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home : community : community Saturday, November 25, 2017

9/27/2016 3:14:00 PM Email this articlePrint this article 
America's Stateless People: How Immigration Gaps Create Poverty - Part 2 of 2

By Paul Nyham

Blong Thao visits his father's grave outside of Fresno, CA.
Practical And Possible Solutions

In the current political climate, it is unlikely Congress would include help for Hmong refugees who lost their green cards in a broad immigration reform bill, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a national organization that has offices in Washington, D.C. and Sacramento.

The center is working for a more targeted solution by raising awareness of the problems these and other refugees and immigrants face.

Congress could restore the discretion of immigration judges in cases where people have lost their green cards. Judges lost the ability to consider an individual's circumstances, such as those of the Hmong, when ruling on whether to take away a green card and deportation in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty acts in 1996, said Mari Quenemoen, the center's director of communications.

Recently, though, more than 30 members of Congress co-sponsored a resolution that supports restoring this discretion, but it remains a long shot in the immediate future because of opposition among Republicans and some Democrats, she said.

"Why do they leave these people in limbo, with no green card?" said Quenemoen, referring to Hmong without green cards. "It is sort of a perpetual punishment the rest of their life."

Federal agencies and organizations could take smaller and practical steps that could help pull these Hmong men and women out of limbo, according to advocates.

The federal government, for example, could clarify regulations that govern the work status of refugees from Laos who have removal, or deportation, orders, but nowhere to go, they say.

"How should these people...be living?" Mee Moua, who is president and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice's AAJC and Hmong, said. "I don't think anybody has really answered and answered it with clarity."

Advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations could offer more clinics that help refugees and immigrants navigate the nation's complex immigration laws. Hmong refugees who lost their green cards can apply for year-long work permits, advocates say. But it's a technical process, particularly for people who struggle with English. It's a lot easier to navigate with professional help, according to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice's Asian Law Caucus.

The caucus has held clinics but usually in larger cities, such as San Francisco. They could expand clinics to smaller cities, including those in the Central Valley, but that would require additional funding.

In Blong Thao's case, he could hire an immigration lawyer to explore whether he could get his case reopened and apply for a waiver that would get his green card back, though that is a long shot, according to the Immigrant Rights Program's Prasad.

For now, a more likely and limited solution is that he could apply for a one-year work permit, and receive help with that complicated process at a free clinic, though they are usually held in cities hours from Fresno.

Many of these targeted solutions also would require resources and coordination, and the Fresno Center for New Americans is working to connect with Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Los Angeles and advocacy organizations in the Central Valley. The center is searching for a solution that respects the law and gives members of the community caught in this limbo a clear way to work, support their families and contribute to their communities.

Being stateless can lead people into poverty, and keep them there, because they struggle to secure the right to work, according to a 2011 report for the U.S. State Department.

"We cannot do it alone. We have to partner with many other agencies," said Lue Yang of the Fresno Center for New Americans.

Stuck In Limbo

Thao remains stuck in limbo. Some days he visits his father's grave outside the city to talk with the man who helped the CIA in its "Secret War" 40 years ago, a decision that led his family to flee into the jungle, spend 14 years in refugee camps in Thailand, and eventually move to America. At the cemetery, Thao asks: "Why did you bring us here?"

"I told my dad it is all your fault. You joined the CIA," Thao said. "Now, you take us to the U.S. I can't support my life. I can't support my kids."

He wants something different for his four children. He wants them to have the opportunity to pursue the American dream, a dream integrally tied to the freedom to work.

It is an opportunity he has lost, at least for now.

Paul Nyhan is the senior writer for Equal Voice News. He has worked as a journalist at Bloomberg News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Congressional Quarterly. He has covered social policy for more than 20 years. This is a special report and part of "The Dignity of Living" series.

Blong Thao, whose name was changed because he fears for his safety, is a Hmong refugee from Laos, who is living undocumented in the U.S. His green card was not returned by U.S. immigration agents. All photos by Mike Kane for Equal Voice News.

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