The flat-screen television sat in a room that seemed to barely hold it. A humidifier silently blew a cloud of soft steam into the air as the dialogue of news anchors blended with the chopping of my grandmother’s knife. My grandparents lived in a small apartment within a retirement community in Herndon, Virginia. My sister and I wanted to pay them a visit, and it just so happened that our visit coincided with that of my cousin and uncle’s. The six of us crammed together in the living room and were catching up on the mundane developments in our lives when the news switched to film of protesters holding banners printed with Vietnamese text.
“ — have gathered in the Little Saigon community to protest the president’s plan to deport refugees with criminal records, some of whom have been in the US for over thirty years — “
My uncle pointed to the screen. “Did you hear about this?” He asked. “They’re going after Vietnamese people now.”
My grandfather nodded slowly. “It’s sad. That Trump is such a cruel man.” He paused, watching an activist speak before a large crowd of demonstrators. “But at least he’s just going after the criminal Vietnamese people.”
In December of 2018, the Trump administration announced a reinterpretation of a 2008 deal between the U.S. and Vietnam that bars the deportation of any immigrant that came to the states before July 12, 1995 — the day when formal diplomatic relations were reestablished between the two nations. Instead, Trump claimed that the agreement did not prevent the deportation of those with prior criminal convictions.
Rallies and protests were organized in the Vietnamese neighborhoods of Houston, New Orleans, and Orange County as people showed out to support the over 8,000 Vietnamese immigrants who would be affected by the decision. However, news of the reinterpretation also revealed deep divisions among members of the Vietnamese American community.
“If you’re a law-abiding citizen, or you have a green card, you have nothing — absolutely nothing — to worry about,” said Chau Kelley, political chair of the organization Vietnamese-American Community of Massachusetts. “If we’re lenient and we just look away while all these people commit crimes [without] consequences, this country will become a lawless land.”
Kelley, like many other Vietnamese Americans, voted for Trump. In fact, a report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund found that in 2016, Vietnamese Americans were the most conservative Asian American group, with 32% voting for Donald Trump (compared to just 18% of all Asian Americans), and 27% enrolled as Republicans (compared to just 11% of all Asian Americans).
In general, divisions in the community seem to fall along generational and political lines, with older folks being more conservative, while younger community members skewing farther left. Recently, an LA Times article exemplified the tension rising in the community as the issue of immigration hits closer to home.
“I think these issues have a stigma to them. The older people are heavily Republican and they’re very focused on traditional values,” said 19-year old Kim Bui, who grew up in Orange County. “They are happy to talk about injustice in their homeland and they want to stay in that box, without making waves about U.S. politics.”
It is not surprising that Vietnamese Americans tend to be more supportive of Republicans. The majority of the older generation came to the United States as refugees fleeing the communist regime, and have since been supportive of politicians and policies that oppose and combat communism overseas.
But Kelley’s words still bothered me. To be clear, I am not specifically targeting Kelley. It is just that her opinions are so emblematic of general sentiments among a significant sector of the Vietnamese American community. “If you’re a law-abiding citizen, or you have a green card, you have nothing — absolutely nothing — to worry about.” This sentence was spoken as if those under threat of deportation did not have children, lovers, and parents who depended upon them. A report from UC Berkeley stated that between 1997 and 2007, over 100,000 children were affected by the deportation of a parent, 88,000 of whom were American citizens. The Urban Institute found that households saw dramatic drops in income after a parent was deported. Housing and food insecurity would also follow. Children were found to suffer increased levels of despair and emotional distress, and their performances in school deteriorated.
I talked to Pastor Nam Nguyen — himself an immigrant who has a final order of removal due to a past conviction — to understand the difficulties he faced coming to the United States, as well as the challenges that he faces in today’s climate.
His mother placed him and his brother onto a refugee boat in 1983 in hopes that they could escape the country while she stayed behind. He was only eight year old. His brother, only nine. Their boat drifted for days. They crossed paths with pirates who robbed the passengers of all their possessions, raped the women, and pushed several men overboard.
Hundreds of thousands are believed to have died trying to flee the country, but the two siblings were able to make it to a refugee camp in Indonesia before coming to California two years later. Alone and without the care of an adult, Nguyen was placed into foster care where he lost contact with his brother.
As a child coming to the US, what is your most vivid memory of that period in your life? What was it like?
“ As I recalled…just a negative experience. I didn’t have a guardian or parents like other kids. I was in group home, I was being bullied in school, I didn’t understand or speak English at that time. [I was] being called “Vietcong” by Caucasian adults and kids in school. Nineteen-eighty-five, in Orange County there was lots of KKK people then. We would get beat up so many times after school just because we were different.”
When Nguyen was 17, he and his friends were hanging out at a pool hall when a fight broke out. A gun was fired into the air. While no one was hurt, everyone was charged with assault with a firearm. He was sentenced to probation, but right before his probation was over, he was arrested along with a friend who was found with drugs on him. Nguyen spent a year and 4 months in jail. Once his sentence was finished however, Nguyen discovered that his punishment was far from over. Because he was not a citizen, his custody was handed over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and for the next four years he was transferred from jail to jail. The length of Nguyen’s punishment was nearly four times that of a citizen who committed the same crime.
Ten years later, Nguyen has established a new life for himself. He converted to Christianity, and now acts as a pastor and a mentor to troubled Vietnamese youths. He has gotten married and started a family, and is the owner of a small business in northern Virginia. Nam Nguyen is the embodiment of rehabilitation, but due to his past conviction and status as a non-citizen, he remains a target of immigration officials.
What was your reaction when you heard about Trump’s attempt to deport Vietnamese refugees?
“My mental reaction was just something like, ‘I’m scared for my wife and kids.’ How will they survive? My kids love to go Chuck E. Cheese’s and are always begging me to take them on my days off, so I was crying in my car, thinking about how I won’t be able to take them. And if Trump succeeds deporting me, what will happen when I’m in Vietnam? I have not returned to Vietnam since I first left. I don’t know the people, the lifestyle. I only know Vietnam from Facebook photos and videos from people who travel there.”
Nguyen’s fear is not unfounded. Former United States ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius — who resigned in protest of President Trump’s proposed policy — spoke to NPR from Vietnam. He described the bleak conditions that deportees would face overseas.
“I know for a fact they won’t be treated well at all. They don’t have any family here anymore. All their families are in the United States. They have no way of getting a job here because they won’t be able to be issued identity cards. If they’re the children of American servicemen, they won’t be trusted. They won’t be able to get jobs. They will most likely end up in prison. And this future administration will consider them human rights cases and try to get them back to the United States. It doesn’t make sense to be sending these people to Vietnam.”
The threat of deportations has pushed many in the community to reconsider their views, so much so that Vietnamese Americans played a pivotal role last November in flipping traditionally Republican-held seats in Orange County. The protests in communities across the U.S. demonstrate that significant portions of Vietnamese Americans are against the deportations.
Despite this, many members of my community remain unchanged in their stance. “To be welcomed to America is a privilege,” said 70-year old grandmother Am Nguyen. “Once you’re here, you need to follow the rules here. If you violate something that is very serious, you should be deported. They have the right to send you back.”
Am Nguyen’s words reflect the views of many conservative Vietnamese Americans, but it also shows that many may be uninformed about the true extent of the deportations. The truth is that many of those with deportation orders are not violent offenders. The American Immigration Council states that 68% of the legal permanent residents deported every year are deported for nonviolent crimes. This stems from a series of laws passed in 1996: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). These policies expanded the definition of “aggravated felonies” to include minor offenses such as forgery, non-violent drug possession, fraud, or tax evasion. The Southeast Asian Resource Center also explains how these laws have limited the ability of immigration judges to consider the individual circumstances of those before them. So even if a judge believed an individual did not deserve deportation, there was little they could do about it. Additionally, “the laws were made to be retroactive, meaning that noncitizens could be deported for certain crimes even if they were committed before the passage of the law.”
In advocating for their deportation, we are saying that these individuals should be punished more harshly because of their citizenship status. Many visa and green-card holders who commit offenses do not only serve the usual punishment, but are also held by immigration authorities for extended periods of time. Afterwards, they are subjected to an exile to a country that may be completely foreign to them, where they have no resources, social connections, or knowledge of the language and culture.
Logically speaking, by separating individuals from their community, we deny them the emotional support and opportunities for rehabilitation that come from social networks. By dropping them into a country that many may be completely unfamiliar with, we set them up both for failure and for a return to a life of crime. In fact, deportation has actually fueled the rise in crime in some countries. A study by the Center for Latin American and Latin Studies on the notorious MS-13 gang found that it was able to grow and spread from a minor Los Angeles street gang into an international criminal affiliation through deportations. A Department of Justice report from the Congressional Research Service stated the same findings.
I have always found it jarring when I encountered a Vietnamese person who expressed anti-immigrant sentiments. I grew up in a conservative Vietnamese church, so while these opinions were not universal, they also were not uncommon. These attitudes would often surface during high-profile news events, such as during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis or when notable legislation regarding undocumented immigrants would be under debate.
I struggled to understand how some refugees and their descendants could so eagerly shut the door that was once opened to them. It was mind-boggling, considering how Vietnamese refugees were granted a special parole status by the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act, basically guaranteeing them resettlement in the United States, a privilege rarely extended to other immigrant groups. It was as if they had forgotten their history the second they had secured citizenship. And that was when I had a startling thought: perhaps their citizenship was not secure.
When a Vietnamese gunman killed 13 people in 2009, my father spoke in a hushed tone to my uncles, worried over possible retaliatory attacks on the wider community.
When anonymous death threats were sent to three hundred Asian Harvard students in 2014, I received a call from my father commanding me to “keep your head down” and not draw attention to myself. “We look all the same to them,” he said.
When my parents use the Vietnamese word for ‘American’, they never use that word for themselves, or Black Americans, or Latinx Americans without a modifier. The fact that ‘American’ to them is a synonym for White summarizes their view of what it means to be American…and how they view themselves.
The conservative Asian immigrant struggles to balance two conflicting tales of the American Dream. The first being the model minority myth, which preaches that because of our ‘Asian culture’ that emphasizes the filial piety, values of education, and obedience to authority, our ‘people’ have been able to succeed in America, as opposed to other ethnic communities. The other tale being the idea that the United States is a land of opportunity, where one’s success is based off of individual attributes such as determination, hard work, and raw talent. The struggle to reconcile these views creates tension, because oftentimes the latter personal attributes are explained through the former collective ‘culture’. Unlike white people, who benefit from the freedom of always being seen as individuals, we do not have this privilege. We have an image to maintain. We are bound to the public perception of our ‘group’ and as a result, our fate is tied inextricably to the actions of complete strangers, of whom they have no control over. Any notion that we have left this type of racism in the 1960’s can be rebuked by any Muslim American the day after 9/11.
So when an individual in our community commits a crime, we see them as a threat not only to our safety, but to our image, an image that affects whether people visit our businesses, whether we are victims of hate crimes, how people treat us as individuals.
We distance ourselves from them. We societally disown them. They are labeled the outlier.
My observations are not unique to Vietnamese immigrants. Comparisons can be drawn to what happened to Chinese Americans in the years following WWII. In The Color of Success, Dr. Ellen Wu describes how conservative Chinese American leaders — in order to be seen as loyal citizens during a period of heightened xenophobia and suspicion sparked by the entry of the People’s Republic of China into the Korean conflict — appealed to anti-communist hysteria and worked with the Federal government to target leftist Chinese American organizations, disrupt their activities, and arrest activists. Despite this and the many displays of patriotism and public relations campaigns that attempted to paint the community as fiercely anti-communist, it did nothing to prevent the government from issuing subpoenas of 34 organizations in San Francisco, demanding that they hand over papers and records of their membership. This was based on the suspicion that “illegal immigrants” from China could be undercover communist agents. A ‘Confession Program’ initiated by the government was an orchestrated witch hunt where paper immigrants could identify themselves to the government with the prospect — but no guarantee — of legalizing their presence in the U.S. It resulted in 11,336 Chinese outing an additional 19,124 Chinese, and a large number of deportations.
Dividing ourselves into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants will never be enough to win acceptance in this society. Only through solidarity with other marginalized groups, acknowledging our history, and educating one another about the complex forces that and institutions that influence group portrayals and individual behaviors, can we begin to take steps to address pressing problems in our communities.
I write this article, not with the intention of simplifying the views of all right-wing Vietnamese Americans. Just as anyone else does, they form views based on a variety of factors. The United States took them in. I cannot begin to describe the horrors that many Vietnamese people experienced during the war, following the Fall of Saigon, and on their escape out of their homeland. I understand the gratefulness they must feel towards the U.S. government for taking them in, even when most of the population did not want us. But we are not guests in this country anymore. For many Vietnamese Americans of my generation, this is our homeland. Hasan Minhaj, host of the Netflix show Patriot Act, described an attitude he observed in his father which he called the ‘American Dream tax’. “Endure a little racism, and if it doesn’t cost you your life, pay it.” After his family was the target of a hate crime, he recounts his father’s passive response. “These things happen, and these things will continue to happen. That’s the price we pay to live here.” Minhaj states that this is the difference between his father’s generation — who were mostly immigrants — and his generation, who were born and/or raised in the U.S., and who “have the audacity of equality.”
As long as we feel like guests in this country instead of homeowners, our fate will always be at the mercy of someone else. While I understand how many of my community members are extremely thankful for asylum in the U.S., we must also remember the role that the United States had in starting the Vietnam War by supporting the decision to cancel elections and ignore a crucial part of the Geneva Accords. Our people came here out of survival, because of a bloody war that turned our motherland into a playground for Cold War powers itching for a game of domino theory. Our identity as a people who lost our home means that we have to fight all the harder to help keep our communities and families together. We need to exercise our rights, build power, and fight against harmful, hateful policies that will divide our communities.
We face pressing issues. Over 120,000 of us are undocumented. Forty-nine percent of us struggle with English proficiency. Fifty-two percent of our community members born overseas have only a high school degree or less. Nearly 19% of us lack healthcare coverage. Last year, a Vietnamese man died in ICE custody. In 2017, 19-year old Tommy Le was shot and killed by Seattle police for holding a pen. No progress has ever been won out of thankfulness. It has always been achieved through loud resistance.
The Vietnamese community is not a picturesque monolith, and we should not strive to be. We ought to strive to lift one another up, to heal from trauma, and forge a path forward where all of our community members — no matter their citizenship status — are welcome and safe. We need to do the hard work of creating alternatives to the current prison-industrial system, which simply dishes out pain in hopes of scaring lawbreakers from re-offending, and then deport people to a place where, if they do re-offend, at least they will not be hurting our people. We need alternatives that prevent crime by building community such as youth programs, culturally-relevant therapy, and social safety nets for when families fall under hard times. And when individuals do commit crimes against the community, we must respond in a way that provides healing to the victims and rehabilitation for the perpetrator.
I will end with the words of Pastor Nam Nguyen, who — when asked to reply to those supporting the deportation of those like him — answered:
“Please don’t negatively judge the tree by one bad apple. Everyone makes mistakes, and some show redemption. I would ask for their insight on a case by case before prejudging. It’s achievable if you just give a bit of compassion.”