As confusion and fear swirl around a new agreement to send illegal immigrants and criminals back to their native Vietnam, California legislators, led by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, have asked the federal government to delay the pact’s implementation.”It is appalling and unbelievable that this administration would even consider returning those who escaped communism back to the clutches of the very communists that they escaped,” Lofgren, D-San Jose, wrote in a letter to Michael Chertoff, secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Zoe Lofgren
Zoe Lofgren
Representative Lofgren has made herself
a champion of Vietnamese-Americans.

Reps. Mike Honda, D-Campbell, and Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and 11 other legislators also signed the letter.

The Department of Homeland Security has not responded to Lofgren’s letter, but a spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said the agency will issue a response soon.

Lofgren’s concerns about reprisal echo sentiments expressed by some Vietnamese emigres in San Jose, which has more people of Vietnamese ancestry than any city outside of Vietnam.

“Returnees have always been treated humanely,” said Cuong Nguyen, a spokesman for the Vietnamese Embassy. “There exists no discrimination or maltreatment.”

Lofgren, citing a 2006 U.S. State Department report, argued that Vietnam restricts religious, political and media freedoms and has been accused by human rights groups of abusing suspects in detention.

The agreement signed by Washington and Hanoi last week also caused anxiety among Vietnamese-Americans in the Bay Area because of confusion over who is affected.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that struck the agreement with Hanoi, said that Vietnamese nationals who arrived on or after July 12, 1995, face repatriation.

That affects about 1,500 immigrants and includes those who overstayed student or tourist visas, immigration officials said. It also includes legal immigrants who are being deported for criminal convictions.

Initially, the Department of Homeland Security, the agency that oversees Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said that 8,000 Vietnamese faced deportation.

But more than 6,500 other Vietnamese who also have been ordered deported — but who arrived before July 1995 — do not face repatriation under the new agreement, said Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, trying to clarify the agreement’s terms.

Most of the 6,500 have criminal convictions and have been ordered deported previously. But they will remain in immigration limbo for now because they have been ordered deported but cannot be sent back to Vietnam because the country refuses to accept them.

“The date in the agreement is the line in the sand,” Nantel said. “There isn’t a plan for us to move that date backward.”

But not everyone is so sure.

Legal experts and many Vietnamese who have old deportation orders fear that the new agreement is the beginning of a government effort to repatriate more Vietnamese in the future.

“I worry a lot,” said Dung Ha, a nail salon worker in Stockton who has a brother and sister in San Jose. “Right now, I’m OK. I’m scared for the future.”

Ha, 47, arrived from Vietnam in 1991 with his wife and two sons. But in 2000, while living in Lodi, Ha was convicted of sexual assault. He was sentenced to a year in prison and was in immigration detention for another year, then ordered deported.

Like many Vietnamese in the same situation, Ha was paroled by the immigration service because by law it could not detain him indefinitely, or return him to Vietnam.

“I don’t care about myself,” he said. “I’m old. They’ll treat me badly. But I worry about leaving my family.”

Ha’s wife and three sons have since become U.S. citizens.

The agreement is scheduled to take effect in two months and will be valid for five years.

Many immigration advocates, meanwhile, raise questions about the government’s intentions.

“It’s not very clear, and it’s rather confusing,” said Minh Steven Dovan, a criminal defense attorney in San Jose who has represented Vietnamese nationals. “I think the administration is trying to cast a wide net to cover as many cases as possible.”

Reach Jessie Mangaliman at 408-920-5794 or jmangaliman@mercurynews.com.

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