The Corner


Deporting Vietnamese Criminals

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., December 11, 2018 (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

In response to Vietnam War Refugees and Deportation

Jonah was right to be disturbed by the headline of an Atlantic piece this week: “Trump Moves to Deport Vietnam War Refugees.” But his instinct that he “must be missing something” was also right.

The tendentious Atlantic headline obscures the real issue: whether we can deport convicted criminals and illegal aliens with Vietnamese citizenship (i.e., not naturalized citizens) who arrived here before 1995, which is when we normalized relations with the Hanoi government. (Dara Lind at Vox does a good job of explaining the issue.) More than 1 million Vietnamese have moved here since the Communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975, about half of them before 1995.

In 2008, Vietnam agreed to accept deportees who arrived in the U.S. after 1995. (I’ve never understood why we waited 13 years to reach such an agreement instead of insisting on it as a precondition of establishing diplomatic ties.) That agreement doesn’t exempt pre-1995 arrivals from immigration laws, but Vietnam agreed to take back only those who moved here after that date. So there are 5,000 or more Vietnamese who have been ordered deported, mainly because of criminal convictions, but whom Vietnam will not take back.

Among them are some genuinely bad hombres. But since there was no prospect of repatriating them in any reasonable period of time, the Supreme Court requires that they be released back onto America’s streets.

This includes people such as Tam Minh Le, who arrived here illegally in 1990 and was jailed for shooting a man in the head in 1993. Since he could not be deported, he was released on parole in 2005, after which he slit the throats of two fellow gang members, for which he was sentenced to death in 2016.

Another example is Binh Thai Luc, who immigrated with his family in 1989. He was ordered deported after a 1998 conviction for armed robbery, but since Vietnam wouldn’t take him back, he had to be released. That proved unfortunate for five members of the Lei family of San Francisco, whom he murdered in a botched burglary in 2012.

What the administration has done is reject prior administrations’ interpretation of the 2008 agreement as exempting pre-1995 arrivals from deportation. Whether they actually get deported is up to Vietnam, since continued refusal to take them back means they would continue to be able to live in the U.S.

But the administration’s action might be designed to set the stage for visa sanctions against Vietnam unless it agrees to renegotiate the 2008 agreement, which is up for renewal next month, and accept pre-1995 deportees. Those sanctions are required by 8 USC 1253(d), under which issuance of visas is to be suspended in any country that won’t take back its own citizens. (The visa types and visa applicants covered by any suspension are up to the secretary of state.)

The Bush and Obama administrations each exercised this power only once. President Trump, on the other hand, signaled in an executive order (see Sec. 12) issued just days after his inauguration, that he would wield it more frequently, and he has done so. The simple threat quickly reduced the number of “recalcitrant” countries, and several that did not fall into line have been sanctioned, four in September 2017 and two more this past July.

In order to elicit a response like Jonah’s, the authors of the Atlantic piece noted that some pre-1995 arrivals are the children of South Vietnamese soldiers or anti-Communist “minorities such as the children of the American-allied Montagnards, who are persecuted in Vietnam for both their ethnicity and Christian religion.” It’s likely that few, if any, of the convicted criminals slated for deportation are from these groups and, in any case, there are forms of relief from deportation available even to criminals who fear persecution, such as “withholding of removal” and protection under the Convention Against Torture.

Despite the Atlantic’s efforts to turn this into yet another “Trump is history’s greatest monster” story, the real issue is whether our government should pressure foreign countries to take their own citizens back when they violate our laws. This White House, unlike its predecessors, is answering in the affirmative.