It’s a Saturday afternoon at a community center in Dorchester. More than a dozen people sit in metal folding chairs, organized in a circle and leaning forward, listening to the free legal advice being offered.
Some people are at the workshop alone; others have young children with them. They’re all part of Dorchester’s large Vietnamese community. And, like Van Nguyen, they’re all here because they’re worried.
"I mean it’s kind of, like, hitting home because my husband does not have citizenship and he’s got a past so we’re just kind of very nervous too," Nguyen says.
There's increasing anxiety among Vietnamese immigrants across the country.
For more than a year now, the Trump administration has been quietly renegotiating an agreement between the United States and Vietnam. The agreement has allowed some Vietnamese immigrants to live here for more than 20 years.
Nguyen says she fled Vietnam and came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1980. She's lived in Dorchester since 1996.
Nguyen doesn’t go into too much detail about her husband’s past, but she says she thought her husband, who has a green card in the U.S., was safe from removal back to Vietnam. That is, until she came to this forum hosted by immigration advocates.
"I’ve heard that if you were here before 1995, then you wouldn’t be deported, but then I just learned today that it’s not a law," Nguyen says.
This is a common assumption among many in the Vietnamese-American community. It's based largely on more than a decade of U.S. immigration practice.
1995 marked the normalization of U.S.-Vietnamese diplomatic relations. But the Vietnamese government still generally refused to accept anyone the U.S. was trying to deport. Since people wouldn’t be accepted into Vietnam, U.S. immigration officials couldn’t deport them.
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Phi Nguyen — no relation — is the litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta. She says a 2008 agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam established parameters for deportation.
"After years of negotiating, Vietnam essentially agreed to take back people who came to the U.S. after 1995 but not those that came to the U.S. before 1995," she says.
This is not the same thing as the U.S. government agreeing not to deport pre-1995 arrivals. But it has resulted in thousands of Vietnamese nationals living in the U.S. with final orders of removal, many as a result of criminal convictions.
An Unannounced Shift In Policy
Now the Trump administration is pressuring Vietnam to "take back" all Vietnamese nationals ordered deported, regardless of when they entered the country.
"We do know that they are steadily increasing the number of people that they're taking back," Nguyen says.
Court documents from a class-action suit filed against ICE in February 2018 cite a verbal agreement reached between the two countries. Vietnam would process travel documents for people who had been found removable from the U.S., regardless of whether they entered the U.S. before 1995.
There was no formal change to the 2008 agreement — no announcement of this shift. And yet, a U.S. official confirms that at least 11 Vietnamese nationals who entered the country before 1995 have already been deported back to Vietnam in the last year and a half. In later court filings, an ICE official stated circumstances had changed — that Vietnam was not expected to repatriate pre-1995 arrivals but that negotiations would continue.
Bethany Li, director of the Asian Outreach Unit at Greater Boston Legal Services, characterizes the administration’s enforcement priorities as going after low-hanging fruit by focusing on people who’ve already been deemed deportable by an immigration judge.
"I do think Southeast Asians in particular, so many of them already have final orders of deportation, so they don’t necessarily have to go through the same amount of proceedings that others might have to," Li says.
If a new agreement is negotiated with the Vietnamese government, then this large pool of immigrants, many of whom came to the U.S. as refugees after the Vietnam War, could be deported back to the country they fled.
The U.S. could pressure Vietnam through actions like limiting or denying immigrant and tourist visas — as it has done for Cambodia and Laos. Visa sanctions are a common tool used by the U.S. in trying to nudge so-called recalcitrant countries into accepting deportees.
In an email, the Department of Homeland Security noted that in May 2016 it had relations with 23 countries it considers recalcitrant. Under the Trump administration, there are only nine countries falling under this classification.
'I Would Lose Everything'
The threat of deportation back to Vietnam feels like a life or death situation for some people.
Vu has lived in Dorchester for more than 20 years. We agreed to use only his first name because he’s in removal proceedings and fears for his safety if he's deported to Vietnam, where he says he faced relentless discrimination.
"They don't like me because I'm Amerasian. They would tease me and throw rocks at me," he says in Vietnamese.
Vu was born in Saigon in 1967. His father was a U.S. serviceman in Vietnam during the war. He says his mother abandoned him at a young age and he came to the U.S. in 1993 and received a green card.
"Over here it's much better. No one gives me trouble, no one hassles me and no one throws rocks at me," Vu says.
He was convicted on assault and larceny charges dating back to 2001. Those charges were recently vacated, but not before he was flagged for removal.
So Vu's fate — as someone who arrived before 1995 — is unclear, as the governments continue to negotiate, meeting as recently as December, according to Phi Ngyuen, the Atlanta-based attorney. This uncertainty is what Vu and others facing similar situations find so challenging.
"I think about it often and I don't want to be deported. I wouldn't be able to see my children," he says, wiping tears from his eyes. "I would lose everything. I would miss most being around my kids."
Nguyen says it's the covert nature of the talks that drives much of the anxiety among Vietnamese immigrants.
"A lot of these conversations do happen behind closed doors and there's always the fear that something could change tomorrow," she says.
Immigration attorneys are doing what they can to decipher clues about the status of the 2008 agreement. They're hoping to provide clarity to people like Vu and the thousands of others living in limbo.
The Vietnamese embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Katie Waldman, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, says in a statement that there are 7,000 convicted criminals from Vietnam with final orders of removal. The convictions range from burglary and drug charges to more serious violent crimes. Waldman says removing these Vietnamese nationals is a priority for the Trump administration.
This segment aired on February 21, 2019.