Native Laotians Guy and Genevieve Vang came to the United States in 1989 to reunite with his family and start a new life. In the 13 years since, the Vangs have been model noncitizens. They’ve legally worked, followed every immigration rule, paid their taxes, upheld the law, raised a family, purchased a home and opened a restaurant in Dearborn.
And in May, the Vangs are due to be deported.
The children will have to learn a new language. The home the Vangs saved for will be gone. Their business, where Guy and Genevieve work 80 hours a week, will go on the block. Guy will likely never see his aging parents again.
On an evening in September, Genevieve stands at the dining table in the Vangs’ brick ranch home near 12 Mile and Schoenherr in Warren. A slight woman of 37, she trembles and tears fill her eyes as she speaks in accented English about the end of her family’s life in America.
“It’s my fault. My children, I don’t want them to be like me. I lost my best time in life,” she sobs. “I promise that I’m going to kill myself before I leave this country. Please, someone kill me. I will kill myself. Just so my kids can have this life. I don’t care about myself. I don’t care about money.
“We worked so hard. Please just don’t do this to my kids.”
She is too shaken to continue.
But it’s not her fault.
The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service held a hearing on the Vangs’ appeal for political asylum in 1990. It issued them Social Security numbers so they could work until a full hearing could be held.
And then the INS lost the paperwork.
Escape from Laos
Guy Vang says his father and grandfather worked for the CIA in Laos during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1975, after the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia, the communist Pathet Lao government took over in Laos and began to purge those loyal to the deposed leader, Gen. Vang Pao.
The Vang family was in trouble. At his parents’ urging, Guy fled.
“My parents and I followed the leader, Gen. Vang Pao,” Guy says. “Those who worked for him had to follow him. I was 14 years old. My parents had 11 children and they could not make it. So I climbed the fence myself and jumped in the plane.”
The plane was part of an airlift taking government and military officials and their families to Thailand, where Guy spent the next three years in a refugee camp.
Genevieve, who like Guy is a member of the Laotian Hmong ethnic minority, followed a similar, if less-harrowing route, arriving in another Thai camp at age 11. She was luckier. As the weeks went by, members of her family straggled in.
“My brother, my sister, my mother and my father, they came to the refugee camps.” Genevieve says. “They had to swim across the Mekong [River]. Day by day I was just hoping.”
Guy was hoping too.
“You heard somebody coming in and you ask, ‘Did you see my parents?’ Some people heard their family drowned and they cried. Someone would come in and they said, ‘We heard 30 or 40 people drowned in the Mekong,’” Guy says.
“My brothers and sisters were age 12 to 2. I couldn’t believe my parents could get them across the river swimming like a duck. I never thought I would see them again. I cried.”
Life in the camp was hard.
“Too many people and not enough food,” Guy says without elaboration.
“I very much wanted to come to the U.S. but they wouldn’t take me because of my age and because I had no proof my father worked for the CIA. I had no papers,” Guy says. “My aunt came to the camp before me and she went to France.”
When United Nations relief workers interviewed Vang, he told them about his aunt’s move to France. A French church group arranged for him to join her.
Guy resettled in a small town about 35 miles from Paris in 1978. The village was crowded with refugees, but conditions were better and a social life emerged. It was there in 1980 that Guy met Genevieve, who had been sponsored to relocate to the same town. Guy is shy about the details of their courtship.
“Oh, we were just teenagers,” he says wistfully. “And it was France ...”
They were married in 1983. The next year, Genevieve gave birth to their first daughter, Caroline. Four years later, daughter Melanie was born. Guy and Genevieve became French citizens. And shortly thereafter, Guy’s aunt received a letter with some stunning news: Guy’s entire family had escaped, surviving the jungle and the Pathet Lao to cross into Thailand. There, with the papers to prove that he had worked for the CIA, Guy’s father was able to obtain transport for himself and his family to the United States.
Guy was incredulous.
“I was so happy. I sat down and cried.”
He was also determined to rejoin his family. He went to the U.S. Embassy and applied for a visa.
This is where Guy made a mistake, although not one of his own doing, according to Jason Peltz, a Southfield immigration attorney who represents the Vangs.
“Guy came in and said, ‘I want a visitor visa,’” Peltz says. “And they had this new program. So they said ‘Sign here.’ He had no idea what he was signing because when he came to our office 10 years later, he did not know that it was different from a regular visitor visa. He did not understand that he was giving up any rights.”
The new program was the Visa Waiver Pilot Program, which the United States and its closest allies instituted to reduce paperwork for visitors. It had been in effect in France for less than two weeks when Guy applied. Under the program, visitors give up virtually all rights to appeal their status — rights they retain with a normal visitor visa.
“His plan was to come here and reunite with his family and he really didn’t have a plan beyond that,” Peltz says.
The Vangs first visited Guy’s parents.
“They lived in Washington state on welfare, but I said, ‘I cannot live here; there are no jobs here,’” Guy says.
Peltz says, “Once he got to the United States he learned more about political asylum, he knew his entire family had been granted political asylum, and he decided to apply, which was one thing he could do under the Visa Waiver Pilot Program.”
The Vangs were asking for political asylum from Laos. Today, such a claim would be considered frivolous under the Firm Resettlement Law, which renders claims of asylum irrelevant for aliens who resettle in a third country. But when Guy applied in 1990, no such law existed.
“Because he was a citizen of France, he would probably have been denied asylum,” Peltz says. “But because there was no Firm Resettlement Law then, he would have had a chance. He figured he would try to do it and if he had to go back [to France], he would. Had he gone back to France, he could have applied for a different kind of visa and one of his brothers or sisters or his parents would have eventually become a citizen and sponsored him [to return].”
Says Guy: “My family asked me to apply so I could stay longer in the United States. I went to an interview and they gave me job papers and I started looking for work.”
Move to Motown
He found that work in Detroit, with its large population of Hmong Laotians. He and Genevieve worked in a restaurant, all the while awaiting word from the INS on his asylum hearing. He kept in touch with relatives in Fresno whose address he had given to the INS.
According to Peltz, an applicant usually gets a hearing date within six months.
The Vangs worked hard and saved their money, eventually putting a down payment on a house and, in 1996, scraping together enough to open Bangkok 96, a modest Thai restaurant on Telegraph in Dearborn.
They also had two more children after their arrival in this country, Steven, now 12, and Christine, 6. Born on U.S. soil, they are U.S. citizens.
Vang did not hide from the INS. He regularly went to INS offices to renew his work authorization. The INS continued to grant it.
“He went to attorneys to try to get his case going,” Peltz says. “But nothing ever happened.”
Then, in 2000, the INS seemingly awoke from its slumber, discovered the paperwork and contacted Vang.
“After we got the letter from immigration, I could not sleep,” Guy says. “What am I going to do over there?”
In November 2000, a full 10 years after the normal waiting period had expired, the INS conducted an interview in Chicago. Three weeks after that, the Chicago office decided that the interview was irrelevant.
“The rule is, if you go into this Visa Waiver Program, you’re not even supposed to have an interview,” says Peltz. “So the INS messed up from the beginning.”
The INS instituted removal proceedings against the Vangs in Detroit. They were to be deported.
The legal battle
Peltz felt powerless to do much for Vang. Because of the waiver, Vang lacked the avenues of relief that would have been available to him as an 11-year legal resident.
During a series of hearings in Detroit, the government failed to produce the visa waiver that Guy Vang had signed in August 1989.
Peltz and co-counsel John Boudia asked the government to produce the waiver prior to the first hearing, in February 2001. At that hearing, Peltz and Boudia moved to terminate the proceedings based on the government’s failure to produce the waiver within the time limits set by the court. Immigration Judge Robert Newberry gave the government more time.
“The rules state that the judge, in that case, should treat the motion as unopposed,” Peltz says. “The judge does have the right, if he finds exceptional reason, to grant the other side more time. The INS did not respond to our motion. The judge said the government must have never received it.
“He sets up another hearing and before that hearing comes about, INS admits that they did receive it. The judge asked the INS officer why they didn’t respond and he said ‘I don’t know.’ They did receive it, they acknowledged that they received it and the judge still gave them additional time.”
At the second hearing Newberry again refused to rule on the motion to terminate.
Now convinced that the INS had lost the waiver, Peltz and Boudia pressed Newberry to send the Vangs’ case into regular deportation/removal proceedings. If that were to happen, Peltz was confident that he would prevail.
“In normal proceedings it would be judged on the hardship of the U.S. citizens involved. In his case, the two younger children,” Peltz says.
Newberry advised Peltz that he would consider the motion to terminate in a Nov. 27, 2001, hearing. At that hearing, Newberry set a May 2003 trial date to rule on the asylum case. The INS still failed to produce the waiver.
“How one could contractually waive their rights without a contract is beyond me,” Peltz says. “If you contract out to waive your rights, and they can’t show that you waived your rights, you didn’t waive your rights. That’s our legal position. And I think it’s a pretty sound one. The judge still didn’t really agree with it, but he said he would give the government 30 days to respond.”
On the 30th day, more than a year after they were first ordered to produce the document, INS officials came up with a microfiche copy of the waiver. The news stunned the Vangs and their attorneys.
“At this point we were all pretty crushed, because we thought they had lost it,” Peltz says. “Guy never alleged that he never signed it. He just didn’t remember if he signed it. He didn’t know what he signed.”
In a telephone conversation, Detroit INS attorney Mark Jebson, whom Peltz has most recently dealt with on the Vang case, says he could not recall the case. Jebson referred questions to INS public affairs officer Greg Palmore, who says that INS attorneys would not comment on ongoing cases.
It would be high understatement to say that Peltz is not optimistic about keeping the Vangs in America. He has filed “a laundry list of legal arguments” hoping that something sticks.
These include “estoppel,” asking the judge to stop the government’s actions based on the time elapsed, court error in giving the government so many chances to produce the waiver, and deception or negligence on the part of the government in not producing the waiver in a timely fashion.
“In virtually every court in every kind of law you go into, you have a certain number of days to respond and if you can’t respond, you’d better damn well have a reason. And they had no reason,” Peltz says.
But he expects Newberry to deem the motion frivolous at the hearing in May.
“At this point, all we can do is play losing cards,” Peltz says. “Every legal remedy is pretty much cut off from us. The Vangs are out of options.”
The events leave Peltz angry and frustrated over an INS system which he says lacks any accountability.
“This is definitely a pattern,” Peltz says. “If the government makes a mistake, you have absolutely no recourse in an immigration case. If a private attorney messes up, it comes down against you. If the immigrant himself messes up — if he inadvertently misses his deadline for reapplying for a visa by one day — that’s it. You have to go home. Over and over again we’ve seen it. INS makes big mistakes.”
And in this case, Peltz says, the mistakes mean an end to a way of life for the Vangs. If deported, the Vangs will be unable to return to the United States for at least 10 years.
“Our main focus is that these people came here to be reunited with his family,” Peltz says. “He was more than happy to do things in the legal way. If they had to go home and come back, they would have done so. But he waited 10 years legally in the United States to try and get something done. If the government hadn’t messed up, it would be an entirely different story.
“It’s definitely the fault of the system. You send things out to one place. Then it goes out to Chicago. Then Chicago either approves it or not. Then they send it to Detroit. It goes so many places in so many different hands. And plus they’re overworked. But they’re also failing to recognize their mistakes. They’re not really very good at looking at the facts behind the law.”
According to Peltz, the only real chance the Vangs have is that the INS will consider the fact that deporting them will do more harm than good.
“The only option I can see is prosecutorial leniency, where the prosecutor says, ‘We at the INS are going to drop the allegations.’ Are they going to do it? In 99 out of 100 cases they don’t unless they get pressured to do so.”
It is a warm Tuesday evening and the parking lot at the Bangkok 96 restaurant is nearly full. A bright yellow sign distinguishes the eatery from a host of rivals. Inside the restaurant, faux-Oriental knickknacks dominate. Elephants are everywhere. So are customers.
There are 22 booths and four tables; most are in use. Takeout customers come and go. Most entrées cost less than $10, although you can splurge on pla jien — fried fish topped with shredded pork, shrimp, mushrooms, ginger and green onions for $15.95.
In the kitchen, Guy Vang flings onions, mushrooms and shrimp with the adroitness of a circus juggler. Occasionally he emerges, stopping at this table and that to greet regulars as if they are old friends.
Genevieve Vang bounces around, seating a customer here, wiping a table there, checking for an order in the kitchen. She and Guy arrive here six days a week by 9 a.m. They leave at around midnight. Sometimes Guy goes home for a couple of hours in the afternoon, but usually he uses the lull between lunch and dinner to shop for food for the restaurant. They have done this for seven years.
Genevieve steps outside for a moment into the evening air. She talks about how Bangkok 96 has co-sponsored events with Henry Ford Hospital, about how it has helped promote the works of a neighborhood church, about the people who are employed at the restaurant. She wonders what will happen to them.
It hangs heavily over her that she herself was forced to leave her homeland at a young age and learn a new language and culture. She knows and dreads what is ahead for her children. And so the tears come again.
“It’s for my children. They don’t speak the language, French. They will fall behind in their education and they will never catch up. How could they catch up?” she says.
“We worked so hard here. I don’t know what to do. Everything I do is for my children. Everything. I would do anything for my children. Why did this happen? How could this happen? …”
Check out the rest of Tom Schram's "Expatriot games" series
Laos' forgotten "killing fields"
Genocide is far from over in Southeast Asia.
INS' legacy of dysfunction
If the United States is a country that loves to hate its goverment, then the INS is our current heartthrob.
"I'm going to miss America"
Young woman's future in the U.S. is in doubt due to the INS's failure to process a political asylum application in a timely manner.
Tom Schram is co-chair of the National Writers Union of Southeast Michigan. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org