance and representation to non-citizens in removal proceedings, including those who have been detained by the Department of Homeland Security. Prior to working with the Clinic, Raha was a staff attorney for two years with the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, a non-profit organization providing legal assistance to thousands of detained immigrants in Arizona, and an organization on the cutting edge of detention and deportation defense.