A Trump administration move to allow the deportation of previously protected Vietnamese immigrants — including people who fled the communist-ruled country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War — has drawn concern and condemnation from New Orleans-area officials.
Mayor LaToya Cantrell called the move “an ugly effort to target our Vietnamese neighbors” and urged New Orleans-area Vietnamese residents to seek U.S. citizenship.
The New Orleans area is home to a large Vietnamese-American community. Nearly 16,000 Vietnamese-Americans lived in the metro area as of the 2010 census, with the largest concentrations residing in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, according to the Data Center.
The potential change to longstanding U.S. policy toward immigrants from Vietnam, which The Atlantic magazine reported earlier this week, would allow the federal government to deport those immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before the two countries re-established long-broken diplomatic relations in 1995.
Officials with the U.S. Embassy in Vietnam told The Atlantic that the Trump administration has changed its interpretation of a 2008 agreement and now intends essentially to treat Vietnamese immigrants who arrived prior to 1995 like any other immigrants.
That would subject Vietnamese immigrants who’ve lived in the U.S. for decades to deportation over any kind of criminal conviction, over issues with their immigration paperwork or if they came to the U.S. illegally.
The Trump administration declined to comment.
Minh Nguyen, founder and executive director of the New Orleans immigrant-advocacy group VAYLA, said a growing group of concerned Vietnamese residents have contacted him in recent months as word spread about the potential change to U.S. policy.
"There has never been talk about this" before, Nguyen said. "If you are a legal resident for over 40 years, why would you be worried? But now everybody is worried."
He has been urging people to remain calm, and said that any residents who believe their immigration status could be in jeopardy should seek advice from attorneys or immigrant-advocacy groups.
New Orleans City Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen also expressed concern about the apparent change in the status of Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. decades ago.
“I am very disappointed with the direction of the Trump Administration on immigration laws. Our country is made of immigrants of every ethnicity,” said Nguyen, a longtime community activist who this year became the city’s first Vietnamese-American councilperson. “I want to encourage the administration to carefully evaluate the immigration policy and focus on the people.”
Louisiana's congressional delegation remained relatively quiet on the issue, though Kevin Roig, spokesman for Republican U.S. Rep. Garret Graves from Baton Rouge, said that while they haven't reviewed the policy related to Vietnamese immigrants, Graves believes that "illegal immigrants who are violent criminals should be the first to go."
"If these immigrants have gone through the legal immigration process and have achieved legal status or citizenship, they deserve all protections afforded by law," Roig said.
Republican U.S. Sen. John Kennedy declined to comment.
For decades South Louisiana has been a preferred destination for immigrants from Vietnam, and those who arrived in the U.S. before July 1995 have been explicitly shielded from deportation under a 2008 agreement between Vietnam and the U.S. designed to lay out rules for future immigration between the countries.
Large numbers of Vietnamese refugees arrived in the U.S. after the Vietnam War to avoid potential reprisals after the collapse of the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese regime. Other refugees fleeing political oppression in the communist-run country have arrived since then.
Refugees who fought alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War — as well as their children — fear potential repercussions or mistreatment by the Vietnamese government if they're now deported back to that country, according to The Atlantic.
Martin Gutierrez, director of Catholic Charities' immigrant and refugee services division in New Orleans, said he and his staff are still seeking information on the potential policy change.
Many Vietnamese-Americans are Catholic, and Gutierrez said the Archdiocese of New Orleans has worked closely with immigrants from Vietnam since the 1970s, whether helping with settlement or providing legal and other services related to their immigration status.
"We are still trying to clarify what this is all about," he said. "If anybody is in doubt about their status, they should contact an immigration attorney."
New Orleans Advocate staff writer Jerry DiColo contributed to this report.