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Vietnamese Refugees Fight Deportation on Cannabis Charge

Deportations for Cannabis Now
Photo Darragh Hehir

Legal

Vietnamese Refugees Fight Deportation on Cannabis Charge

Several Vietnamese immigrants who had been living legally for many years in the United States have been detained by the federal government and are facing possible deportation back to Vietnam — where they may face persecution. They’ve launched suit against the government over their detention and state of “legal limbo.” But the government says they violated terms of their status by committing crimes, including growing small quantities of cannabis.

A class-action lawsuit filed last month in a federal district court in Los Angeles charges that the Trump administration is violating the terms of a 2008 U.S. agreement with Vietnam that aimed to protect those who fled war or persecution in the Southeast Asian nation.

The agreement stipulates that Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995 are not subject to repatriation, as Southern California’s KPCC reports. The group is “largely comprised of refugees who fled Vietnam after the war to escape persecution under the new communist regime,” according to the lawsuit filed Feb. 26.

One of the plaintiffs, Hoang Trinh of Orange County arrived in the United States in 1980 as a 4-year-old child refugee. He became a legal permanent resident, but — like many of the plaintiffs — he came to the attention of immigration agents after being convicted of a crime that usually makes non-citizen immigrants subject to deportation.

Trinh, who is 41 years old and now married with two children, was convicted in 2015 on a drug charge and served a year in prison. In 2017, Trinh was arrested again, this time for allegedly possessing a marijuana plant (the possession of which was legalized in California in 2016). With that arrest and after the change of administration in Washington, D.C., Trinh was transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and ordered removed from the country. He has since been held at a detention center in Orange County.

In addition to the 2008 agreement that should make Trinh and his fellow plaintiffs exempt from forcible repatriation, Vietnam itself rarely accepts deportees. This places the detained immigrants in a “legal limbo” — facing the prospect of indefinite detention.

“Indefinite detention of immigrants is both unlawful and inhumane,” Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said in a statement. “Each day, causes untold harm to the people in detention and their families.”

The suit is seeking immediate release of the detained, numbering some 40 people, and of any other detained Vietnamese immigrants who arrived before 1995.

The advocacy group believes up to 8,000 Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. could be similarly subject to arrest and detention.

KPCC also reported in November on a similar case brought by detained Cambodian immigrants, and notes a wave of ICE arrests of Cambodian nationals in California in recent weeks. They also appear to be in limbo, as the Trump administration has actually slapped sanctions on Cambodia for refusing to accept returnees from the United States.

Trinh and his co-plaintiffs are hardly alone. Last year saw the chilling case of Josue Romero, a 19-year-old art student in San Antonio, Texas, who had received a work permit under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program — which has since been suspended by Trump.

Romero, who came to the U.S. at the age of 4, was told by ICE that he faced deportation to violence-torn Honduras after he was arrested for about a joint’s worth of cannabis, according to the San Antonio Express-News. However, after two days of ICE detention, Romero was released without explanation — likely because minor cannabis possession would not legally qualify as a deportable “significant misdemeanor” under the rules of DACA, which at that time had not yet been formally overturned.

Then there’s the case of Pfc. Miguel Perez Jr, a U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan and now may be deported to Mexico over a non-violent drug offense, according to the New York broadcaster WWLP-22News. He came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just 8 years old, and contends that his life would be in danger if he were deported, as Mexican drug cartels often coerce combat veterans into to working for them. The Chicago Tribune reported last month that Perez had started a hunger strike at the Illinois detention center where he is being held after a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected his argument. “If it comes down to me being deported, I would rather leave this world in the country I gave my heart for,” Perez said in an interview from the detention center.

Cannabis Now reported Jan. 29 on the case of a Colombian immigrant who is awaiting deportation over possession of small quantities of cannabis. The charges stem from two arrests that took place 16 and 18 years ago. Tragically, the Colombian immigrant believes that if he hadn’t called attention to these old busts by applying for legal residency status, he likely could have continued to quietly remain in the U.S. — possibly until the pending Marijuana Justice Act passes on Capitol Hill, which could retroactively remove his convictions.

Making this all even worse is last month’s Supreme Court decision that paves the way for indefinite detention in ICE custody. The 5-3 decision overturned a lower court’s ruling that required bond hearings after six months of ICE detention. As Reuters reported on Feb. 27, the class action suit was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union. With ICE arrests souring under the Trump administration, this decision comes at a very bad time — and leaves one wondering how many of these detainees are behind bars due to completely victimless “crimes” such as cannabis possession.

TELL US, do you think refugees should be deported for cannabis arrests?

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