Sulayman, 48, has every reason to be afraid: He is one of over 8,500 Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. currently at risk of deportation. He cannot imagine going back to his country of origin, one he has not seen since 1979, when his family fled in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
Until recently, Sulayman thought he was safe. Though he was issued a final order of deportation in 2001, after serving a yearlong sentence for cocaine possession, he didn’t dwell on it. A 2008 repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments exempted a group of Vietnamese refugees from deportation — those who had fled the country before July 12, 1995, the day the U.S. and Vietnam re-established diplomatic relations.
This agreement, or Memorandum of Understanding, was intended to protect those who had fled and who now feared abuse or retaliation from the communist regime. Many refugees, like Sulayman and his family, were from South Vietnam, which had sided with the U.S. during the war.
But under the Trump administration, the Department of Homeland Security reversed course on the agreement. It now allows for the repatriation of pre-1995 arrivals who are undocumented or, like Sulayman, have final orders of deportation that stem from prior criminal convictions — convictions that include minor offenses that might date back decades.
Sulayman didn't realize he was in danger until November 2017, when suddenly, during a routine check-in, immigration officers asked him to sign papers requesting travel documents to Vietnam. He contacted an immigration lawyer soon afterwards, and he and five other family members each chipped in $500 to pool together the $3,000 deposit for the attorney's retainer. The legal process is likely to be long, and check-ins with immigration authorities every three months have him on edge. His family, including his wife, Diane, and children, Ali and Sophia, live in a never-ending state of worry about the future.
"We were planning to buy a house," Sulayman says. Now, all that is on hold.
Washington state holds the third largest population of Vietnamese descent in the country: 70,000 people. At an anti-deportation rally in Seattle in January, Kristopher Larsen, one of the event's organizers, said more than 1,000 Vietnamese refugees in the state may be directly affected by the possibility of deportation.
Sulayman is Cham, an ethnic minority of Vietnam that historically has been, and continues to be, the target of human rights abuses in the country. Diane is Montagnard, an ethnic minority from the Central Highlands of Vietnam that also has been heavily persecuted for its active role against the communist government during the war.
Human rights lawyer Morton Sklar says Sulayman's status as an ethnic minority puts him at great risk of discrimination, persecution, incarceration and even torture were he to return to Vietnam. Recent Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch reports indicate the government is cracking down heavily on dissidents. Sklar says these crackdowns and repressive policies hit the indigenous communities particularly hard because they're regarded as a potential threat.
"You're not allowed to speak out against the communist state," he says, adding that people who are "ethnically tied to a community that could be seen as expressing views different from what the government believes are considered traitors."
Sulayman's attorney, Rohany Karya, says his status as an ethnic minority, paired with the recent reports of human rights abuses in the country, are enough to petition for asylum. Sulayman must argue that the situation in Vietnam is hostile enough that he would face persecution or torture upon return. He will also seek a petition to readjust his lawful permanent resident status, based on his marriage to a U.S. citizen and that he has two U.S. citizen children and was a lawful permanent resident before the removal order.
The process is long and complicated. With the motion to reopen his immigration case still pending, Sulayman and Karya are nervous. But Karya hopes it's enough to hold off immigration authorities from taking further action for the time being.
"I'm just afraid that they'll use that old 2001 order [of deportation] and execute on it because they're not really taking an interest in abiding by that Memorandum of Understanding," she says.
For the moment, there is nothing Sulayman and his family can do but wait out the legal process. All plans are on hold; fingers are crossed each time he heads into a check-in with immigration. It's a constant state of anxiety the family has been suffering through for more than a year, but the passage of time doesn't make it any easier.
“I don’t sleep," Sulayman repeats. "Every day I pray, five times a day, and just ask God to help me.”