A Hmong refugee accused of shooting two Fresno County correctional officers is one of thousands of immigrants existing in a legal limbo because their home countries have declined to take them back.
U.S. immigration authorities tried to deport Thong Vang, 37, when he was released from prison in 2014 after serving a sentence for rape. Laotian officials didn’t cooperate, so by U.S. law he was freed three months later.
On Sept. 3 Vang went into the lobby of the main jail in downtown Fresno and exchanged gunfire with a correctional officer after he shot Officer Juanita Davila in the jaw and Officer Toamalama Scanlan in the head.
Vang’s case shed light on one of the lesser-known consequences of strained diplomatic relations with other countries. Some experts say his actions represent a worst case: immigrants who should be deported, but can’t be.
“Vang was ordered deported at the end of his prison sentence, but Laos has been allowed to get away with blocking our efforts to deport their citizens, even though under the law they should face visa sanctions,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.
Others say Vang’s case highlights the need for a deeper conversation about the U.S. government’s responsibility to refugees and other immigrants given permanent residence.
“The fact that he is a noncitizen means the immigration system is being used to punish him more harshly than a citizen who committed the exact same crimes,” said Juliet Stumpf, a professor at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore., who studies the intersection between immigration and criminal law. “We allow people who commit terrible crimes and are punished by the criminal justice system to, in theory, reintegrate themselves into society.”
Vang was released from prison in 2014 after serving 16 years for gang-involved rapes of three children ages 12 to 14.
After Vang’s release, Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent a written request to Laotian authorities for a travel document that would facilitate his deportation, said a spokeswoman for the agency. When Laos didn’t respond, he was released after three months in ICE custody.
Since then, Vang had been under an order of supervision and was required to report to ICE agents regularly. Before the shooting two weeks ago, he had been complying with that requirement. Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said that before the shooting, Vang was a model parolee who regularly checked in with his parole officer and had a job.
It’s possible that ICE could try to deport Vang again. But if convicted of the shootings of the correctional officers, he would first have to serve his sentence before being removed from the country.
Vang pleaded not guilty on Thursday. If convicted, he faces 110 years to life in prison.
A relative of Vang said he was born in Laos and came to the United States as an infant. Vang’s mother became a U.S. citizen, the relative said, but Vang did not.
His father, who is dead, served as a general in the Hmong army and fought on the side of the United States in the Vietnam War, she said.
Many Hmong in this country are survivors of the “secret war” in Laos, which the U.S. conducted during the height of the Vietnam War. Because the Hmong fought with the U.S. against communism, they were targeted for extermination after the communist government took over in Laos, where they are an ethnic minority.
Most refugees fled to Thailand before being resettled. Many came to America. Fresno now has the second-largest Hmong population in the country, with 30,000 people.
Southeast Asians who fled Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s became the largest refugee community in the U.S. According to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, some turned to gangs and crime as a means of survival.
When President Barack Obama visited Laos earlier this month – the first sitting U.S. president to do so – he didn’t talk about immigration issues. He announced a $90 million program to clear unexploded bombs from the war that have left more than 20,000 people dead or injured.
Local leaders who work with refugees say many Southeast Asian youths in the 1990s found themselves in gangs, whether they wanted to be or not. They connect gang involvement here to the violence of refugees’ home countries.
One country that the U.S. does send deportees to is Cambodia, a country that was torn apart by war. Bill Ong Hing, an immigration law professor at the University of California at San Francisco, said the U.S. would not provide Cambodia with foreign aid unless it signed a repatriation agreement more than a decade ago.
Though thousands of Cambodians have been ordered deported, Hing said, only hundreds actually have been removed. “Cambodia has been, to the United States’ chagrin, not cooperative in every case,” he said.
Before 9/11, deporting refugees was not a big issue for the United States, Hing said. But after the terrorist attacks, “it became a priority of the Bush administration to deport criminals and that continued on through the Obama administration.”
Sharon Stanley, who was executive director of the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries for 18 years through 2012, recalled a 14-year-old telling her once that he was tired of being in a gang. Later, on travels to Cambodia, she met youths from Valley cities such as Stockton and Modesto who knew nothing about the country they had been deported to.
Julie Sandoval of Fresno spent two years in Cambodia in 2005-07 on a mission sponsored by the global nonprofit Mennonite Central Committee. Returnees stand out in Cambodia, she said, and they are not always welcomed.
“They are seen as criminals,” Sandoval said. “A lot of them were in gangs, so they have tattoos all over. And they’re another mouth to feed. The poverty level there is incredibly high.”
How it works
Federal immigration courts have a backlog of more than 500,000 cases, meaning many immigrants face multiyear delays before a judge can make a final decision about their cases. But for immigrants with criminal convictions, the judge’s decision already could be made for them.
The 1996 Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act expanded the range of aggravated felony convictions for which immigrants are detained and deported. The laws also restricted immigration judges’ ability to weigh circumstances of such deportation cases.
In a 2001 case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that ICE can hold convicted criminals only for six months if a country refuses to take them back. There are currently 23 countries ICE considers uncooperative, including Afghanistan, Cuba and India. ICE monitors another 62 countries with “strained cooperation.” Laos is no longer deemed uncooperative because it considers some deportation cases.
23 The number of countries ICE considers uncooperative. The agency also monitors another 62 countries with “strained cooperation.”
Immigrants who can’t be deported qualify for one-year renewable work permits. But Anoop Prasad, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus at Asian Americans Advancing Justice in San Francisco, said the vast majority don’t apply because the process is expensive, long and requires going through multiple agencies. Immigrants using the permits in some states don’t qualify for benefits or driver’s licenses.
And though Mexican immigrants can get a consular identification card, the Laotian Embassy doesn’t offer that kind of documentation, he said, so many end up without any documentation at all. It’s unknown whether Vang had a work permit.
“People pretty quickly slip into the margins,” Prasad said.
Jose Magña-Salgado, managing policy attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in Washington, D.C., said public discourse about efforts to reintegrate criminals into society and to reverse the over-criminalization of communities of color does not include compassion for refugees who have served their time.
Refugees could eliminate deportation fears by becoming U.S. citizens. But immigrant rights leaders say there isn’t enough funding to help organizations provide such assistance, and the applications are expensive – $680 per person, not including attorney fees.
Applying for citizenship requires being able to read, write and speak basic English, as well as a rudimentary understanding of U.S. history and the Constitution. Those rules can make the process difficult, if not unachievable, for people who arrived with little education and are low-income.
Immigrant advocates don’t expect this Congress to take action on immigration. But they say the Obama administration could, by executive authority, lessen the effect of the laws by updating and narrowing its enforcement priorities. ICE prioritizes immigrants for deportation who have felony convictions or three or more misdemeanors, no matter how long ago they were.
At a December 2015 congressional briefing, the National Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Ally Groups said members of Southeast Asian American communities are three to four times more likely to be deported for old convictions compared to members of other immigrant communities.
“We should have a system that allows our immigration framework to weigh the circumstances of an individual’s background and offense to determine if they are to be deported,” Magña-Salgado said. “A one-size-fits-all (system) usually errs on the side of deporting an immigrant.”
Not everyone agrees.
Critics of immigration enforcement say the Obama administration has been reluctant to punish countries that refuse to take back their citizens who have committed crimes in the United States.
Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, introduced the Criminal Alien Deportation Enforcement Act in May, which would withhold foreign aid and travel visas for countries that don’t accept their citizens who have been criminally detained in the United States. The bill, HR 5224, was referred to the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security.
Vang was ordered deported at the end of his prison sentence, but Laos has been allowed to get away with blocking our efforts to deport their citizens.
Jessica Vaughan, Center for Immigration Studies
Vaughan, of the Center for Immigration Studies, said the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department have failed to force Laos and other countries to take back their citizens. She said ICE and the State Department signed an agreement in 2011 to address the problem with uncooperative countries, but have made no progress on the issue.
“It’s not ICE’s fault that Laos won’t respond to their request for travel documents, but it is the State Department’s fault that Laos has paid no price for their obstruction – it is the job of the State Department to take action in this situation,” she said.
“But it was not important to the secretary of state in 2011 and beyond to try to make progress on this problem, despite having signed an agreement to do so. And it was apparently not important to President Obama to raise it on his recent three-day trip to Laos, or to insist that it be resolved as a condition of his visit.”
Prasad, of the Asian Law Caucus, said the reasons for the U.S.’s weak diplomatic relationship with Laos are complicated. “It’s not just about strong-arming them,” he said. The country is still reeling from the war, and is likely not in a place to accept thousands of deportees who came to the U.S. as infants.
“There will always be countries that aren’t willing to cooperate with the U.S. for repatriation.”
It’s also an issue that won’t go away any time soon. The Obama administration announced Wednesday that it will seek to accept 110,000 refugees from around the world next fiscal year, an increase over last year of almost 60 percent.
Prasad has represented refugees in Fresno during deportation proceedings, many who are Hmong. He has represented immigrants who were ordered deported for a wide range of convictions: violent crimes, sometimes – like Vang – affiliated with gangs, convictions of trespassing or shoplifting stemming from mental health issues, or growing more marijuana than is allowed under their medical cards.
Existing in an immigration limbo has a ripple effect through generations, Prasad said. He said the Hmong community faces more severe mental health issues than other Southeast Asian refugees.
“There does need to be a deeper conversation about trauma stemming from the war,” he said.
He says that means looking beyond Vang’s case and figuring out immigration, criminal justice and mental health policies that benefit the refugee community while also making the larger community safer.
Deportation by the numbers
Total deportations from the U.S. to three Southeast Asian countries from 1998 through 2015:
176 (4 percent)
681 (26 percent)
553 (6 percent)
Source: Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, “U.S. Deportation Outcomes by Charge, Completed Cases in Immigration Courts”