To U.S. officials, a new pact announced this week with Vietnam, allowing the government to deport illegal immigrants, was almost routine -- a straightforward matter of treating Vietnam like other nations.
But for many among the tens of thousands of immigrants in Orange County, the nation’s largest Vietnamese population center, nothing about their homeland is routine. Tuesday’s announcement of the long-negotiated pact has stirred sometimes-bitter debate within a community where loathing of Vietnam’s communist government remains white hot.
“The Vietnamese have already been persecuted. I am afraid that sending those people back would give them another life sentence,” said Loc Nam Nguyen, director of the Immigration and Refugee Department of Catholic Charities in Los Angeles.
Until now, most Vietnamese in the United States could not be deported back to Vietnam because many had left as refugees and Vietnam was unwilling to take them back. The repatriation pact, announced Tuesday after 10 years of negotiations, affects about 1,500 Vietnamese nationals -- many of them described by the U.S. government as people who were convicted of crimes in this country -- who arrived in the United States after July 12, 1995, when the two countries resumed diplomatic relations. The repatriations are scheduled to begin in two months.
In addition to these 1,500 people, another 6,200 Vietnamese nationals have received final deportation notices. However, because they arrived in the U.S. before 1995, they cannot be returned to Vietnam under the new pact. Instead, they face possible deportation to a third country, according to the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
In all, roughly 1.5 million Vietnamese Americans live in the United States, many clustered in enclaves in Orange County, San Jose and Houston.
The repatriation agreement underscores the growing economic and diplomatic ties between the United States and Vietnam, even as many Vietnamese immigrants here abjure personal and business ties with their home country.
The struggle of many Vietnamese to flee their homeland -- on rickety boats, in military plane convoys to Camp Pendleton -- remains the founding story of large immigrant enclaves. As a result, many reacted with anger or hesitation to the idea of returning any Vietnamese to communist control.
Lan Quoc Nguyen, an attorney who serves on the Garden Grove school board, said that after the agreement was announced he received frantic calls from members of the community who worried it might affect them.
“For those who go back to Mexico, they go back to their families and nothing happens to them,” Nguyen said. “But for people who go back to Vietnam, it’s a totally different ballgame. They will be discriminated against. They will be denied household registration and even identification papers because they cannot provide their background in the bureaucracy process. They will have a hard time finding jobs.”
But the reaction was neither unanimous nor one-dimensional. Many Vietnamese immigrants are also strongly conservative. The conflict between anger at the communists and distaste for lawbreakers led to mixed feelings.
Lac Tan Nguyen, president of the Vietnamese American Community of Southern California, spent two years in a communist reeducation camp before fleeing on a raft in 1982 and detests the government in Hanoi, which he has denounced in dozens of protests. Yet he doesn’t think lawbreakers deserve to stay in the U.S.
“I would like to give people a second chance to make corrections and redo their lives in the United States,” he said. But “the people who don’t respect the law have abused their freedom here.”
A group of men drinking coffee Wednesday at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster also said deporting criminals who violated U.S. laws was the right thing to do.
“It follows the law. There are thousands of good people who want to come here from Vietnam who can’t,” said Du Nguyen, 62, who came here in 1975.
“Returning criminals to Vietnam is better for society here,” he said. “They make the society here dirty.”
Minh Dang, 56, of Westminster, who arrived in 1989, believes political refugees should be allowed to stay but had little sympathy for criminals. “We pay taxes to take care of criminals in prisons here,” he said. “If they are criminals they deserve to be sent back.”
Reaction in Washington was swift. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) and 12 other lawmakers condemned the arrangement with Vietnam in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, demanding that the measure not be implemented until Congress approves it.
Lofgren, who represents the congressional district with the highest number of Vietnamese Americans, cited Vietnam’s “extensive and continuing record of human rights violations,” saying in the letter that “it is appalling and unbelievable that this administration would even consider returning those who escaped communism back to the clutches of the very communists that they escaped.”
In recent years, the State Department has described the human rights situation in Vietnam as “unsatisfactory” and detailed a litany of violations, including limits on free speech and the denial of swift trials. Other groups, such as Amnesty International and the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, have also documented human rights violations in Vietnam.
But advocates for greater immigration controls applauded the repatriation memo. “The mistake was normalizing relations with Vietnam a decade ago without such a memorandum of understanding,” said Mark Krikorian, director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. He dismissed concerns about Vietnam’s human rights record.
“There are a lot of bad countries in the world, but it ain’t Auschwitz,” he said, describing it instead as “authoritarian.”
Charlie Manh, a lawyer from Westminster, expressed concern that the pact would target those who overstayed their visitor or work visas, or those who came here legally and committed crimes but have rebuilt their lives.
“If you look into the real details, some don’t deserve to be deported,” Manh said. “For those with extreme hardship and the fact that they don’t have any more family members over there, the law should have exceptions for them not to be deported.”
In 2002, the U.S. and Cambodia signed an agreement for the deportation of Cambodian nationals who were convicted of aggravated felonies.
Assemblyman Van Tran (R-Garden Grove) said he feared deportees could be harassed or intimidated in Vietnam.
“There has to be stringent oversight to ensure that the people are not politically persecuted when they go back to Vietnam,” he said. “There are very legitimate concerns, given Vietnam is still a one-party totalitarian state.”
Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette in Washington contributed to this report.