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Detained Vietnamese immigrants facing deportation file suit, seek release

FILE: Vietnamese flags wave in Orange County's Little Saigon. Some longtime Vietnamese immigrants, including Orange County residents, were arrested by immigration officials last year and remain detained awaiting deportation, although Vietnam limits the deportees it takes back. DHN via Wikimedia Commons

Several Vietnamese-born immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for decades have filed a class-action lawsuit after immigration officials detained them for possible deportation.

The lawsuit alleges the Trump administration is bucking the terms of a U.S. agreement with Vietnam that stipulates Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before July 12, 1995, fleeing their war-torn country, are not subject to repatriation.

The group is “largely comprised of refugees who fled Vietnam after the war to escape persecution under the new communist regime,” according to the lawsuit filed Thursday in U.S. District Court.

The lawsuit is similar to one filed last fall on behalf of detained immigrants from Cambodia, another nation that takes back few deportees.

Asian community advocates said starting late last year they began seeing stepped-up arrests and detention of Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants who had old deportation orders, but who could not be sent back.

"I think it's part and parcel of the broader campaign under the Trump administration to remove as many people as quickly, and without providing proper due process rights, as they can get away with," said Laboni Hoq, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, which is representing  plaintiffs in both cases.

Two of the Vietnamese plaintiffs, Hoang Trinh and Vu Ha, reside in Orange County and arrived in the United States in 1980 and 1990, respectively, as refugee children. Both became legal permanent residents.

They came to the attention of immigration agents after they were convicted of crimes that made them deportable. Hoang, 41, who is married and has two children, was convicted of a drug charge in 2015 and served a year in prison. In 2017, he was arrested for allegedly possessing a marijuana plant, according to the lawsuit.

After his arrest, he was transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ordered removed from the country. He has been held at the Theo Lacy Facility in Orange.

Vu had run-ins with the law as a young adult, the most serious being robbery. Last year, he was arrested and detained after he failed to pay for a driving without a license citation. He was also ordered removed. Vu has been detained at the Adelanto center.

Although both served their sentences, they remain in the U.S. legally because of Vietnam's limited acceptance of deportees. 

The complaint seeks their immediate release from detention, and that of other detained Vietnamese immigrants who arrived pre-1995. At least 40 Vietnamese immigrants who arrived before then are believed to have been held in detention for more than 90 days by immigration officials, according to the lawsuit.

"We think they are doing this without proper assurance that Vietnam is actually going to take them back," Hoq said. 

Hoq said there are between 7,000 and 8,000 Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. with final deportation orders, most of whom likely arrived before 1995, who could be subject to arrest and detention.

Both Vietnam and Cambodia have strict policies that limit their acceptance of deportees, and are considered “recalcitrant” countries by U.S. officials.

The lawsuit filed last week alleges that the Trump administration has been trying to send back immigrants from “recalcitrant” countries that include Iraq, Cambodia, and Somalia, without evidence the immigrants would in fact be repatriated.

It alleges that “”ICE … aggressively stepped up enforcement against the Vietnamese community in 2017. It ended its practice of releasing pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants from detention promptly following their orders of removal.”

An ICE spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending litigation, but said in an emailed statement that "international law obligates each country to accept the return of its nationals ordered removed from the United States. The United States itself routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked, as do the majority of countries in the world."

A repatriation document posted on the U.S. State Department website reads: "Vietnamese citizens are not subject to return to Vietnam under this Agreement if they arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995, the date on which diplomatic relations were re-established between the U.S. Government and the Vietnamese Government."

Meanwhile, Hoq said, several Cambodian immigrants represented in the earlier lawsuit have been able to reopen their deportation cases, taking advantage of a judge's order in December that temporarily blocked their deportation. But most remain detained, she said, and those who could not reopen their cases may still be deported. 

This story has been updated.