Vietnamese mother closer to deportation

Saturday, February 02, 2008

  • Susan Carroll
  • Houston Chronicle

Anh Le's secret started to unravel last month, shortly after the U.S. and Vietnam announced a repatriation agreement that was nearly a decade in the making.

In 2002, two years after Le arrived in Houston on a green card from Vietnam, she stole sandwiches and soda pop from a Houston store. She said her children were hungry, and she could not afford food. Three years later, she was convicted of taking two purses and a hat and spent two days in Harris County jail.

For those misdemeanor crimes, Le is now in deportation proceedings, facing separation from her husband and two grown children, who are all legal permanent residents in Houston. Le has kept her pending deportation a secret from most of her friends and extended family, even from her mother, who, like Le, immigrated legally from Vietnam.

With the agreement announced Jan. 22 in Hanoi, the Vietnamese government will start accepting deportees from the United States - including convicted criminals. Until now, most Vietnamese could not be repatriated because the government in Hanoi refused to issue necessary travel papers.

The agreement essentially clears the way for Le's removal if she loses on appeal in U.S. immigration courts.
"I cannot leave my family," Le said Friday through a translator, crying. "My husband and my children rely on me for support. I do not have anyone back in Vietnam. It would be better that someone get a gun and shoot me in the head than make me leave my family and go back to Vietnam."

The repatriation deal affects immigrants only with formal deportation orders who entered the United States after July 12, 1995 - the date the United States and Vietnam normalized relations.

ICE officials estimated that 1,500 Vietnamese will be deported after the agreement goes into effect in late March. These immigrants include legal residents who have committed deportable crimes or have overstayed their visas. So far, the estimated 6,200 Vietnamese with deportation orders who entered the country before mid-1995 will not be affected, ICE officials said.

Those immigrants include at least three detainees in ICE custody in Livingston, Texas, who have filed federal complaints in U.S. District Court in Houston seeking to be released from custody. The inmates' convictions included robbery, aggravated assault, auto theft and cocaine possession.

Trade relations grow
The looming deportations come as the U.S. reports growing economic ties with Vietnam, which was subject to a U.S. trade embargo until 1994. Imports from Vietnam to the United States amounted to $8.5 billion in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Between January and October 2007, the most recent available data, U.S. exports to Vietnam totaled $1.4 billion, an increase of 62 percent over the same time period in 2006, according to the Office of the United States Trade Representative.

In the city's diverse Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American communities, the reaction to the agreement was mixed. Houston is home to 66,000 Vietnamese, the third-largest population in the United States, according to 2006 Census Bureau estimates.

Explaining the effect
Hubert Vo, a businessman who immigrated from Vietnam as a teenager in 1975 and now serves in the Texas Legislature, said the agreement was a positive step.

"I'm in favor of that decision. I think whoever commits a crime should be deported to wherever they came from ... but make sure they're proven guilty of the crime and offense," Vo said. "We don't want to harbor criminals and have a loophole for them to stay here and commit more crimes."

On Houston's Radio Saigon, KREH-AM (900), Houston immigration attorney Huy-Tuan Nguyen explained the effect of the agreement in Vietnamese during his Tuesday afternoon radio show. One caller, a convicted felon who lives in Dallas, wanted to know whether it was likely that he would be deported.

Nguyen said his law practice in Houston has fielded phone calls from clients since news of the repatriation agreement started to spread last week. Most Vietnamese immigrants came to the United States as refugees, Nguyen said, fleeing the communist regime. He said many refugees escaped communist re-education camps, and to see them sent back to Vietnam is a "shock."

"There is still some resentment against the Vietnamese government ... because of the past persecution," Nguyen said. "So when they sign an agreement like this, it is a shock. It is the pain and hurt of seeing someone who fled the Vietnamese government sent back there."

This summer, Vietnamese activists in Houston formed an organization, called the Promoting Committee of Democracy and Human Rights, which tries to raise awareness about religious and human rights violations in Vietnam.

Deportable offenses
Le's husband and children became aware of her immigration problems in 2004, when U.S. customs officials seized Le's green card when she returned from a trip to Vietnam. She was ordered removed on Aug. 18, 2006, according to immigration records. Her case is pending for appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals in Falls Church, Va.

The likelihood of success on appeal is slim, Nguyen said. Changes in immigration law in 1996 made a broader range of crimes, including some misdemeanors, deportable offenses, he said. Nguyen said with the recent agreement between the United States and Vietnam, Le likely will be deported when her order becomes final.

"The changes in immigration law are harsh, and the availability of relief is rare," Nguyen said. "When you think of people being deported, you think of serious offenses, but that is not necessarily the case."

Nguyen asked for mercy, saying Le has turned her life around, owns a nail salon and supports her family.
"What I did, I was so poor. Since then, I have tried to be a very good resident," Le said through tears. "This is not fair."