Paying twice for their mistakes | Windows and Mirrors

Southeast Asians are at greater risk of being deported to countries many haven’t been to since they were young or have never been to.

Whenever there is a wave of people migrating from one country to another, it is typically due to war, some sort of political upheaval, famine or some other catastrophe in that first country.

In the case of Southeast Asians living in the United States, many fled because their home countries — including Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — were greatly affected by the Vietnam War, both directly and indirectly.

In Vietnam in particular, there were many who were allies to the United States during the war but were left behind when the Americans left the country. These individuals, who worked in all sectors ranging from the military to the media to even banking, were imprisoned or faced imprisonment by the new Vietnamese government. Many people fled the country, immigrating to the United States as refugees.

As a result, the United States and Vietnam formed an agreement in 2008 that protects Vietnamese people who arrived in this country before July 12, 1995 (the date when the two countries reestablished diplomatic relations) from being deported.

Then last month, the Trump administration resumed its efforts to remove these protections for certain Vietnamese immigrants, leaving them eligible and vulnerable to be deported.

In an effort to raise awareness of this issue, members of the Vietnamese community in the greater Puget Sound area are holding a rally at noon on Jan. 11 at Hing Hay Park at 423 Maynard Ave. S. in Seattle’s International District.

My-Linh Thai, former Bellevue School District board president and newly elected representative for the 41st Legislative District, said as Asians “we are lumped together as one,” despite the diversity within the community and our varying experiences. She said Southeast Asians in particular are a group who have been greatly impacted by trauma but rarely have their stories told.

Thai, a Vietnamese refugee herself, said the American-Vietnamese agreement was signed to protect war-impacted refugees and the current administration and its war against people of color “continues to find ways to either reset or violate” refugees’ rights and human rights.

Some of those who are at risk of being deported are individuals who have been to prison — permanent residents who do not have the protection of an American citizenship.

“I’m grateful that since the meeting between the two countries, there has been much more coverage in the media,” Thai said, but she added that things can be overlooked under the “they are criminals” pretense. “The public does not have a full understanding of the issue. With awareness comes understanding and followed by public support.”

There is more to this issue than the deportation of former criminals.

So here’s a bit of context.

In addition to the adults who were affected by the war, there is the younger generation. Some were very young when they fled their home country. Sometimes with their families, sometimes not. There were also children who were born in refugee camps before they came to the United States.

Nikki Chau, an organizer for this week’s rally, said as a result of refugee resettlement policies at the time, many who came to the states ended up in disadvantaged and impoverished communities. And because kids are kids, the younger generation was sometimes subjected to bullying. But with parents who had to focus on survival and worked just to make ends meet, these young people (more often male) had to find their own support systems — many in the form of gangs. This would often lead to criminal behavior.

So because they made mistakes when they were younger — and paid for those mistakes with prison time — these individuals are at risk of being sent back to a country they don’t know or remember. In some cases, it’s a country they’ve never even been to as they were born in refugee camps.

Chau said with it mostly being men who are taken into detention centers and at risk of being deported, that puts the responsibility on women to take care of their families. This can perpetuate the cycle of criminal behavior in the next generation who again would not have much familial support during their formative years.

This is also not the best use of resources. Chau said the cost of holding people in detention centers falls on taxpayers. We are paying to imprison people who have already paid their time debt to society and who have since turned their lives around, started families and established lives in this country.

They are being punished a second time and not given the same opportunity to reintegrate into society as someone who is a citizen would be given. Simply because of their citizenship status.

Tell me, does that seem fair?

Thai said because of her background, she has a unique perspective to speak to this issue and to “stand up for the rights afforded for the Southeast Asians who are impacted by the changes in the directions and policies by the current administration.”

While Friday’s rally is being organized by members of the Vietnamese community, it is open to all.

Chau said they chose the International District because of its central location as well as its proximity to the Little Saigon neighborhood. There are many in the Vietnamese community who are not aware of what is happening; there is also the stigma that comes with serving time in prison that can cause people to look the other way and not take an interest in what is happening.

And it’s not just the Vietnamese community that is being affected. Just last month, about 40 Cambodians were deported and sent back to Cambodia on a single flight, chartered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, under similar circumstances.

Chau said this is another part of the rally. In addition to raising awareness, the event is also about coalition building among all communities being affected, whether it’s the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians or Africans. She said they want to show up for all communities.

They also hope to call attention to members of Congress as policy changes would have to be made at the federal level. Chau said while there are lawmakers who have signed on to support their cause, we also need to do our part and put in the work as well.

“They need us to show up on the ground,” she said.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at

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