December 3, 2018
Eric Tang and Viet Thanh Nguyen
(Published in The New York Times)
What is an appropriate punishment for a crime? The plight of thousands of Vietnamese refugees convicted of crimes in the United States and now threatened with detention or deportation demands an answer to this question.
For most of the four decades since the Vietnam War ended, refugees fleeing the Communist government in Vietnam have been treated differently from those refugees from most other countries. If they committed felonies, they would not be deported.
This exception tacitly acknowledged the weight of history: These refugees came here because American forces fought a devastating war in their home country, the Republic of Vietnam, or what Americans called South Vietnam. The exception recognized that America owed a measure of compassion to those who lost their homeland in the wake of the Communist invasion of the South, and the United States military intervention to resist it.
All that began to change under Donald Trump. Mr. Trump has set his sights on deporting more than 8,000 permanent residents from Vietnam, most of whom had fled the war and had been protected from removal despite their crimes. Mr. Trump’s efforts drew sharp criticism not only from Vietnamese-Americans, but also his own ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, who eventually resigned from the State Department in protest.
Nearly a dozen Vietnamese refugees were sent to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam beginning late last year. But last month, the Trump administration was forced to temporarily back away from its plans to deport thousands more in response to a class-action lawsuitand resistance from the Vietnamese government. Refusing to concede defeat, the administration is using long-term detention as a means of punishing those it cannot immediately remove.
Dozens of Vietnamese refugees with felony records are being held in immigrant detention centers. Under a Supreme Court ruling, immigration officials are permitted to detain refugees for a maximum of six months when deportation is considered possible “in the reasonably foreseeable future.” But the Trump administration has held some Vietnamese for 180 days and longer, even though it has acknowledged that their removal to Vietnam is “not reasonably foreseeable.” Though it has promised to release some refugees, it has said it has the right to detain them indefinitely and to confine them again in the future.
According to Tung Nguyen, an activist who is in regular contact with Vietnamese detainees, the goal of indefinite and repeated detention is to “psychologically torment and break these people.”
“They’re in lockdown 23 hours of the day,” Mr. Nguyen told us. “It’s worse than prison where at least you know what you did and when you’re getting out.”
A spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, Katie Waldman, said that such a policy was necessary to “protect our communities by ensuring we can detain convicted violent criminal aliens and keep them out of American communities.”
Yet these refugees were thoroughly punished for their crimes at the state or federal level, and most of them moved on to find stable employment and to raise families, Mr. Nguyen says. Now, they face a second and indeterminate sentence, though they have not committed new crimes.
The plight of these Vietnamese refugees may seem unsurprising in an era defined by Muslim bans, deep cuts in new refugee admissions and the separation of families at the Mexican border. But it also stands out for how radically this administration has departed from the bipartisan consensus supporting Cold War refugees since the end of the Vietnam War.
From the fall of Saigon in 1975 until 1995, the United States did not recognize the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and so it was impossible to deport people there. Even after diplomatic relations were restored in 1995, the American government chose not to deport Vietnamese refugees with felony records, and the Communist government in Hanoi showed no interest in receiving refugees whom it considered citizens of a country that no longer existed.
In 2008 President George W. Bush signed an agreement with Hanoi stipulating that Vietnamese refugees who entered the United States before 1995 would not be sent back to Vietnam, even if they had committed crimes that normally would have led to deportation. Only those who entered after the 1995 normalization of diplomatic relations — in other words, those who were clearly citizens of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam — were deportable.
Now the Trump administration is attempting to reinterpret that agreement — and effectively erase the intimate history of the Republic of Vietnam and the United States, countries linked by a brutal war and promises of friendship. Indefinite detention for anyone seems inhumane. But it seems uniquely cruel to imprison — with the intention of expelling — people who were America’s allies in the war that ravaged their homeland.
During the Cold War, accepting refugees from Vietnam was an important symbol of America’s humanitarian largess. Today, punishing Vietnamese refugees symbolizes the new American doctrine: deportation for deportation’s sake.