Last month, two events put Southeast Asian communities in the US on edge, unconscionably making them feel unwelcome in a nation of immigrants. First, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rounded up 46 members of the Cambodian community and deported 36 of them back to Cambodia, the largest deportation flight of Southeast Asian community members yet. Also in December, the US Department of Homeland Security initiated meetings with the Vietnamese government to renegotiate the existing 2008 repatriation agreement, to make a larger number of Vietnamese community members eligible for deportation if they are convicted of a crime.
Many Southeast Asian community members came to the US as a result of the terrible violence in Southeast Asia – either as a direct or indirect consequence of the Vietnam War and Cambodian genocide. They were forced by persecution and chaos to flee their beloved homelands, and despite the various challenges they faced, including but not limited to racial discrimination and trauma-related mental health issues, have created new homes for themselves here in the US. The Southeast Asian community members now under threat of deportation are those who had initially achieved refugee status in this tumultuous period but lost that status due to a criminal record (“moral turpitude,” the standard used in immigration enforcement, is extremely broad). While legally these community members should have been deported when they lost their status, in practice, the US government did not enforce these orders of deportation for many years.
After having served their time in the US criminal justice system, many of these community members rebuilt their lives, starting families and participating fully in the opportunities that the US had to offer, though remaining in a perpetual state of legal limbo. Until now, that uncertainty was manageable – regular check-ups with ICE was not the stuff of nightmares. Yet under the Trump administration, Southeast Asian community members are subjected to the visceral fear that a regular check-up could lead to an abrupt and sudden separation, with no chance to even say goodbye to their family or put their affairs in order.
While the legal matter might be “clear” – as the Trump administration would insist, these Southeast Asian community members should have been deported years ago when the judges first issued the orders of deportation – it is no longer simply a legal matter, but a matter of human decency, dignity, and compassion. It is a matter of family separations and what it means to be a just nation. As a country, we need to ask ourselves whether it is really just to deport our community members to a foreign land for a crime that was committed years ago, and for which time has already been served. Furthermore, is it really just to punish a community member with exile for a crime that, had it been committed by one who was simply lucky enough to be born on US soil, would not have such severe consequences? Is it really just to revoke a community member’s refugee status because they committed a crime? These are the conversations we need to be having so that our laws can be improved, to bring our immigration and criminal justice systems more in line with who we want to be as a nation.
The Trump administration’s crackdown has the potential to harm many vibrant communities in Massachusetts. Lowell has the second largest population of Cambodians in the nation after Long Beach, California, and there is also a large Cambodian community in Fall River. A large Vietnamese community thrives in Dorchester, and Southeast Asian communities have flourished in other parts of Massachusetts as well, including Worcester and Randolph.
It is time to shift the narrative on deportations in the US, and the Asian-American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community must be a part of this shift. Opening the AAPI community up to such discussions will help de-stigmatize the conversation around deportations by framing it as an issue that affects all of us who are immigrants or children of immigrants. Until now the conversation has been too narrowly focused on LatinX, and to a lesser extent black, immigrants and children of immigrants. By broadening the conversation beyond the LatinX and black communities, it will also help break down the harmful, divisive, and racially prejudiced narrative of “good” and “bad” immigrants, or immigrants who “deserve” to be here versus those who do not. It will also bring to light the pernicious effects of the criminalization of entire communities based on race. Hopefully, a more honest and far-ranging conversation on the issue will also prompt greater reflection on the particularly harmful interaction between the criminal justice and immigration systems, leading to more impassioned advocacy to fix these systems.
If we are really ambitious, the conversation can even encompass and lead to admission of US complicity in the creation of these refugee flows in the first place back in the 1970s and 1980s, and challenge the way the current administration is pressuring weaker countries to sign or renegotiate repatriation agreements. The US is abusing its global might, trying to pressure Laos into a repatriations agreement (there currently is none between the US and Laotian governments), and Vietnam into renegotiating the agreement it currently has. Without a reparations agreement, Laotians with orders of deportation cannot be deported because they do not have the appropriate traveling documents; it is the Laotian government that must issue passports so that these individuals can leave the US. The 2008 repatriations agreement with Vietnam draws a distinction between Vietnamese who came here before and after 1995; currently, those who came before 1995 cannot be deported, but the Trump administration wants to get rid of that exemption too. The US should not squander regional goodwill and pursue such petty goals simply to complete the deportation proceedings of 1,900 Cambodians, 8,600 Vietnamese*, and 4,600 Laotians**.
AAPI, LatinX, and black community members are a part of what makes America the vibrant country that it is. There is no morally justifiable reason for them to be denied the same second chances we would offer a citizen simply because they were not born here.
*This number includes Montagnard and other ethnic minority groups from Vietnam.
**This number includes Hmong, Mien, and other ethnic minority groups from Laos.
Want to learn more about the issue and get involved? Check out the following resources, attend an upcoming event, and call your congress member!
Southeast Asian Deportation 101 Workshop
February 6, 2019
6pm-8pm, Dinner will be provided
Asian American Resource Workshop
42 Charles Street Suite D
Dorchester, MA 02122
Facebook event here
Asian Outreach Unit Legal Intake Training
February 8, 2019
1pm-2:30pm, Lunch will be provided
Greater Boston Legal Services
197 Friend Street
Boston MA 02114
Facebook event here
Facebook event here
Call Your Congress Member
Though the executive branch of government negotiates repatriation agreements, calling your congress member can help put the issue on their radar. Such calls can directly lead to results, like this letter signed by 26 congress members and addressed to Trump regarding the renegotiation of the repatriations agreement with Vietnam.
Questions about getting more involved in the AAPI Caucus? Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!