Is there a chill in Little Saigon toward President Donald Trump–and, by extension, the GOP brand–because his administration keeps making moves that would leave Vietnam War refugees vulnerable to deportation?
Anecdotal evidence would suggest this is so, which may be fitting because the federal courthouse in Little Saigon-adjacent Santa Ana is playing a role in an immigration policy switch that could allow for thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian people in this region to be non-voluntarily returned to the lands of their births.
For years, immigrants in the U.S. could not be deported to countries that would not accept them. Vietnam was such a country before it reached a diplomatic agreement in 2008 to approve travel papers for Vietnamese people who arrived in America after 1995, violated U.S. law and been ordered deported. Those who came to this country before 1995 were exempt because the U.S. and Vietnam had not normalized relations until that year.
It’s a five-year agreement that automatically renews every three years unless one party decides to renegotiate. In 2017, the Trump administration declared that the pact allowed for the deportation of any Vietnamese immigrants who had been convicted of criminal offenses, which led to Vietnam accepting at least 11 deportees and U.S. immigration officials detaining others with final deportation orders.
Civil rights attorneys sued the administration in February, arguing that holding dozens of Vietnamese immigrants in detention centers for months awaiting deportation violates a U.S. Supreme Court decision prohibiting indefinite detentions. The case landed in Reagan courthouse in downtown Santa Ana before District Judge Carmac J. Carney.
A July affidavit from Michael Bernacke, acting deputy assistant director for the Removal Management Division of the Department of Homeland Security, cited a new agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam that allows for deportations.
“Under that understanding, Vietnam had begun to consider request for travel documents for pre-1994 Vietnamese immigrants, despite the 2008 agreement,” Carney wrote in a decision granting class certification for the suit. But Carney later wrote that the U.S. had backed away from the new agreement claim by saying the policy of deporting Vietnamese was on hold again because the Vietnamese government was not accepting deportees imminently.
With the U.S.-Vietnam repatriation agreement set for renewal in January, the Trump administration may attempt to renegotiate it–something it has apparently been doing already. After talks within the Vietnamese embassy in Washington, D.C., and the U.S. embassy in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, the agreement has been reinterpreted by the Trump administration yet again. The upshot: any immigrant who came to the U.S. before or after 1995 is subject to deportation for any offense, including being here without papers.
That was pounced on today by state legislators whose districts include parts of Little Saigon, where there are fears more than 8,500 people could now be vulnerable to deportation.
“Any actions that prioritize harsher restrictions such as these should be made with a diplomatic, and more level-headed approach,” said Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton). “Southeast Asian communities, including Vietnamese communities, and all the proud Asian Pacific Islander communities of Orange County should not be made to fear being arrested and deported. The refugee story in Orange County is proof that the American dream is alive and well. People fleeing their home only for their safety, and the safety of their children, should be respected and not feared.”
“I am deeply concerned about the Trump Administration’s efforts to reinterpret and renegotiate the 2008 U.S.-Vietnam repatriation agreement,” said state Sen. Tom Umberg (D-Garden Grove). “I am especially concerned about potential revisions that would break the promise we made to thousands of refugees who came to our country before 1995. Many of the survivors of the Communist atrocities and their families now live in the 34th Senate District and their personal safety could be at risk if they are forced to return. They are veterans, business owners, community leaders, and most importantly, Americans. I am committed to do everything I can to protect those who sought to live the American dream.”
Umberg’s razor-thin victory in the 34th may be illustrative of declining Republican support in Little Saigon, where the incumbent he defeated, Janet Nguyen, became the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to the California Legislature in 2014.
A year before the Nov. 6 election, polls showed Little Saigon was solidly in the GOP column, which was no surprise as anti-communist sentiments had made it safe Republican country at least as far back as Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Polling also showed strong opposition in the Vietnamese community to illegal immigration.
While the Trump administration was flip-flopping when it came to the status of Vietnam War refugees, it was becoming clearer the immigration status for many of them was in jeopardy. Couple that with the shade thrown at the Central American caravan, and its small wonder that polling weeks before the midterm showed that while older voters in Little Saigon were sticking with the GOP, younger ones were leaning Democratic.
The writing on the wall likely prompted Nguyen supporters to drop their recount bid on Wednesday–or a week after Umberg was sworn in, which helped give Democrats a 29-11 supermajority.
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.