Back to the Future

The past is catching up with the Vietnamese son of a black American soldier

It's not that the U.S. government has targeted Dung Chau as a particularly bad actor: This nation simply has become much tougher on immigrants in recent years, immigrants who are here both legally and illegally.

The September 2001 terrorism at the World Trade Center fixed an unprecedented spotlight on America's immigration policies, and increased government vigilance over who's coming in and who's already here. But even before 9/11, a landmark 1996 law allowed INS to deport aliens for a broad range of criminal offenses, including petty theft and driving with a suspended license.

Chau got caught stealing a car in 1996. That was the year INS began deportation proceedings against him.

Dung Chau's mother, Mai, donned the uniform of his unidentified U.S. father in 1971.
Dung Chau's mother, Mai, donned the uniform of his unidentified U.S. father in 1971.
Phoenix immigration attorney Nancy-Jo Merritt: "Chau is ours, just like all the Amerasians are ours."
Jackie Mercandetti
Phoenix immigration attorney Nancy-Jo Merritt: "Chau is ours, just like all the Amerasians are ours."

Earlier this year, a Ninth Circuit panel ordered U.S. District Judge Stephen McNamee in Phoenix to consider the key issues in Chau's protracted case, then report his findings to them.

For Chau to prevail, the judge will have to find that he "derived" American citizenship as the son of the unknown black U.S. serviceman. If so, Chau would be non-deportable to Vietnam, even if the two nations do sign a pact someday that would allow it.

Says Chau's attorney, Nancy-Jo Merritt, "Chau is ours, just like all the Amerasians are ours. We have no business sending him back to Vietnam. People here illegally and who commit crimes should be sent back, with the exception of political refugees. But he's not here illegally."

Dung Chau's immigration case can be boiled down to this: He entered the U.S. with his mother and half-brother under a 1982 law that offered speedy immigration to Amerasians born of American fathers and Asian mothers. (The law also allowed Chau's mother and half-brother to join him here. Neither has been in trouble with the law, but they aren't American citizens and it's uncertain what might happen to them if Dung eventually loses his case.)

Merritt claims Chau is non-deportable, because he came in under the 1982 law, not as a "refugee" or illegal alien. Government lawyers say it doesn't matter how Chau entered this country, because he didn't prove his "legitimacy" as a potential U.S. citizen by identifying his father before his 21st birthday.

If it sounds complicated, it is. But the best evidence that Dung Chau's father was an African-American serviceman is stunningly simple -- Chau himself. No one can reasonably deny that he looks more African-American than Vietnamese. And Chau's mother, Mai, has been saying for years that the boy's father was a black serviceman named Nick whom she met in early 1971 at a Danang bar that catered to U.S. military.

It's far-fetched to think that a black man in a GI bar during the Vietnam War wasn't in the U.S. military. But the government continues to insist that Chau needs more than supposition and a heart-rending story to prove he has legal claim to be an American citizen.

In early November 1971, President Richard Nixon announced that U.S. troops would be moving into a "defensive" posture in Vietnam. That month, 178 American soldiers would be killed in combat, the lowest number since the conflict escalated in earnest in January 1965.

Also that November, an illiterate 17-year-old girl named Mai Chau was about to give birth to her first child. Mai had discovered she was pregnant that spring, and she awaited the baby's birth in a two-story apartment teeming with her extended family in what then was Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City).

Twenty-seven years later, at a deportation hearing for her son at the Arizona State Prison at Perryville in 1998, Mai Chau testified about the circumstances that led to that pregnancy. "I met Dung's father in a bar," she told a judge through an interpreter. "After one month, then I was pregnant, and I have never seen [him] after that. He was in the U.S. forces in Vietnam. And when he get a leave, he visited me at the bar and he was dressed in the uniform of paratroopers. His name was, I think it was Nick."

Mai Chau claimed she'd only met Nick once or twice, but that her oldest son resembled him: "He was tall, dark and he had the mark on the right cheek, a dimple, a small dimple, like a coin."

As the end of the war approached in early 1975, rumors flew around Vietnam that the Communists would drench the Amerasian children with gasoline and set them afire after the U.S. left. What actually did happen to kids such as Chau and tens of thousands of other Amerasian children was documented by Robert McKelvey in his book The Dust of Life: American Children Abandoned in Vietnam.

"To be a Vietnamese Amerasian in postwar Vietnam," McKelvey wrote, "was to be a child growing up in the hands of your father's enemies. The hatred that the enemy had felt, and continued to feel, for your father and his country was directed against you, even though you were innocent of any wrongdoing."

Alex Feminia, a veteran Phoenix police detective and an expert on Asian gangs, says he's spoken to many Amerasian kids about their lives here and in Vietnam. "Though this has been an unsaid thing in the Vietnamese community," he says, "there's always been a tendency to look down on these so-called half-breeds.' Talk about racism -- it's crazy."

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