Families Torn Apart: Trump’s Quiet Attacks on the Southeast Asian Immigrant Community

Advocacy groups demand accountability for ICE’S inhumane enforcement actions

In a SEARAC-led action last summer, immigrants, refugees, and advocates rallied against the ongoing criminalization and deportation of immigrants across the country.

By Hannah Woerner, Katrina Dizon Mariategue, and Nancy Nguyen

Since President Trump assumed office, the administration has waged increasingly aggressive attacks against all immigrants, sowing fear and uncertainty within immigrant communities across the country. As part of the administration’s anti-immigrant and anti-family agenda, ICE has specifically targeted Cambodian and Vietnamese refugee communities for mass detention and deportation. Before the holidays last year, ICE rounded up and detained more than 100 Cambodian refugees, quickly followed by mass raids against the Vietnamese refugee community.

Just this week, ICE deported 43 Cambodian Americans in the largest group of deportees in the history of the United States–Cambodia repatriation program. Community members targeted by ICE include the parents of U.S. citizen children, local business owners, and individuals who are the primary breadwinners supporting their families here in the U.S.

Many of the community members impacted by ICE’s policies are lawful permanent residents (LPRs) who have lived in the U.S. with their families for decades. After fleeing genocide and war as children, they sought refuge in the U.S., only to be resettled in poor urban areas without adequate resources. Faced with economic insecurity and over-policing within their neighborhoods, many Southeast Asian teenagers made mistakes that resulted in convictions.

Despite many of them serving their sentences years (and sometimes decades) ago, and growing up to become pillars within their local communities, over 16,000 community members have received final orders of deportation based on crimes committed primarily in their youth. In fact, Southeast Asian immigrants are three to four times more likely to be deported for old criminal convictions compared to other groups of immigrants. Many individuals with final orders of deportation have been checking in regularly with ICE for years, but under the current administration ICE started to arrest these community members at their check-ins without warning.

Advocates and community members are fighting back against ICE’s escalated enforcement tactics. Today, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), and VietLead filed a joint Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) demanding answers about the recent treatment of Southeast Asian Americans. More than 60 other organizations joined the FOIA request calling for increased transparency and accountability for ICE’s predatory enforcement actions. In this FOIA request, we are asking ICE for all records related to the arrests, detention, and deportation of Southeast Asian Americans for the past 20 years. By gaining access to ICE’s records, affected communities and advocates will gain valuable knowledge to inform our fights for policy change and access to legal services.

Many community members are hoping that ICE’s responses to the FOIA request will shed light on its obscure and often erratic enforcement practices.

One Vietnamese father in Texas (who wishes to remain anonymous) was released from ICE custody in June 2017, only to be re-detained by ICE four months later. During his detention, his wife has struggled to pay the bills while caring for their six-year-old U.S. citizen son, who has autism and needs special education classes. His wife shared, “My kid and I really want my husband to be released. We want ICE to give us reasons why my husband is still being held! I want to know how many people like my husband ICE has been keeping in custody.”

ICE’s assault against the Southeast Asian immigrant community stretches nationwide. Diane Ford from Long Beach, California, shares her anguish over the impending deportation of her friend, Thear Sam:

“My dear friend and colleague was detained with no warning last fall and transferred countless times to detention centers across the country. Thear is a well-known and well-loved member of the Long Beach community. Those closest to him have been traumatized by the abrupt nature of his arrest, and ICE’s refusal to be transparent has only made things worse. We support efforts to demand more data from ICE so that they are held accountable to vulnerable immigrant and refugee families.”

Thear is the main provider for his family, all of whom are U.S. citizens, and his prolonged detention has caused his family to suffer both emotionally and financially. Without Thear’s support, his wife cannot afford to pay for after-school activities for their daughter, an honors student in high school who is also enrolled in college courses at California State University, Long Beach. Thear’s mother is a breast cancer survivor, and his family fears his deportation could seriously undermine her health. Since his arrest, Thear’s mother has had difficulty eating and sleeping and has developed depression.

It is simply intolerable for a federal agency like ICE to deprive community members of their liberty on a whim and to tear families apart by refusing to exercise any form of prosecutorial discretion. Hundreds of Southeast Asian refugees like Thear are in immediate danger of being deported in 2018. By demanding ICE’s records, we take an important step toward holding ICE accountable for these inhumane enforcement actions.

Hannah Woerner is the NAPABA Law Foundation Community Law Fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, Katrina Dizon Mariategue is the Immigration Policy Manager at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, and Nancy Nguyen is Executive Director of VietLead.