Back in December, The Atlantic broke the story that the Trump administration was in talks with their Vietnamese counterparts to renegotiate a 2008 agreement to expand the number of Vietnamese American lawful permanent residents eligible for deportation. The backlash against this development was intense and immediate: News articles documented thousands who fiercely protested against the potential separation of families. Opinion columns noted the acute moral irony of betraying these refugees whom the United States had fought alongside in a bloody and ultimately failed war more than forty years ago. Though there have been consistent reports of mounting Southeast Asian deportations in the past decade, none of these stories gained much coverage. That is, until a couple months ago, when these courageous acts of resistance and mutual support among various Southeast Asian-American communities suddenly rose to prominence in the public discourse.
Even as the public has recognized discussion of Southeast Asian deportations as important, such discussions have been largely centered on domestic developments in the past decade. Too often ignored is the much darker backstory extending decades into the past and miles across the oceans. The deportation of Southeast Asian-Americans is the outcome of a longstanding policy of American imperialism that began with the Vietnam War, and most recently manifested itself in the form of sanctions against Southeast Asian nations.
Since 1953, American military involvement in proxy conflicts in mainland Southeast Asia has wrought large-scale violence. Such intrusive involvement in the name of limiting the spread of communism has precipitated the mass flight of refugees in the area. The most well-known of these conflicts was the Vietnam War (1965-1975), which killed over two million Vietnamese civilians and displaced another 11 million. But just as pernicious were the ‘secret wars’ that the US waged in Laos and Cambodia around the same time. Largely hidden from public view, the US conducted intensive bombing campaigns against the two countries, dropping more than two million tons of explosives from 1964 to 1973—this is more than double the amount dropped by the Allied Forces in the entirety of the Second World War.
The results were devastating: When the US troops withdrew, they left behind decimated populations and power vacuums. In order to recoup a moral victory from its military defeat in 1975, the US government turned to refugee resettlement programs. Until well into the 1990s, millions of Southeast Asian refugees landed onto American shores through government and UN-sponsored channels. As scholar Yến Lê Espiritu has observed, these “good refugees” became models of anti-communism and rhetorical proof of American goodwill and justice.
Unfortunately for these “good refugees,” being worthy of public praise did not translate into public investment and support. Still suffering from the trauma and mental pain from war or genocide, many Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods with dilapidated housing, high rates of violent crime, and few resources for adapting to life in the US. In fact, many younger refugees who lived with economic insecurity and struggled with English proficiency became the targets of bullying and discrimination at school and work, leading some to join gangs for a sense of community and much-needed money. Additionally, with little guidance through the refugee process, many Southeast Asians assumed that they already had citizenship when, in fact, they only held green cards. Since they were foreigners, those caught up in the judicial system with felonies would not only be incarcerated, but also slapped with a deportation order. Pressure to join gangs, coupled with the growing list of deportable offenses that included minor crimes such as shoplifting, ultimately converged to serve more than 13,000 Southeast Asian-Americans with final orders of removal since 1998.
Luckily, initial Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with Cambodia and Vietnam prevented the implementation of most of the deportations. Established in the early 2000s, these MOUs protected refugees in the US. Notably, the 2008 US-Vietnam MOU prohibited the deportation of Vietnamese nationals who landed in America before 1995, the vast majority of whom are refugees. Though these MOUs came under pressure during the Obama administration, community organizing and concerted lobbying efforts from Cambodian Americans helped persuade the Cambodian government to resist deportations.
The transition to the Trump presidency, however, heralded a more aggressive immigration policy to satisfy a more xenophobic electoral base. No longer “good refugees,” those under deportation orders became ‘criminal aliens’ whom Southeast Asian nations had the obligation to take back for the safety of Americans. In an unprecedented move, President Trump signed an executive order within weeks of taking office authorizing diplomatic punishments against so-called “recalcitrant countries” who refused to accept deported nationals.
The first target of this new policy was Cambodia. In September 2017, officials in the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and their immediate families were banned from obtaining US visas. Though the Cambodian government initially pushed back on these bans on moral grounds, the impact of the visa sanctions on these officials and their children studying in the US proved too much to bear. Deportations began again by February 2018, now carried out more quickly and frequently than ever before.
The next targets were Laos and Myanmar, two other “recalcitrant” Southeast Asian countries. The US government levied visa sanctions against these countries in July 2018, likely due to the efficacy of its initial wave of sanctions against Cambodia. Furthermore, there are currently speculations that visa sanctions have also been threatened against Vietnam for its refusal to accept certain deportees. Indeed, in the midst of mounting pressure from the US government, the American ambassador to Vietnam, Ted Osius, resigned in 2017 and publicly condemned the Trump administration’s attempt to deport refugees. In fact, six pre-1995 Vietnamese Americans have already been deported in 2018. Thus it is entirely likely that Vietnam will become the next target of an increasingly aggressive American foreign policy bent on fulfilling domestic deportation goals.
Many Southeast Asian deportees call America their only home. Deporting Southeast Asian refugees absolves the US government of the pain and neglect inflicted upon these communities. But even more, these deportations and sanctions are emblematic of a long history of American imperialism in Southeast Asia, where countries in the region have been forced to pick up the tab to solve problems for the US. In this heated political climate, one thing is clear: It is time that the US steps up to meet its moral obligation to the thousands of Southeast Asian-Americans it has betrayed.
Photo: “Vietnamese boat people“