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Immigrants with a criminal past may soon have a 'New Way Forward' to stay in the US

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 12/30/2019 By Theodora Yu, The Sacramento Bee
a person sitting in a chair talking on a cell phone: Peck Loek, whose son and son-in-law were deported to Cambodia, wipes away tears inside her Fresno, Calif., apartment as she tends to her grandsons. © JOHN WALKER/Fresno Bee/TNS Peck Loek, whose son and son-in-law were deported to Cambodia, wipes away tears inside her Fresno, Calif., apartment as she tends to her grandsons.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Cuong Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who arrived in the U.S. at age 11, agreed to deliver drugs after finding out that his father owed a large sum of money when he was in his early 20s.

He was charged in 2006 and served a 24-month sentence. But Nguyen was suddenly detained by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement on and off for two years, separating him from his wife and young son, who lived in fear uncertain when he’d return home.

Released from detainment last year, Nguyen still faces deportation for his criminal conviction 13 years ago and has to check in at ICE offices every few months.

Now a new bill might change that.

The New Way Forward Act was introduced Dec. 10 by U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., and three other House Democrats: Jesus Garcia of Illinois, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.

The bill restores due process protections for all immigrants, including those in deportation proceedings.

Earlier laws laid the groundwork for the Trump administration policies, according to the Center for Migration Studies, which resulted to a spiking number of deported individuals, especially those with criminal records. The laws passed in 1996, namely the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, restricted immigration judges from considering multiple factors for a person’s deportation, an Asian Americans Advancing Justice document shows.

The judges are frequently prohibited from considering whether the individual with a removal order is a parent, caregiver, community leader or example of successful rehabilitation, among others.

Green card holders convicted of some crimes within seven years of entry to the U.S. are subject to mandatory deportation. In those cases, judges are forbidden to account for the individual’s recent conduct or family ties.

The bill also eliminates mandatory detention and creates a five-year statute of limitations for deportations, according to a joint news release by advocacy groups Southeast Asian Resource Action Center and AAAJ.

Many Southeast Asian immigrants were resettled in low-income, high-crime, underserved neighborhoods in the U.S. after fleeing their war-torn countries during the Vietnam War, Secret War of Laos and the Cambodian genocide between the 1970s and ’90s. Some committed crimes at a young age and have been released from prison after serving full sentences.

Under a 2008 repatriation agreement between Vietnam and the U.S., Vietnamese immigrants cannot be deported if they entered the U.S. before July 12, 1995.

But things changed under the Trump administration. The administration has been using visa sanctions, diplomatic pressure and other tools to renegotiate repatriation agreements with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, among other nations, said U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif. An executive order in 2017 issued by President Donald Trump indicated anyone without legal status and a criminal record, regardless of whether they entered as refugees, can be targeted for removal.

Hundreds of refugees with non-violent and decades-old convictions have since been detained by ICE.

According to SEARAC, more than 17,000 Southeast Asian refugees have been ordered to be removed from the U.S. Over 2,000 individuals have been deported since 1998. Roughly 80% of around 15,000 individuals currently living with a final order of removal are to be removed based on past convictions. As of June 2018, as many as 4,881 Asian immigrants were detained.

The New Way Forward Act is a milestone bill for the Southeast Asian communities, said Quyen Dinh, SEARAC executive director.

“Our country’s outdated and unjust immigration laws are being used by this Administration to deport our communities at an unprecedented level,” Dinh said. “Our country and our communities deserve a new vision of justice and equity inclusive of all immigrant and refugee communities, one that restores dignity and due process to all and provides individuals that our country unjustly removed an opportunity to come home and be reunited with their families.”

It is important to re-imagine the path the Act entails, said Anoop Prasad, staff attorney at AAAJ’s Asian Law Caucus, despite given the political environment in D.C. “We are figuring out how to move forward, after decades of mass deportation due to mistakes in the policies we made in the 1990s.”

The legacy of the laws coupled with policies under the current political climate have taken an emotional toll on the lives of immigrants and their families, such as Nguyen.

“If Vietnam decided to repatriate him, he has to be deported,” said Elaine Sanchez Wilson, director of communications and development at SEARAC.

The New Way Forward Act is important to people like Nguyen.

“For the last two years, my loved ones have been living in fear of my deportation,” Nguyen said. “By restoring judicial discretion to immigration judges, they can finally look at my case, see my family and my contributions to my community, and hopefully provide me and others in my position the relief we so desperately need.”

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©2019 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)

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