Giving Visibility to an Invisible Issue: The Rise of Southeast Asian Deportations
For many Southeast Asian refugees, a decades old conviction made in their youth means exile from the only country they know.
By Gisela Perez Kusakawa
Last Wednesday, November 13, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC) hosted a Congressional Forum on the Rise of Southeast Asian Deportations led by CAPAC Chair Judy Chu (D-CA-27) and CAPAC Immigration Task Force Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-WA-7). Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) Executive Director Quyen Dinh testified about the increase in the detention and deportation of Southeast Asians under the current administration and the impact of those deportations on families and communities. Two directly impacted people, Tung Nguyen and Phal Sok, testified about their experiences in the criminal justice and detention and deportation system.
Refugees from Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were resettled in the United States after decades of the U.S. war in Vietnam, the Secret War in Laos, and the bombings of Cambodia, followed by the ruthless Khmer Rouge genocide. Tung Nguyen, a Soros Justice Fellow and SEARAC Board Member and an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition, traveled to D.C. to testify at the forum about his experiences. He described the experience of many Vietnamese refugees and immigrants. “I was a juvenile refugee,” said Tung Nguyen. “My family and I arrived in the United States in 1991 as refugees from Vietnam. We resettled in a low-income neighborhood where I went through a broken school system… There was street violence while struggles at home due to unaddressed traumas. I did not know how to ask for help. Instead, I sought refuge in the wrong groups of friends.”
At the age of 16, Tung Nguyen followed the trajectory of many low-income youths and found himself arrested and convicted as a juvenile. He received a final removal order, and faced having to leave the only country he knows. Now he has become a powerful voice in his community fighting against the impact of detention and the separation of families in his community.
“Our impacted Vietnamese community members live in a constant state of fear,” said Tung Nguyen. He turned to Congress members and asked, “I hope…you will consider supporting ending the practice of ripping families apart through the deportation pipeline.”
Phal Sok came to the United States at the age of three as a Cambodian refugee. During the forum, he shared his experience of coming to the United States and finding himself funneled in a school to prison to deportation pipeline. In his youth, he was convicted for armed robbery, and he was placed in deportation proceedings despite having already served a fifteen year sentence for his prior conviction.
“Like many other Cambodians who resettled in the United States as a refugee, this country is the only home I’ve ever known,” said Phal Sok, “In 2015, I was handed over to an ICE contractor on the day of my release because I was not born here. It didn’t matter that I was a refugee, that my conviction was old, that I had only been 61 days old when I came to the U.S., or that I was a child when convicted.”
Through strong advocacy and community support, Tung Nguyen and Phal Sok received a pardon from California Governor Jerry Brown. However, many are not so lucky. For most Southeast Asian deportees, exile to a country they have never known is the end of their story.
The forum gave visibility to a largely invisible community. CAPAC Chair Chu stated, “All non-white immigrants are threatened by this administration, including 16,000 individuals from Southeast Asia. But that pain and fear, while deeply felt in these impacted communities, are often not discussed by mainstream media despite the fact that Asian Americans are a sizeable immigrant population.”
Asian immigrants make up a significant portion of detained immigrants. The United States reached a historic high of 50,059 detained immigrants this past March. Despite only making up a small percentage of the total population, there were as many as 4,881 Asian immigrants who were detained as of June 2018. Many detained Asian immigrants came to the United States as asylum seekers and refugees. Instead of safety, many find themselves in impoverished conditions and eventually behind bars. Southeast Asian refugees, in particular, have felt the brunt of the current administration’s attacks against Asian immigrant communities and communities of color.
According to CAPAC Chair Chu, Cambodian Americans faced a 279 percent increase and Vietnamese Americans a 58 percent increase in deportation just between 2017 and 2018. Many Southeast Asians were not only asylees and refugees, but also long-time members of our communities, lawful permanent residents (LPRs), and even family members of U.S. citizens. In June 2018, about 43% of Vietnamese Americans detained lived in the United States for over two decades. The percentage of Lao and Cambodian Americans detained who lived here for over twenty years is even higher at 86% and 75% respectively. Not reflected in these numbers are the family members, many of whom are U.S. citizens, who suffer from family separation as a result of these detentions.
Phi Nguyen, Director of Litigation at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Atlanta also testified at the forum. “We will not sit in silence while they tear our communities apart, ” said Phi Nguyen. “Congress must act. And I urge you to act boldly and expansively. I urge you to reject the U.S.-Vietnam agreement as your North Star for addressing Southeast Asian deportations. That agreement, after all, only protects a subset of Vietnamese refugees who made it to the U.S. at a certain time. Our communities cannot afford such a limited vision for their freedom.”
CAPAC Chair Chu called for the current administration to end the detention and deportation of Southeast Asian refugees and families. She described the important part that Southeast Asian refugees play in the American fabric. “These are men and women with deep roots in their communities who lived in the United States for decades as lawful permanent residents. Many have families including U.S. citizen children and spouses, and are leaders within their communities.”
CAPAC Immigration Task Force Chair Pramila Jayapal spoke about how the harsh 1996 immigration laws are responsible for the lack of humanity, due process and discretion in our immigration system which results in many long term residents such as Tung Nguyen and Phal Sok not being afforded a second chance and subject to exile. Jayapal called for the need to reform our immigration laws and repeal these harsh provisions of our immigration laws.
Advancing Justice | AAJC calls for the government to stop the escalation of immigration enforcement and keep families together. We ask Congress to support a #NewWayForward in addressing immigration enforcement. Instead of continuing to invest in inhumane and unjust detention facilities and exiling long time residents, we should invest in strong communities.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice commends CAPAC for holding this important forum. We appreciate the attendance of the following members of Congress: Representatives Zoe Lofgren (D-CA-19), Alan Lowentha (D-CA-19), Ami Bera (D-CA-7), Gil Cisneros (D-CA-39), Lou Correa (D-CA-46), Grace Meng (D-NY-6), Harley Rouda (D-CA-48), and Maxine Waters (D-CA-43).Please see our joint press release with SEARAC here.
Gisela Perez Kusakawa is the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Law Foundation Community Law Fellow at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.