Generations divided on Vietnamese fight against deportation
In his 85 years, Lan Hoang has many times seen and heard about the power of communism to stir passions on the streets of Little Saigon.
There was the time a video store owner displayed the flag of communist Vietnam and an image of Ho Chi Minh, causing thousands of angry residents to protest. Ten years ago, hundreds of people hoisting signs gathered outside a Westminster newspaper that published a photo of a foot spa bearing the colors and stripes of the anti-communist South Vietnamese flag, calling it a desecration.
But when Hoang turned up to a protest in the neighborhood against the Trump administration’s recent threats to deport Vietnamese immigrants with criminal convictions back to their homeland, he was surprised by the apparently tepid response by older immigrants. Usually the most fervently anti-communist, only a handful showed up.
“Everyone was shouting and I looked around, wondering, ‘Where are the people my age?’ “said the retired records clerk from Santa Ana, who admitted he was shocked by the White House’s move. “It’s so inspiring to see the youth taking action. They are well-educated, wellorganized. I only wish that the others who have been visible for many years were here to support them.”
After word spread about a renewed push by the Department of Homeland Security to get Vietnam to accept more deportees, some people saw it as a mistake by the Trump administration given the GOP’s fading strength in Orange County and the historical support that the Republican Party has gotten from Vietnamese Americans.
But in a community where many older residents oppose undocumented immigration and younger ones tend to lean left politically, the controversy is just the latest to underscore the generational divide among those of Vietnamese descent.
“So many of our lives are in limbo. And do we get any support from our own community? Very little if you’re talking about the elders. What happened to all the voices speaking out for anticommunism? Why haven’t they mobilized?” said Tung Nguyen, 40, a Santa Ana activist who has served time in prison and helped lead protests in Little Saigon. “If they really care about human rights violations, well, violations are happening, not just in Vietnam but right here in our backyard.”
Earlier this month, Trump administration officials met with their counterparts from Hanoi to talk about a pact the two countries signed in 2008, under President George W. Bush, that protected the Vietnamese who came to the U.S. before July 12, 1995, from deportation.
More than 8,000 Vietnamese residents in the U.S. who escaped their homeland but later committed crimes – even minor ones for which they have served time — would be at risk of deportation if officials succeed in changing the agreement. Overall, since 1998, more than 9,000 Vietnamese immigrants have received a final order of removal, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.
Kim Bui, a 19-year-old sales clerk at an Anaheim snack shop, said members of her parents’ generation and older tend to be “noshows” when the topic is immigration and deportations.
“I think these issues have a stigma to them. The older people are heavily Republican and they’re very focused on traditional values,” said Bui, who grew up in Orange County. “They are happy to talk about injustice in their homeland and they want to stay in that box, without making waves about U.S. politics.”
On social media and in the mainstream press, some young advocates for the emerging anti-deportation movement say they’ve long pushed for fairness and equality, and that Vietnamese Americans have shown up for other immigrant groups throughout U.S. history.
Still, within their own group, what’s missing is the “leadership of the older generation,” said Nguyen.
“We understand if they’re ashamed of some of us for our mistakes and our arrests,” he said, referring to immigrants with criminal records. “But do they need to punish our wives and children? Why would they not come out and fight for us so families can stay together? Why separate people who have paid the price for their bad choices or who will be exploited in Vietnam?”
Until last month, Nguyen was at risk for being deported to Vietnam. In 1996, he had been sentenced to life in prison for not intervening while one of his buddies stabbed a man to death. In 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown allowed him an early release, recognizing his bravery for saving dozens of civilians in a prison riot. Brown then gave Nguyen a full pardon this past Thanksgiving.
Last year, the Trump administration started pursuing the removal of a number of long-term residents from Vietnam and Cambodia, and to a lesser extent, Laotians, some of whom arrived in the United States decades ago as refugees, according to immigrant rights advocates and lawyers who have sued to halt the push. The administration maintains many have criminal records that subject them to deportation.
“It’s a priority of this administration to remove criminal aliens to their home country,” Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Homeland Security, told The Times.