Hoang Trinh’s family arrived in the United States when he was 4 years old, fleeing postwar communist Vietnam in 1980. Trinh became a legal U.S. resident, married and raised two American children in California’s Orange County.
But he has spent the past seven months detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After serving one year in prison for a drug charge in 2015, he was arrested for possessing marijuana in 2017, and was ordered removed from the country, according to a lawsuit filed last week.
But Vietnam can’t take him back. Because of an existing repatriation agreement between the two countries, Vietnamese citizens cannot be sent back to Vietnam if they arrived in the U.S. before July 12, 1995, when the two governments reestablished diplomatic relations.
This means that detained Vietnamese refugees like Trinh are now stuck in an indefinite limbo. Unable to deport these immigrants, ICE has been keeping them in detention for prolonged periods of time, some as long as 11 months, immigration lawyers say.
A group of Vietnamese immigrants has filed a lawsuit against U.S. officials, alleging the government is violating federal law by indefinitely detaining dozens of Vietnamese immigrants living in the United States.
“Indefinite detention of immigrants is both unlawful and inhumane,” Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus, said in a statement. “Each day causes untold harm to the people in detention and their families.”
ICE representatives could not immediately be reached for comment but declined to address the pending litigation when asked by the Associated Press.
About 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants live in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. About 8,000 to 10,000 of those are living in the country with final deportation orders, risking imminent detention, according to the lawsuit.
Lawyers for the detained immigrants say they believe an “overwhelming percentage” of these Vietnamese immigrants arrived in the U.S. before 1995, fleeing persecution under the Communist regime.
The class-action lawsuit, filed on behalf of Trinh and three other plaintiffs, states that at least 40 pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants have been detained for longer than 90 days. Many of those in detention were legal residents years ago but lost their green cards after criminal convictions.
“ICE’s detention campaign against the Vietnamese community even includes re-detaining people who were released years ago, living peaceably in their communities and regularly reporting to ICE as they were required to do,” Phi Nguyen, litigation director with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Until 2017, when ICE arrested pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants with final deportation orders, authorities would generally release them within 90 days under orders of supervision.
That practice changed last year, coinciding with the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, according to the lawsuit.
“ICE is now acting in complete disregard for the law,” Nguyen said, despite the fact the repatriation agreement, made with Vietnam in 2008, remains in effect.
“The only thing that has changed is our administration wants the Vietnamese government to completely abandon the repatriation agreement,” Nguyen said. “However, the Vietnamese government is rightfully resisting.”
Lawyers behind the suit say they believe the Trump administration is ramping up arrests of refugees who arrived before 1995 to pressure Vietnam to take them back.
Vietnam is one of several countries that cannot accept certain immigrants for repatriation. Others include Cambodia, Somalia and Iraq. The same group of lawyers filed a similar lawsuit last October, when more than 100 Cambodian refugees were detained. The lawyers called it one of the “nation’s largest raids on Southeast Asian communities in history.” Many Vietnamese refugees were also arrested that same month. Earlier this month, the deportation of 92 Cambodian immigrants was temporarily stopped by an Orange County judge.
Immigration authorities deported 71 people to Vietnam last year, compared with 35 the previous year, according to ICE statistics.
Many of the refugees who left Vietnam before 1995 fled a postwar Communist regime that seized private enterprises and forcibly relocated hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese to uninhabited jungle areas. Scores of South Vietnamese were captured and sent to hellish “reeducation camps.” Nguyen said her parents fled Vietnam after her father was jailed for three years, subjected to physical labor and starvation.
Tung Nguyen arrived from Vietnam as a teenager in 1991. At 16, he was convicted in a fatal stabbing, during which he held a man at knife point while his friend stabbed the man, NBC News reported. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. But after serving 18 years, Gov. Jerry Brown reviewed his case and immediately released him on parole, based on “exceptional rehabilitation.”
Since then, he has lived with his wife and children normally, despite having a final removal order against him. He fears that at any point, ICE could detain him, he said at Wednesday’s news conference.
“They are ripping families apart,” Nguyen said. “It scares me. … I can’t imagine the day that they’re going to come and take me away from my family.”
“We are being punished again for crimes that we did decades ago,” he also said, adding that he was “stupid” as a young adult, but is now a working member of his community.
Vu Ha, one of the petitioners in the lawsuit, is a 37-year-old Orange County resident who fled to the U.S. in 1990, when he was 10 years old.
He was arrested three times between 2000 and 2005 as a young adult, with robbery as his most serious offense, according to the lawsuit. Then, in 2017, he was arrested and detained for failing to pay a fine for driving without a license. He has been ordered removed from the country and has been detained at an ICE facility in Adelanto for the past five months.
Phi Nguyen, the litigation director, said in the news conference that she visited Ha in detention at Adelanto on Tuesday. She read a message from him about his incarceration.
“I made some bad decisions in the past,” Ha told her, she said. “I know I have hurt my mom. I want to be able to spend this time to take care of her, make it up for her. She is in her 90s. There is not much time left.”
Read the legal complaint.
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