Oct 5, 2022 - Politics

Southeast Asians in Massachusetts find hope in new bill

A close up shot of the U.S. Capitol dome

Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

A new bill being considered by the U.S. Congress would halt deportations and offer work permits to Southeast Asian refugees who have lived in Massachusetts and other places in the country for decades.

Why it matters: Thousands of asylum seekers have settled in Dorchester and Lowell and raised families, but their lack of legal immigration status has led to deportations over the past two decades. 

  • While the likelihood of the bill passing is questionable, Dorchester immigration activists and residents say it represents a milestone.

What they're saying: Kevin Lam, organizing director at the Asian American Resource Workshop, said during a recent event in Dorchester that it was historic "to actually see our community explicitly named in legislation that says deportations of Southeast Asian refugees should no longer be happening."

What's happening: The bill, introduced last month by Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), would limit deportations of Southeast Asians "who came to the U.S. following the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the secret war in Laos."

  • It would restrict check-ins with immigration agents to virtual meetings every five years. 
  • Some of the asylum seekers would be authorized to get work permits valid for five years that could be renewed "any number of times."
  • The legislation specifically focuses on asylum seekers from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam who were resettled by the U. S. government between 1975 and 2008. 

Be smart: Southeast Asians represent the largest refugee population that's been resettled in the U.S.

The other side: Ron Kovach, press secretary at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called the bill "troubling." 

  • Kovach, whose group seeks to limit immigration, says not deporting people who sought refuge after a crisis ends "will lead to a slippery slope in the way the U.S. handles refugee claims in the future."
  • Kovach also says the legislation that not only lets the refugees stay, but also their entire family unit, is "furthering the strain on our already overburdened infrastructure and social systems."

Flashback: Millions of Southeast Asians fled their homes and settled in the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century, per the Migration Policy Institute.

  • Over three decades in that period, an estimated 1.1 million entered the U.S. as refugees, gaining access to work permits and other protections. Many others did not.
  • A 1996 law made it much harder for undocumented immigrants to gain legal immigration status and expanded the number of criminal offenses that could get someone deported, immigration experts and advocates say.

Context: Southeast Asian immigrants without legal status for years checked in with ICE Boston periodically under what's known as an "order of supervision," but during the Obama and Trump administrations, federal immigration agents detained those immigrants to deport them.

  • Soeun Kim, an ethnic Cambodian from Thailand, checked in with ICE for six years after serving a 14-year prison sentence for burglary and robbery, raising five children with his wife in Maine. 
  • ICE detained Kim again in March 2019, but he was released shortly before Christmas that year. He is fighting his deportation in court. 

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