WASHINGTON - The United States is stepping up efforts to deport Vietnam War refugees convicted of crimes after arriving in America, deporting on Monday (Dec 17) 35 to 40 Cambodian immigrants - one of the largest groups to be sent back at one go to date.
Another 9,000 Vietnamese immigrants who fled the Vietnam War for America decades ago may also be at risk of deportation, as US officials met their Vietnamese counterparts this month to discuss reinterpreting an agreement protecting them from deportation.
The moves reflect the hardline stance against immigration of the Trump administration, which has widened the net of deportees beyond recent arrivals to include those who have put down roots in the US over decades.
Many have families in America but threadbare ties to their old homelands - most of the Cambodian refugees had come to the US to escape the Khmer Rouge regime, while the Vietnamese had fled from persecution and death after the Vietnam War.
The 9,000 Vietnamese immigrants at risk of being deported arrived in America before July 1995, when the two countries had not yet established diplomatic relations, and had been protected from deportation under an agreement inked by Washington and Hanoi in 2008.
Upon arrival, they were granted green cards which made them legal permanent residents in the US. But many did not apply for citizenship because they lacked the resources or were intimidated by the naturalisation process, which is expensive and requires proficiency in English, said Ms Phi Nguyen, the litigation director at Advancing Justice, an Asian-American civil rights group.
Neither the US Department of Homeland Security nor Vietnamese officials have publicly discussed the details of their meeting, Ms Nguyen told The Straits Times.
The Trump administration first attempted to reinterpret the 1995 agreement early last year and deported a small number of Vietnamese immigrants before walking back on the policy this August. Its most recent reversal was first reported by US media last week.
The uncertainty is causing tremendous anxiety and fear, said Ms Nguyen. "People constantly feel like their lives hang in balance... Since the most recent news about the US continuing to exert pressure on Vietnam to take pre-1995 people back, I have gotten many phone calls and text messages from impacted individuals who are scared. One of my clients told me he is having a very difficult time sleeping."
While the Cambodians arrived legally, their past convictions make them eligible for deportation under US law and a 2002 repatriation agreement between the US and Cambodia.
The Trump administration has sought to deport more Cambodians than its predecessors, with about 200 deportations expected this year compared to 74 in 2016, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement statistics. The number dropped to 29 last year because the Cambodian government temporarily stopped accepting repatriations.
The number of Cambodians deported on Monday would have been 46 had it not been for intervention efforts and advocacy, said Advancing Justice and the South-east Asia Resource Action Centre in a joint statement on Tuesday.
The Asian-American community and immigration rights activists have hit out against the moves, arguing that many of the convictions were decades-old and that the deportees have paid their debts to society.
"They have completed their criminal sentences and paid for the crimes they've committed. Many have been living peacefully in the community for years. Some have US citizen children and spouses. Many have not set foot in Vietnam in years and do not recognise Vietnam as their home. We should not dehumanise people just because they were convicted of crimes," said Ms Nguyen.
They may also be leaving their only family for a country they barely know. Said Ms Nguyen: "Many no longer have any family or any network in Vietnam to help them start anew. They may face difficulty getting the appropriate paperwork to obtain an identity card and gainfully work. Homelessness is a reality."
Some of the Vietnamese were also children of American troops or people allied with South Vietnamese forces. Deporting them proved the breaking point for Mr Ted Osius, former US ambassador to Vietnam, who resigned in November last year over the Trump administration's push for deportations.
Mr Osius said in a National Public Radio interview on Sunday: "I thought it was really un-American to be getting rid of people who fought side by side with us or were the children of servicemen. And I objected, and I objected multiple times."
Former US secretary of state John Kerry called the deportations "despicable" on Twitter last Friday, writing: "After so many - from George H. W. Bush to John McCain and Bill Clinton - worked for years to heal this open wound and put a war behind us - they're turning their backs on people who fled and many who fought by our side. For what possible gain?"
At least 100 protesters rallied against the deportations over the weekend in California's Little Saigon, home to the largest Vietnamese community in the US. Community and civil rights groups have also lobbied politicians to oppose the deportations.
Said Ms Nguyen: "The United States' efforts to deport former Vietnamese refugees is inhumane, shameful, and represents the latest way in which America has failed the same people who were allied with them in the Vietnam War and whom the US felt a moral obligation to take in years ago."