By now, you may have heard that the Trump administration is threatening to deport Vietnamese immigrants, including those who fled from disastrous US-led war there in the 1960s and 1970s. While this makes it sound like we’ll be spuriously sending Vietnamese elders back to a country they haven’t lived in for four decades, that’s not quite the story. Those who are citizens are not facing the threat of deportation. Instead, the administration has committed to deporting those legal immigrants who have been found guilty of serious crimes, including those with outstanding deportation orders. For decades after the fall of Saigon, the US was unable to deport immigrants who had committed such crimes back to Vietnam because we didn’t have diplomatic relationships with Vietnam. Vietnam continued to refuse to accept deportees until 2008, when Julie Myers, a Bush appointee serving as the assistant secretary of Homeland Security, signed on behalf of the US a new deportation agreement. (I mention her because some of you might remember that Myers, as the head of ICE, was implicated in the abuse of prisoners by ICE, and she awarded a “best costume” award to a white ICE employee dressed as a Jamaican prisoner, wearing blackface and dreadlocks; she then tried to cover up her actions. The racism of ICE runs through the entire history of the agency.)
Since 2008, the US has been able to deport law-breaking legal immigrants from Vietnam back to their nation of origin. Currently, the US has the largest population of Vietnamese people outside of Vietnam, and estimates are that about 8,000 of them could be affected by the enforcement of the deportation rules. To be clear, Obama did, in fact, enforce these rules, deporting more people than any US president ever, earning him the derisive nickname “deporter-in-chief” from his critics on the left.
The 2008 agreement is up for renewal in January, and the Trump administration is pushing it in a new direction, arguing that anyone who came before 1995 and who didn’t have proper paperwork is a target for deportation.
While many people will support deporting violent criminals who aren’t citizens, that’s very different from deporting people who have been in the country for 20+ years but who lack documentation, including young adults brought here as babies and who can hardly call being sent back to Vietnam a “return” to anything as they have no memory of the place.
Vietnam may not accept this reinterpretation of the law, and if they don’t accept this kind of deportee, then the US isn’t (at least not yet) going to set them afloat on a dingy off the coast of the Ca Mau peninsula. That’s the good news.
The bad news, though, is worse.
The goal here for the Trump administration isn’t really to crack down on undocumented immigrants or even criminality. (The Trump administration is full of criminals.) Otherwise, it address the fact that Canadians are most likely of all foreign visitors to overstay their visas, and the US has more overstaying Europeans than Mexicans and Central Americans combined.
The goal, as you can always bet it is with the Trump administration, is to foster racism, harass people of color, and fire up the racists who form the base of the Republican party. Vox stated the issue clearly:
It’s not about going out and deporting people. It’s about making people deportable.
The goal is to create an atmosphere of fear, to deport just enough people so that immigrants have to live in terror of a possible deportation. This thrills Trump supporters, who watch those videos of parents being torn apart from their children with glee. (The rest of us watch in horror, and, if you are a decent human being, it might not have occurred to you to see these videos as things to celebrate.)
This atmosphere invigorates xenophobic voters, but it also–at least the administration hopes–encourages immigrants to “voluntarily” leave. If life is miserable enough for immigrants, they will “self-deport.” This is a strategy shared by “decent” Republicans like Mitt Romney and by overt white supremacists like Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer. It’s an invitation for vigilante citizens to harass immigrants. It’s a way to make all of America into a sundown town.
But why Vietnamese immigrants? Like most immigrants, they tend to do well in the US, and they tend to do even better than the average immigrant. They are entrepreneurs, and, ironically, a bit more politically conservative than the average immigrant group (perhaps a way of making sense of their flight from Vietnam after the US’s war against “socialism” there).
Above, Bruce Springsteen performs “Galveston Bay” from The Ghost of Tom Joad, an album focusing on the experience of immigrants and migrants in the US. It’s an album worth revisiting right now.
In part, Vietnam is an easy target. A lot of US manufacturing happens there. (Check the tag on you shirt. If it wasn’t made in Honduras or China or Malaysia, it was likely manufactured in Vietnam.) That makes it hard for Vietnam to stand up to the Trump administration and deny entry to a new class of deportees.
But there is another reason: Animosity against Vietnamese immigrants excites a core group of Trump devotees: aging Boomers who are still stinging about the loss of the war in Vietnam and who carry a grudge about what they see as America’s failure to support troops during the war and after. Anger rightfully directed at political leaders and a failing VA system turned to racial minorities, and Vietnamese immigrants are an easy target. Why support immigrants, after all, if we don’t support our own veterans? Especially immigrants from a country that couldn’t help us win a war on their own turf?
And this animosity has a real history–one that if Trump supporters don’t know specifically, they know generally. That is, they know that racism toward Vietnamese immigrants is within living memory of their core constituents: angry, aging white men who feel insecure about their masculinity and, by extension, about the US’s willingness to engage in cruelty toward vulnerable people, including immigrants, women, children, and the poor.
Specifically, I’m talking about a campaign of violence and harassment aimed at Vietnamese immigrants in Texas in the late 1970s and 1980s. Houston has the largest population of Vietnamese immigrants outside of California. Vietnamese immigrants settling in the area turned to fishing, shrimping, and crabbing–the kind of work familiar to them from life in Vietnam. Economic competition is often cited as inspiring the violence, which included setting Vietnamese fishermen’s boats on fire and sabotaging their traps, but old-fashioned racism–especially aimed at people seen as responsible, in part, for the failure of the post-WWII America’s first clear military failure (and, symbolically, the collapse of American masculinity)–is key. The Vietnamese immigrants weren’t simply offering stiff competition to native-born fishermen during a period of major economic restructuring; they were a visible reminder of the failure of the US to make its will felt in foreign wars.
Louis Beam leads a group of Klansman in torching a boat labeled “USS Viet-Cong” at a rally in Santa Fe, Texas in 1981. Photo by AP/Ed Kolenovsky
So it’s not a surprise that the Texas KKK showed up on the scene. Many of them former military, they were racists with unresolved anger at the Vietnamese in particular and military training. Texas Klan leader Louis Beam (the white nationalist who popularized the tactic of leaderless resistance) began a training camp near Houston to prepare for a possible race war, and Asians were a primary target. In 1979, he was arrested for trying to attack the prime minister of China during a visit to Houston. In 1981, he was fomented violence against immigrants in the Galveston area when two Vietnamese immigrants shot a white man during a fight. Invoking a self-defense argument, they were acquitted, and Klan activity increased–more arsons, burning crosses, effigies.
Eventually, the SPLC took on the case. Beam showed up to court wearing his Klan robes. In court, here is how he defended his actions:
I am charged with loving this country.
This is how hate works. It doesn’t announce itself as hate but as love for things that our culture tells us are proper to love: nation, family, tradition, culture. The hate emerges from that love, which is not love at all but fear and privilege and laziness.
The Vietnamese fishermen won the case, and the Klan was told to cease its activity. Beam’s group had to disband, and he lost his five training camps. America became safer because of the bravery of the Vietnamese fishermen who took him on.
Beam remains a hero to white nationalist, and his writing still circulates among them, though he seems to have retired–to New Braunfels, Texas–from active work in white supremacist movements. His calls to prepare for a race war using military training- are still foundational concepts for white nationalists.
Every non-white population in the US has been threatened and harassed, and Trump has spoken ill of virtually all of them. But going after the Vietnamese is different from going after groups whose harassment isn’t linked the failure of American masculinity and didn’t happen (at least not in the coordinated way that the attacks in the Gulf happened) within our lifetime. The white men lighting fishing boats on fire were men born in the 40s and 50s–men now in their 60s and 70s. They are men who remember the humiliation of Vietnam and who voted for Trump in large numbers.
What does it mean if the Trump administration activates these hostilities on purpose or by accident? Like a child repeating a swear word, it doesn’t matter if Trump is sincere or not in invoking racist sentiments–what matters is that he is willing to use them to hurt others. He is a medium through which hate passes.