It’s an immigration crisis few know of. And Fresno County might be at the center of it

Editor’s note: The title of Fresno Center CEO Pao Yang was incorrect in a prior version of this story.

Thousands of immigrants in the Fresno region and nation could face deportation to a country that’s rarely discussed in the daily news cycle, and in some respects has been forgotten.

Many Laotians and Lao Hmong refugees in the Fresno area and their relatives still live in immigration limbo in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the so-called “Secret War” in Southeast Asia.

At issue, however, is whether Laotians and Lao Hmong slated for deportation in the U.S. will now be sent to their home country, due to aggressive sanctions the Trump administration has placed on the Southeast Asian nation.

Typically, countries take back deportees when they are ejected from the U.S. for committing crimes or being here illegally.

However, a few countries like Laos previously have not cooperated and have refused to accept back citizens designated for deportation.

Consequently, there are Laotians living in Fresno and other places who’ve had a deportation order for years. Because their home countries declined to take them back, however, there was nowhere to deport them to.

The Trump administration is using visa sanctions to punish countries that have failed to take back their citizens. This summer, Laos was put on the sanctions list.

“You have people who haven’t spent much time in Laos and you have families that are going to be broken up,” said Zachary D. Darrah, executive director for the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM). “The impact here in our community would be significant.”

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Children of the fields, Xieng Khouang Province, Laos, 2007. From Joel Pickford’s book “Soul Calling.” photo by Joel Pickford/Special to The Bee Joel Pickford Fresno Bee archive

In an executive order issued on Jan. 25, 2017, the U.S. government made it a national security priority to remove people from the U.S. who hold a final deportation order, among other groups.

On July 10, the Department of Homeland Security announced visa sanctions against Laos and Myanmar. The sanctions are to pressure the countries to confirm the citizenship of deportees and issue travel documents like passports for them.

The July move followed similar sanctions against Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone in 2017, according to ICE.

By comparison, past U.S. presidents only issued visa sanctions on countries twice, said Katrina Dizon Mariategue, director of national policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. That, according to ICE, took place in 2001 against Guyana and Gambia in 2016.

The latest round of visa sanctions are “to force Laos into accepting more deportees back,” Mariategue said. Since 1998, a total of 4,568 people in the U.S. have been issued a deportation order to Laos, but only 206 people have been deported.

As a result, those remaining individuals have lived in limbo for years, not knowing if or when they will be deported to Laos, she said.

“Those with the biggest risk are people who already have deportation orders but who have not been deported until now because Laos has refused to accept them as citizens of their country,” she said.

“These are mainly people who came to the U.S. decades ago as refugees and have no ties to the country whatsoever. In some cases, they were born in refugee camps and have never even lived in Laos.”

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Darrah with Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries said there are between 50,000 and 60,000 Laotians, Lao Hmong and Cambodians in Fresno County.

It’s difficult to quantify how many Laotians and Hmong in Fresno County would be at risk for deportation, but it will likely impact thousands, given that Fresno and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area area have the largest urban Hmong communities in the country, Darrah said.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, a little over 91,000 Hmong reside in California, and just over 66,000 live in Minnesota. In 2010, Fresno had 24,328 Hmong people living in the area, nearly 30,000 resided in St. Paul and 7,512 were living in Minneapolis. It’s estimated 10,000 Laotians live in Fresno now.

Many Hmong and Cambodians came to the U.S. as refugees.

Once in the U.S., refugees with status approval are considered lawful permanent residents. If they commit a crime, they essentially violate their agreements of being here as a refugee. That puts their refugee status at risk, Darrah said.

“Because there was no repatriation agreement with Laos, even though those who have been convicted of crimes were given deportation orders, there was no where to deport them, so some of these people have probably had a deportation order for decades,” he said.

Because of the new sanctions, even those who might have committed a low-level crime in the 1990s, and have served their time, would now face deportation to Laos.

But deportations to Laos are different than deportations to other countries. Sending back deportees to Laos could mean they’d be in danger upon returning, advocates say.

That’s because many Southeast Asians locally are direct relatives of Hmong guerrillas recruited by the CIA to fight the communists forces on the U.S. side in what became known as the Secret War in the 1960s and 1970s, while the Vietnam War was ongoing.

Many of those fighting with Americans were flown out of Laos in 1975 when the communist forces took over the country. A large number of them fled to the U.S. to seek refuge while others stayed in refugee camps in Thailand.

Peter Vang, executive director of Lao Veterans of America in Fresno, said there are about 500 veterans from the Secret War in the Central Valley, and around 300 in Fresno. He doesn’t think veterans from the Secret War themselves would be impacted by the deportations, but said some of their grown children might, which would put their lives in danger.

“Those kids are very vulnerable if they are sent back to Laos,” Vang said, whose father is a Secret War veteran. “There’s a big concern because the reason why we are here is because we fought with the Americans. We had no way to survive, so we had to leave the country, and we came here to a safe haven, and if they send us back, they send us back to be killed.”

Laos was supposed to be off-limits for U.S. military activity during the war in neighboring Vietnam, Darrah said.

“We broke international law by being involved there and engaged in conflict in Laos,” Darrah said. “Beyond international agreements in Laos, we created a refugee crisis in Laos, (refugees) ... are now here, and now we are considering (a) repatriation agreement to ... send them back. It’s a very odd process.”

Vang told the story of a veteran named Vue Mai, as an example of the dangers Secret War vets or their relatives could face if they were to return to Laos.

After officials from the United States and the United Nations, among other entities, assured Mai he would be safe to return to Laos in the 1990s, he agreed to return to his country and lead a group of refugees from Thailand. Soon after returning to Laos, Mai disappeared. According to old news reports, Mai was last seen being taken by Laos secret police.

Pao Yang, chief executive officer at The Fresno Center, said deportees fear they could be placed in danger upon landing in Laos — a concern that’s “very real.”

He said Laos probably held back in taking back deportees because it would be like accepting people they “chased out.” That sentiment is fueled by the fact that Laos is still ruled by a communist government.

“It’s very scary,” he said. “To them, we are traitors because we fought them; we fought alongside the U.S. government. ... It’s like, ‘Hey, here are the kids of the traitors that fought with you guys.’ ... I’m not sure people see it that way, but I do. These are the kids of those veterans. That doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just common sense that you don’t do that.”

What’s next for potential deportees?

Darrah’s organization is trying to figure out how it can support the community as the issue continues to progress.

FIRM is part of the Fresno Southeast Asian Coalition for Action, which is working to educate potential deportees about the issue, their rights, and what to expect moving forward.

“We as a coalition together would certainly do community outreach to make sure people were aware of their rights, to make sure how to interact with ICE if they ever have that encounter, and also try to figure out what legal resources might be able assist folks if the deportation orders end up being negotiated,” he said.

Darrah also receives updates from the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. “I think at this point, what’s happening is Laos is trying to figure out how they want to react to what’s happening,” he said.

The impact of the deportations would further isolate the Lao and Hmong communities. “Our partner, SEARAC (Southeast Asia Resource Action Center) is really encouraging people who have deportation orders to seek legal counsel immediately in preparation of what could be,” Darrah said.

Yang said the issue is already taking a toll on families.

“It’s causing a lot of financial burden to folks,” he said. “It’s causing a lot of mental stress to folks.”

Brendan Raedy, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said as of August there were 4,614 non-detained Laotians across the country with a final order for deportation, of whom 3,987 had been convicted of a crime. He wasn’t able to provide figures for Fresno County, specifically.

As of Aug. 6, there were 37 Laotians nationwide in ICE detention, and all were “convicted criminals,” Raedy said.

He wasn’t able to say if any of those facing deportation to Laos are Secret War veterans or relatives, as that’s not something the agency tracks in reports.

As of Aug. 6, there were 36 Burmese nationwide in ICE detention, and 35 of them had been convicted of a crime, Raedy said. As of the same date, there were 589 non-detained Burmese across the country with a final deportation order, of whom 147 had been convicted of a crime.

Those in ICE detention or with a final deportation order who have not been convicted of a crime are facing deportation because they were in the U.S. “without lawful status and (that) came to the attention of ICE,” Raedy said.

“While ICE prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, ultimately what leads to someone being deported is the underlying fact they were in the United States unlawfully,” he said.

Raedy also wasn’t able to specify the legal status of those who have been convicted of crimes, but did say that “removal requires the rescission of lawful permanent resident status.”

A total of seven Laotians had already been deported to Laos as of Aug. 6 in fiscal year 2018.

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