Dot Vietnamese uncertain, fearful of move to deport ‘criminal aliens’

Novia Nguyen and Diep Tung spoke at a Dec. 15 event held at the Vietnamese Community Center in Dorchester. Harold Than photo

Vietnamese-Americans say a Trump administration move toward deporting some Vietnamese political refugees who came to the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War has left a pall of uncertainty and fear in Dorchester’s Southeast Asian community.

Under a 2008 agreement between Washington and Hanoi, the US is barred from deporting Vietnamese people who arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995, when the countries resumed diplomatic ties.

The administration raised the prospect of deporting many long-term immigrants from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Cambodia last year, asserting that “criminal aliens” are subject to standard immigration law and not protected under the agreement.

The plan reared its head again in recent months, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said that 7,000 convicted criminals who are non-US citizens should be deported back to Vietnam.

“These are non-citizens who during previous administrations were arrested, convicted, and ultimately ordered removed by a federal immigration judge,” said Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for DHS, in a statement. “It’s a priority of this administration to remove criminal aliens to their home country.”

Ngoc-Tran Vu, a Fields Corner resident, artist, and community organizer, has been tracking the administration’s about-face since US ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, resigned in protest last fall.

“It’s pretty messed up,” Vu said. “I myself being a political refugee, who came to this country with my parents, to consider people who are getting deported back and the justification is that these people have criminal records… to deport refugees back to the country that they may not have any connections to is very disturbing and irresponsible.”

Boston is home to the largest Vietnamese diaspora in the state, which is mainly centered in Dorchester’s Fields Corner village. Cultural and community organizations like Viet-AID and the Asian American Resource Workshop are housed here, and there’s a push to create a cultural district there that would specifically recognize the contributions of Fields Corner’s Vietnamese community under the name “Little Saigon.”

The 1975 capture of Saigon — now Ho Chi Minh City — by North Vietnamese forces marked the end of the Vietnam War. In Fields Corner, South Vietnamese flags pepper the streetscape with bright yellow and red.

Vu, 30, was born in Saigon and came to the US in the early 1990s. She organizes around housing insecurity, has traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam, and focuses much of her time as an artist and convener on raising up the experiences of her fellow Southeast Asians.

While none of her immediate family or friends are in danger of deportation through this proposal, she says the fear is palpable in the face of a policy that she says “is not in the sense of the principle and value of this Constitution and country.” Even those with criminal records who have “paid their dues,” she said. Are just as entitled to the treaty’s protection.

“It’s constant fear, a lot of it,” Vu said. “As a refugee, you feel as though you are constantly in survival mode, fending for yourself in terms of basic needs of shelter, food, never completely secure or protected. Even in Dorchester, to even think about rising costs of rent and developments, gentrification, people once again thinking they’re not secure and protected, to have this other thing creating fear, creating the constant unknown, it’s hard when most people in Dorchester in the Southeast Asian community are very working class.”

The language barrier is still an issue, as is a class divide between people who arrived in waves in the ‘70s versus those who came over in the ‘90s, she said. Where some had the opportunity to build lives for themselves and do not fear deportation, others “struggle with to how to define yourself, how to seek help, now up against this backdrop of hostility.”

A cross-generational event she hosted earlier this month highlighted those generational differences, Vu said. Many of the older Vietnamese residents are more conservative, while younger generations are not. But they are all feeling the pressure. “There are so many of our community members that still need help,” she said. “There are still so many challenges."

Asian-American groups are seeing increased attention over the year-and-a-half that deportation has hung over their heads, said Kevin Lam, 29, organizing director with the Asian American Resource Workshop, a pan-Asian community group that works with other local and national organizations to provide support, information, and connections to legal aid.

“At least locally, haven’t seen a ramp-up in deportations around this meeting that took place,” he said, referring to a meeting last week between DHS and the Vietnamese government, “but it does cause alarm and distress and create a lot of urgency in community.”

One local Vietnamese woman, Nhan Sparks, was deported in fall 2017, Lam said. She immigrated from Vietnam in 2010, is married, and is the mother of three daughters. She was arrested in 2012 and had regular check-ins with Immigrations Customs and Enforcement, but was brought into custody last October and deported in November.

Aside from Sparks, Lam said between five and fifteen people have come to the AARW around deportation concerns in the past year and a half, but that does not include collaborations with groups like the Asian Outreach Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services (GBLS).

The legal services organization hosts a legal advice clinic at the Vietnamese community center on Charles Street in Dorchester every Tuesday from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Groups like GBLS and AARW have seen a spike in alarm about whether the new policy would affect them, Lam said.

Former ambassador Osius, speaking from Vietnam, told NPR’s Michel Martin the deportees would face an unknown country and he noted that the “criminal” tag has been applied to some individuals who committed crimes decades ago and have long since made restitution.

“I know for a fact they won’t be treated well at all,” he said. “They don’t have any family here anymore. All their families are in the United States. They have no way of getting a job here because they won’t be able to be issued identity cards. If they’re the children of American servicemen, they won’t be trusted. They will most likely end up in prison. And this future administration will consider them human rights cases and try to get them back to the United States. It doesn’t make sense to be sending these people to Vietnam.”

Lam said that his group and other member groups of the national organization are watching the political winds closely. It is not just a Vietnamese problem, he noted. A plane with 36 Cambodian deportees aboard, 34 of them with criminal records, left the US in mid-December.

“The deportations happening in the Vietnamese community are also happening to Cambodian community,” he said. “It’s all tied to the war that happened in Southeast Asia, with folks and community members from the countries of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam fleeing genocide and harmful environments that the US had a part in, seeking safety and needing to survive for them and their families. And 43 years later, they are being treated with deportation proceedings.”