On Monday, H. and his family learned their move from Bangkok to the United States as refugees from political persecution in Vietnam would be delayed because of President Donald Trump’s sweeping executive order on immigration, signed January 27.
The order halted the entry of all refugees for 120 days for a review of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, barred all Syrian refugees indefinitely, and set a 90-day entry ban on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The order also cut the number of refugees that the U.S. can accept in fiscal year 2017. President Barack Obama had set the level at 110,000 before he left office. Trump set the level at no more than 50,000 refugees.
According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, refugees receive “the highest degree of security screening and background checks for any category of traveler to the United States.” The process can take years.
Trump’s order, while highly unpopular overseas, is supported by roughly one-half of all Americans, according to polls, and is consistent with repeated promises he made during his election campaign. Homeland Security chief John Kelly maintained at a news conference this week that the ban is not aimed specifically at Muslims, adding that his agency’s mission “is to safeguard the American people, our homeland, our values.”
The final confirmation of the delay of the H. family’s transfer for resettlement came via the International Organization for Migration (IOM) on the Monday following Trump’s action. Family members had already surrendered the lease on their apartment, taken their children out of school and quit their jobs as they readied to leave Thailand.
“My wife and I were devastated by the news,” H. said, asking VOA to identify him only by the first letter of his given name for safety reasons. “My wife is almost six months into her pregnancy. She took it really hard and almost fainted.”
When asked about the H. family, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said in an email to VOA that the embassy “was not able to comment on specific cases.”
She added that the Refugee Admission Program would resume after a period of 120 days “for nationals of countries for which the Secretaries of State and Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence determine that there are adequate procedures to ensure the security and welfare of the United States.”
The Trump administration on Tuesday said nearly 900 refugees would be allowed into the U.S. this week despite the ban, saying they already were traveling, and that stopping them would cause “undue hardship.”
H., once a Buddhist monk, is from the Khmer Krom ethnic group indigenous to Vietnam’s Soc Trang province. In 2007, he participated in protests demanding religious freedom. Jailed for seven days, he said he was forced to return to secular life. In 2009, he fled to Cambodia, and then because “Vietnamese authorities were hunting for me,” he fled to Thailand and applied to become a refugee.
With help from lawyers from Boat People SOS (BPSOS), a Virginia-based organization that resettles former political prisoners of Vietnam, H. and his family obtained refugee status from the UNHCR in 2014.
When contacted by IOM, the H. family was preparing to surrender to Thai authorities to enter the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) prior to a February 8 departure for Los Angeles.
People seeking refugee status in Thailand are often in violation of that nation’s immigration laws. Some have overstayed their visas. Others have entered Thailand illegally. These offenses mean the refugees must be held in the IDC before leaving Thailand.
The H. family had anticipated paying a fine equivalent to $190 for violating Thailand’s immigration laws and being held at the IDC for about a week. Now the family is subsisting on that money.
Jennifer Bose, reporting officer for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Thailand, said the U.N. would be providing assistance to those affected families as a matter of the agency’s policy.
The UNHCR does not comment on individual cases, but Bose says there are “a couple of hundred” people that were preparing to depart Thailand as part of the resettlement program within the coming weeks. Their journeys are on hold.
The UNHCR is waiting to see “what will happen after the 120 days,” Bose said. “Because we don’t know more than you, we have been talking with authorities and with the U.S. Embassy in trying to just understand the situation. But … at the moment we don’t know.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said, “This blunderbuss type of approach to ban all refugee resettlement for 120 days is really putting people in a very difficult situation,” adding that Trump’s order is “causing a great deal of consternation, apprehension for no good reason, to be honest.”
H. said he hopes Trump will rethink his order, but he admits uncertainty overshadows his family’s future.
“My wife will probably have given birth after 120 days,” he said. “I’m not so sure if we’ll be allowed to resettle in the U.S. then.”
VOA reporter Ron Corben contributed to this report from Bangkok.