The Trump Administration Is About to Put More Refugees In Harm’s Way

It’s preparing to deport Laos nationals who risk persecution from the regime in power.

The Trump administration is once again trying to deport large swaths of people—including those who came to the U.S. as refugees—who risk persecution upon arriving in their nations of origin. The U.S. and Laos reached an agreement in late 2019 for the small southeast Asian nation to receive an increased number of deportees from the U.S., according to the Southeast Asian Deportation Defense Network, a coalition group of advocacy organizations.

There remains no official memorandum of understanding governing these deportations, as there are with Cambodia and Vietnam, but “this verbal agreement makes those with final orders for deportation potentially more vulnerable to removal,” the group said. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum also publicized this agreement after writing a letter of opposition to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Laos has long refused any agreement of this sort, arguing, as Cambodia once did, that it should not be forced to resettle people who came to the U.S. fleeing the Vietnam War as children and have no memory or knowledge of the country. Still, Laos has accepted 219 deportees since 1998 due to the U.S. pressure; only five were deported in 2019 after the White House sanctioned the nation over the matter in late 2018.

The U.S.-Laos relationship has a blood-stained history. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. fought a secret anti-Communist war there, recruiting thousands of ethnic minority Hmong to take part in this effort. The U.S.-allied Royal Lao government ruled Laos until the Communist Pathet Lao seized power in 1975, soon after executing members of the Royal Lao family. Since then, the ruling regime has persecuted the Hmong and targeted political opponents of all ethnicities—raising fears that deportees’ safety could be jeopardy.

An I.C.E. spokesperson told me in early February that 38 “Laos nationals”—a term that includes those who have not been to the country since childhood—with Final Orders of Removal are currently in detention. There are currently 4,716 non-detained people with such orders, 4,086 of whom have criminal convictions. It’s not clear how many of them are Hmong and how many came to escape the Vietnam War. (I.C.E. does not track deportees’ ethnicity or former refugee status.)

Those who came to the U.S. as refugees lived in the country legally, many obtaining green cards. But the U.S. has sought to deport those convicted of an aggravated felony, or any “crime of violence” (a vague standard that has enabled the overturning of some deportations) or theft or burglary, crimes that invalidate one’s green card. Immigration law also allows for the compounding of two misdemeanors—such as petty theft and personal marijuana possession—into an aggravated felony that would strip one of one’s green card, thereby subjecting a person to deportation.

Since 1975, the U.S. has accepted roughly 150,000 Hmong and 40,000 Lao refugees. Advocates and scholars argue that the U.S. insufficiently resettled these refugees, leaving them ill-prepared for immediate work, unaccultured to the United States, and suffering psychosocial trauma. As a consequence, many Laotian refugees slipped into cycles of poverty, which, in turn, contributed to their children’s drift toward criminality. Hmong and Laotian communities—along with Cambodians—experience more poverty than other Asian-American groups. In 2016, for instance, 37.8 percent of Hmong and 18.5 percent of Lao in the U.S. were living in poverty, according to the Obama administration. The American poverty rate hovers around 11 percent.

Nevertheless, the U.S. has for years detained Lao and Hmong people without green cards and with final orders of removal, seeking their deportation. But because Laos does not have an official deportation agreement with the U.S., immigration officials have been required under the law to release these people within 90 days, often under Department of Homeland Security “orders of supervision.” A new understanding with Laos would allow the U.S. to pursue the deportation of 4,716 non-detained Laos nationals.

Chanida Phaengdara Potter, executive director of the SEAD Project, a Southeast Asian-American community development organization, told me the move “will only further criminalize and impoverish fellow community members by separating them from their families and sending them to an unfamiliar country where their livelihoods will be challenged again. They have human rights that are being denied by this administration and we should be appalled.”

The Trump administration has pursued similar policies in both Cambodia and Vietnam, ratcheting up the rate of deportations to both countries through sanctions and other means of pressure. Those deported are also mainly refugees with little or no knowledge of the country to which they are sent; many do not speak Khmer, Cambodia’s language, or Vietnamese.

This is the case in Laos as well: The U.S. government is even funding a “reintegration program” to assist those deported to Laos who do not speak Lao or have family connections, indicating that former refugees with no ties to Laos will be sent there.

But it’s far from clear that the Laos government will receive them warmly. Because of the CIA’s activities there in the 1960s and the ruling regime’s fierce repression of political opponents, Laos still targets both the Hmong and people of other ethnicities with anti-communist ties—potentially including those deported from the U.S.

“For their privacy and safety, deportees have to stay under the radar,” a Lao-American advocate told me, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution to those they know in Laos. “Enforced disappearances and imprisonment of specific groups, whether they are marginalized ethnic minorities or tied to the former Lao Royal government, are based on their history and connection to this country’s past.”

The source added: “There are real fears about survival in today’s Laos.”

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Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst is an Associate at IDEAS, the London School of Economics' foreign policy think tank, and a journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, and Foreign Policy, among other publications.