MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
It's been more than four decades since the end of the Vietnam War brought waves of refugees to the United States. Now, the Trump administration wants to deport thousands of immigrants, including many of these refugees because of years-old criminal convictions. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials have been trying to convince the Vietnamese government to take these refugees back. From member station WBUR, Shannon Dooling has our story.
SHANNON DOOLING, BYLINE: It was 1967, several years before the end of the Vietnam War, when Vu was born in Saigon. Vu never met his father, who was a U.S. serviceman fighting in the country, and he barely knew his mom. He says she abandoned him at a young age. He describes the relentless discrimination he faced in Vietnam, with people calling him a, quote, "dirty birth."
VU: (Through interpreter) They don't like me because I'm Amerasian. They would tease me and throw rocks at me.
DOOLING: Vu wasn't alone. Thousands of war babies were born into similar situations, facing isolation and derision. Many, like Vu, took advantage of a program that allowed Amerasians to get residency in the U.S. Vu has lived in Boston for more than 20 years. He has a steady job, a longtime partner and two children who are U.S. citizens.
VU: (Through interpreter) Over here, it's much better. No one gives me trouble. No one hassles me. And no one throws rocks at me.
DOOLING: We've agreed to use only Vu's first name because he fears for his safety if he ever goes back to Vietnam. He doesn't want to return, but he might not have a choice. The U.S. government is trying to deport him over two criminal charges of assault and larceny dating back to 2001, even though both of these convictions have since been vacated.
VU: (Through interpreter) I think about it often, and I don't want to be deported. I wouldn't be able to see my children. I would lose everything. I would miss most being around my kids.
DOOLING: In the past, the U.S. couldn't deport most Vietnamese immigrants simply because the Vietnamese government wouldn't accept them, even after the two countries resumed diplomatic relations in 1995. That remained the case until just a decade ago, says Phi Nguyen with the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta.
PHI NGUYEN: After years of negotiating, Vietnam essentially agreed to take back people who came to the U.S. after 1995 but not those that came to the U.S. before 1995.
DOOLING: Now, the Trump administration wants to expand on that agreement to be able to deport Vietnamese immigrants who came here before 1995 and have committed a crime. There are more than 7,000 Vietnamese immigrants with criminal convictions who've been ordered removed from the U.S. by a judge. But critics say some of them committed nonviolent offenses and they served their time years ago. Bethany Li with Greater Boston Legal Services says many came to the U.S. as refugees, seeking protection.
BETHANY LI: They were forced to come here in many ways because of the war that was happening in their country.
DOOLING: Katie Waldman, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, says removing these Vietnamese nationals is a priority for the administration. Waldman declined to address efforts to renegotiate the agreement with Vietnam. And the Vietnamese Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
While government officials are not talking publicly, details of the talks did surface in a related court case. Those documents show the two governments have been negotiating since at least 2017. Again, here's Phi Nguyen.
P NGUYEN: A lot of these conversations do happen behind closed doors, and there's always the fear that something could change tomorrow.
UNIDENTIFIED LEGAL ADVISER: (Foreign language spoken).
DOOLING: On a recent Saturday afternoon at a community center in a Boston neighborhood, more than a dozen people sit in metal folding chairs organized in a circle. They lean forward, listening to the free legal advice being offered. They're all here because they're worried, including Van Nguyen, who says she fled Vietnam and came to the U.S. as a refugee in 1980.
VAN NGUYEN: I mean, it's kind of like hitting home because my husband does not have citizenship, and he's got a past. So we're just kind of very nervous.
DOOLING: Nguyen is reluctant to elaborate on her husband's past. He's Amerasian, and they worry he could one day be deported to the country that so many fled years ago. For NPR News, I'm Shannon Dooling in Boston.
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