Commentary, Dori Cahn & Jay Stansell, Posted: Feb 16, 2008
Last month, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced the signing of a repatriation agreement with the government of Vietnam. The agreement states that Vietnamese nationals who entered the United States after July 12, 1995, and do not have legal status in the United States can be deported to Vietnam. The ICE press release claims that this agreement covers around 1,500 people who have committed criminal or immigration violations.
But there is no information from the Vietnamese government as to what will happen to those who are deported to that country. Nor has there been a public and transparent process here for justifying these removals to a regime that has yet to establish a track record of full respect for human rights of its people.
Many questions remain unanswered about this agreement. What will happen to the first group of individuals whose plane lands in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City and are handed over to Vietnamese authorities? Why is it necessary or just to have laws that result in the deportation of refugees in the first place, particularly Southeast Asian refugees who were the allies of U.S. foreign interests during the conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? How can the human rights of those who are returned be assured?
The situation echoes the repatriation agreement between the United States and Cambodia, following decades where Cambodia had also refused to accept deportees. In March of 2002, Cambodians in the United States were horrified to learn that their children and family members who had escaped the terrors of the Khmer Rouge were to be returned to the country that still evoked vivid memories of terror, torture, starvation and death.
Making the situation worse, in an early comment following the agreement, the Cambodian prime minister stated that the U.S. “criminals” would be immediately removed to Prey Sar prison, the country’s largest and most dangerous institution.
But the Cambodian American community and allies pushed back against this attitude towards the returnees. Activists organized against the agreement, and helped prod the Cambodians to soften their tone and rhetoric. They helped to establish an organization in Phnom Penh to monitor and assist the planeloads of young Cambodian Americans that were to follow.
Many participants in this still emerging movement also began to advocate for long-needed changes to U.S. immigration law that would allow for review of the decisions to deport refugees. People who wind up in the United States after war, terror, and trauma in their home countries do not understand why they are not allowed to ask for a second chance from the U.S. government. Families must have the right to challenge these decisions before their loved ones are sent back to a homeland that may not be willing to embrace them.
The experience of returnees in Cambodia is telling. A returnee-run NGO monitors each group as it lands, and offers assistance to integrate into a country that many either left when they were children, or never knew at all because they were born in refugee camps. Of the 168 men and one woman who have been returned to Cambodia, many are not working, or work jobs that pay minimal wages, or live in the countryside growing rice. Some have gained security and a sense of belonging by marrying into Cambodian families. While many of the returnees are not thriving, the Cambodian government has learned that they are not a threat to be managed, but people who just want to live their lives without intervention.
We know nothing about what will happen to returnees in Vietnam. Many of the post-1995 entrants may be Amerasians, or Montagnards, or people who spent years languishing in reeducation camps before being admitted to the United States. Each of those groups has reason to be concerned about their re-entry to a country that has been silent about their future.
Congress should push for a moratorium on deportations under this agreement until there is assurance from the Vietnamese government that the human rights of all those returned to Vietnam will be respected. Administration officials should act with transparency and identify the composition of those who face removal. If actual removals are to take place, both countries should cooperate with advocates to establish a monitoring organization in Vietnam modeled upon the successes, and improving upon the problems, of efforts in Cambodia. And Congress and all concerned Americans must have an open and honest discussion of why immigration laws presume to tear apart families that have already suffered so much trauma, particularly the refugees and other migrants from the Southeast Asian violence that America so directly influenced.