US Lawmakers Move to End Deportation of Southeast Asian Refugees

Photo Credit: American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees

A bill was introduced in US Congress on Tuesday that hopes to keep more Southeast Asian refugee families together across the United States.

There would be limitations put in place by the Southeast Asian Deportation Relief Act to deport refugees from Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos. The bill could affect around 15,000 Southeast Asian refugees, about 80% of whom were convicted of a crime and have completed their sentences but still face final orders of removal and deportation.

Penalizing people for their crimes and still issuing a deportation order is referred to as ‘double jeopardy’ by activists.

“This is a unique responsibility to stay accountable to the trauma that had been created,” says Quyen Dinh, executive director of the organization Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, which advocated for the bill.

According to Democratic Rep, Alan Lowenthal, if a person makes a mistake, they should be allowed to pay their debts to society and move on towards a new future.

“They should not be … deported to a society where they no longer belong and may not even remember…It is profoundly wrong for us to send refugees where their human rights are not protected and guaranteed,” he said.

If this bill was passed, it would prohibit the Department of Homeland Security from deporting Southeast Asian refugees who came to the US before 2008. It would also end in-person check-ins with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, a practice that causes endless anxiety within families, advocates say. Permanent employment eligibility would also be allowed for those with final orders of removal.

In the context of refugees whose lives are affected by the US’s criminal justice system, according to Dinh, their circumstances cannot be removed from their stories. The numerous wars the US fought in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and ’70s have eventually resulted in the resettlement of the largest refugee population in the nation’s history. And millions of people never received the help required to deal with the enormous trauma of fleeing war, genocide, or poverty.

For example, the Hmong community, who mainly fled from Laos, still fares the worst in terms of income, among other racial groups. A considerable 60% of the community is considered low-income and a quarter of them live in poverty.

“It led them to crimes of poverty and youth and survival that they have served decades ago. And that still threatens their lives every single day through these deportation orders to countries that they fled as refugees,” Dinh said.

The Trump administration had ordered the suspension of the issuance of visas to citizens of Laos after the country refused to take back its persons deported from the United States. But the Biden administration reversed the visa suspension in February this year, allowing Laotians to visit the US once more.