Sunday, October 21, 2007

Vietnamese refugee family in limbo

Relatives of woman who testified on immigration are to be deported but have nowhere to go. The case raises questions of intimidation.
By Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
October 19, 2007
Government actions in a deportation case involving a Vietnamese refugee family in Santa Ana drew fire Thursday as political and community leaders accused immigration agents of intimidation.

Agents with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency last week arrested the parents and brother of Tam Tran, a 24-year-old UCLA graduate who testified before Congress about the plight of undocumented immigrant students in May. The family, detained overnight and then released under electronic monitoring, had received final deportation orders in 2001 after losing an appeal to win political asylum.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who heads the House immigration subcommittee that called Tran as a witness, said she was concerned that the arrest would intimidate other activists into silence.

"What message does that give future witnesses -- that if you give testimony to Congress, your family is arrested?" Lofgren said in an interview Thursday. "I'm very concerned. This is intimidation."

Lofgren said she planned to call a public hearing this year to scrutinize the immigration agency's actions in this and other cases.

The Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles also criticized the arrest.

"Many in our community are scared to come out and lend their voices to the immigration debate because of actions like these," said Daniel Huang, the center's policy advocate. "The suspicion is that the administration is trying to silence the powerful advocacy going on on behalf of undocumented immigrants."

Virginia Kice, the immigration agency's spokeswoman, said agents did not know about Tran's congressional testimony when they arrested her family members in an early morning raid Oct. 11. Kice said the arrest was part of the agency's stepped-up efforts to find and deport hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants with final orders of deportation -- efforts that have snared 61,000 people in four years.

"This had nothing to do with any congressional testimony," Kice said. "The bottom line is that at present these family members all have final orders of deportation, and our responsibility is to endeavor to carry out those orders."

At the moment, however, no country is willing to take the Tran family back -- placing it in a legal netherworld.

Like so many other boat people, Tam Tran's parents left Vietnam in 1980, fleeing war and political persecution triggered by the family's anti-Communist activities, Tam Tran said. They were picked up by a German ship and taken to Germany, where they tried to apply for resettlement in the United States but could not locate a sponsoring relative, she said.

The family stayed for six years in Germany, where Tran and her brother, Thien, were born. In 1989, they came to the United States and applied for political asylum.

As their case worked its way through the system, the Tran family was able to obtain legal work permits and painstakingly built a life in the U.S. Tran's mother, Loc Pham, baby-sat by day and worked at a garment factory by night, eventually earning her manicurist license. Her father, Tuan Tran, worked as a security guard and now struggles as a writer.

Tran graduated cum laude in American literature from UCLA and is working at a Los Angeles nonprofit organization to earn money to pursue a doctoral degree. Her brother works as an auto mechanic.

The family bought a mobile home, pays taxes and has no criminal record, Tran said. They report every year to U.S. immigration officials to renew their work permits.

But the Trans' dreams were crushed in 2001 when the Board of Immigration Appeals rejected their asylum claim. The board found that Tuan Tran faced political persecution in Vietnam and could not be returned there -- among other things, his father was an anti-Communist journalist who was imprisoned and eventually died in captivity in Vietnam. But the board ruled that the family should be deported to Germany, where they had safe haven until they voluntarily decided to leave.

Germany, however, has refused to accept the family. Because the Trans left Germany without official permission and have been gone for more than six months, their residency permit has expired and will not be reissued, according to Lars Leymann, spokesman for the German Consulate in Los Angeles.

"They therefore have no legal claim to go back to Germany," Leymann said. "It's the law. We see no reason to change our position on that."

Kice, of the immigration agency, said U.S. officials would continue to seek travel documents from Germany to send the Tran family back. Another option, she said, was to see whether the political climate had changed enough in Vietnam to allow the family to return there without fear of persecution.

Sending them back, however, could be difficult because the U.S. government still does not have a repatriation agreement with Vietnam.

Another alternative would be to find a third party to accept the family, Kice said.

Lofgren said that if Germany declines to change its position and accept the family, the Trans' asylum case could be reopened to seek permanent residency in the U.S.

"These people have been found to be refugees," said the Tran family attorney, Dan Brown of the Los Angeles-based Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker LLP law firm. "They're no danger to anyone."

Tam Tran, meanwhile, said she just wants to get past the uncertainty and angst and be able to make the United States her permanent home.

"At the end of the process, we have nowhere to go," she said. "We're in a black hole."

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com
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