Asian-American WWI Veterans Faced Difficult Path to Naturalization

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Asian-American veterans of WWI faced great difficult in both attaining and retaining U.S. citizenship via naturalization for many years after the war ended in 1918.  Even as U.S. citizens, many Japanese-American vets were interned during WWII.

Congress passed the first law regulating naturalization in 1790 (1 Stat. 103). In general, naturalization was a two-step process that took a minimum of 5 years. After residing in the United States for 2 years, an alien could file a “declaration of intent”  to become a citizen. After 3 additional years, the alien could “petition for naturalization.” After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship was issued to the alien. An alien could be naturalized by any court of record.

There were two notable exceptions to the “two-step, 5-year” general rule.  First,  “derivative” citizenship was granted to wives and minor children of naturalized men.  Second,  special consideration was given to veterans. An 1862 law allowed honorably discharged Army veterans of any war to petition for naturalization–without previously having filed a declaration of intent–after only 1 year of residence in the United States.  Under the Act of May 9, 1918,  aliens serving in the U.S. armed forces during “the present war” were allowed to file a petition for naturalization without making a declaration of intent or proving 5 years’ residence.  Over 192,000 aliens were naturalized between May 9, 1918, and June 30, 1919.

The Act explicitly made clear that Filipinos who had served in the military were eligible for citizenship.  However, its continued use of the term “any alien” was ambiguous as to the eligibility of other Asian groups for military naturalization. When Congressman Moore of Pennsylvania asked whether the term “may not apply to Japanese or Chinese who may be engaged somewhere in the Navy or the Army?”‘, the Chairman of the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, John Burnett, replied that the Act made other “Asiatics” ineligible to naturalize.  Even the Bureau of Naturalization adopted the position that other Asians did not qualify under the Act.  In contrast, Judge Horace W. Vaughan, of the U.S. District Court of Hawaii, interpreted the law to include all Asian immigrants serving in the military and began issuing naturalization orders, bypassing the Bureau of Naturalization.

Being able to claim naturalization was critical to many Asian-American veterans, who otherwise would have to leave the United States. Ko Fuk, a Chinese-American citizen who served on a U.S. Navy battleship, used his WWI naturalization certificate as proof of right to remain in the U.S. in 1922.

With all three branches of the government issuing conflicting interpretations of the Act, the case of Hidemitsu Toyota, who was naturalized at Federal Court in Boston in May 26, 1921, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court.  While Toyota’s case was still waiting to be heard,  the Supreme Court ruled in 1923 against Bhagat Singh Thind, also a WWI veteran, retroactively denying all Indian-Americans born abroad citizenship for not being a white person “in accordance with the understanding of the common man.”  Indian-Americans were considered a separate category from “Asiatics” or “Orientals”.  Unfortunately, on May 25, 1925, the Supreme Court ruled that non-Filipino Asians were not included in the Act of May 9, 1918 and Toyota’s Certificate of Naturalization was cancelled.

In 1933, Japanese WWI veteran, Tokie Slocum, began his campaign to allow Asian-American veterans the ability to naturalize.  Slocum was naturalized in 1921 and believed that his naturalization was cancelled by the Toyota Supreme Court Order.  He began writing literally everyone he could think of, including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, members of Congress, state legislators, local politicians, and attorney generals.  Slocum testified in front of Congress and became the driving force behind the Act of June 24, 1935.  This new Act allowed (1) Asian veterans of WWI to naturalize, (2) allowed Asians naturalized during the war to have their certificates validated, and (3) allowed new certificates issued to those who lost them.

As a result, at least 700 Asian-American soldiers/veterans naturalized during and after WWI.  Bhagat Singh Thind, who previously lost his Supreme Court case, was able to naturalize under the Act of June 24, 1935.  Since Thind was now an attorney, having citizenship allowed him to practice in his state.  But, many WWI vets, including Tokie Slocum, were interned during WWII.  Racial bars on naturalization did not end until 1952.

8,600 Vietnamese Immigrants in the U.S. Subject To Imminent Deportation

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Very little media attention is being paid to the plight of approximately 8,600 Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S., who are subject to final orders of deportation.  Many of these immigrants are refugees who fled to the U.S. after the Vietnam War ended in 1975 and became green card holders.  However, due to changes in the law during the Clinton administration and aggressive enforcement by President Trump, these immigrants may find themselves either deported to Vietnam or stuck in indefinite detention in the U.S.

7,821 have these Vietnamese immigrants have criminal convictions, many of these convictions are for misdemeanor petty theft or minor drug offenses.  In 1996, President Clinton signed a law that made green card holders “automatically deportable if convicted of what is termed an ‘aggravated felony’ under immigration law.” The 1996 law also made these crimes apply retroactively.  In the past, these convictions would not have resulted in deportation.  But, under President Trump, this decades-old law is now being aggressively enforced.

Under U.S. immigration law, an “aggravated felony” requires the crime to be neither “aggravated” nor a “felony” in any jurisdiction.  Rather, this is an all-encompassing term that Congress has defined to include many non-violent misdemeanors such as filing a false tax return or missing a court date.  Unfortunately, not only is an immigrant with an aggravated felony automatically deportable, there is not even a hearing for a judge to hear potentially mitigating circumstances such as “having fled as a kid on a boat from a homeland devastated by the U.S. military and having grown up in poverty in a strange country.”

In 2008, the U.S. and Vietnam agreed not to deport Vietnamese immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. prior to July 12, 1995.  However, President Trump’s strong desire to change that agreement has been met with fierce political opposition within the State Department.  Last year, Ted Osius, the U.S. envoy to Vietnam resigned in protest after the Trump administration pressured him to ask Vietnam to accept these 8,000+ potential deportees.  Moreover, many of these immigrants were loyal to South Vietnam (which lost the Vietnam War and no longer exists), and opposed North Vietnam, which became the present-day communist regime of Vietnam.  Mr. Osius bitterly surmised, “I feared many would become human rights cases, and our government would be culpable.”

Most damaging, while the U.S. and Vietnam are still deciding whether to accept the Vietnamese deportees, increasing numbers of Vietnamese immigrants are being detained in U.S. government facilities.  Some, like Hoang Trinh, have been detained indefinitely by Immigration and Customs Enforcement for at least 7 months, due to a previous drug charge in 2015.  Trinh arrived in the U.S. with his family when “he was 4 years old, fleeing postwar communist Vietnam in 1980. Trinh became a legal U.S. resident, married and raised two American children in California’s Orange County.”

Now, stripped of his green card, Trinh faces imminent deportation to a country he barely remembers.  If deported to Vietnam, Trinh’s only hope of returning to the United States is to obtain the unlikely consent of the U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions.

Is There Really a Caravan of Migrants Coming to the U.S. Border?

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This past weekend, President Donald Trump tweeted that a “caravan” of immigrants was approaching the U.S.-Mexico border, intent on committing crimes and selling drugs.  President Trump also threatened to scuttle the NAFTA treaty with Mexico if it did not secure its border, and cut off foreign aid to Honduras for not doing the same.  So, is there really a caravan of migrants on the verge of invading the United States, bent on sowing mayhem?

The simple answer is no.  Although there is a “caravan” of sorts, it is a yearly event by an organization known as “Pueblo Sin Fronteras,” or People Without Borders, which draws attention to the perilous journey that (mostly) Central American immigrants must endure in order to flee the unstable and violent environments in their native countries.  The caravan typically ends in Mexico City in southern Mexico, about 600 miles from the U.S border in Brownsville, TX.

Many of the migrants are trying to stay in Mexico.  Mayra Zepeda, 38, of Honduras, is trying to obtain a humanitarian Mexican residency visa, a precursor to applying for asylum in Mexico. If successful, Marya and her husband hope to find better paying jobs and, “…aren’t planning to try to cross into the U.S.  The couple left Honduras in December after incumbent President Juan Orlando Hernandez was declared the winner of a contested election. The factory where she made T-shirts for export closed due to the weeks of instability that followed the election.”

Some of the migrants will continue on their own to the border.  They will attempt to make qualifying claims for asylum, due to fears of political persecution and deadly violence back home. One of these migrants is Maria Elena Colindres Ortega, 43, a Honduran Congresswoman until this past January, who, “joined the caravan to eventually apply for political asylum in the United States. More than 20 people were killed in post-election protests and Honduras has long been dangerous for activists.”

This is a far cry from the caravan’s imminent commission of crime and drug-related activities as portrayed by the President’s tweets this past weekend.  And, in light of the false notion that this caravan is a forewarning of future increased border crossings, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol recently reported that border crossing apprehensions have decreased by 26%, “In Fiscal Year (FY) 2017, USBP apprehended 303,916 individuals along our Southwest Border, compared to 408,870 in FY16.”

For more information visit Banerjee and Associates