National Public Radio recently reported on the Trump Administration's efforts to deport Vietnamese refugees with criminal convictions. Currently, Vietnam only accepts deportees who entered the United States after 1995, but the Trump Administration wants to convince Vietnam to accept all of its nationals with removal orders, regardless of when they came to the U.S. If Vietnam agrees, the change could affect more than 7,000 refugees and immigrants, some of whom have been living in the United States for over 40 years. Not surprisingly, negotiations over this issue have stoked severe anxiety in segments of the Vietnamese-American community.

The NPR piece focuses on an Amerasian man named Vu, who was ordered deported due to his 2001 convictions for larceny and assault. The convictions have since been vacated, but the deportation order apparently remains. Amerasians are children of American soldiers and Vietnamese women. They face severe persecution and discrimination in Vietnam, and Vu still fears return to his native land. If Vietnam ultimately agrees to the Trump Administration's proposal, Vu could be returned to his birth country. "I think about it often and I don't want to be deported," Vu says, "I wouldn't be able to see my children. I would lose everything. I would miss most being around my kids."

Legally, people like Mr. Vu, who have a removal order, can be deported (assuming their country will accept them, and assuming they cannot come up with a new defense against deportation). But what about morally? When--if ever--is it morally acceptable to deport criminals?

For me at least, this is a difficult question to answer. As a starting point, I must note that it is not easy to apply morality to any aspect of the immigration system. There certainly is a moral component written into the Immigration and Nationality Act ("INA"). For example, to receive asylum and many other immigration benefits, an applicant must show (among other things) that he deserves relief as a matter of discretion. Good people deserve a favorable exercise of discretion; bad people do not. The problem is that, how we define "good" and "bad" bears only a passing relationship to morality, as we might normally imagine it, and so referencing the "moral component" of the INA only gets us so far.

Another problem exists with regard to how the INA delineates gradation of criminal conduct. You would think that the worse your conduct, the more likely you are to be deported, but that ain't necessarily so. Crimes that might seem more worthy of deportation are sometimes less likely to result in immigration consequences. Put another way, under U.S. immigration law, you might be better off killing your mother than possessing cocaine.

The point is, it is very difficult to understand how morality applies to aliens with criminal convictions, at least when speaking in the abstract. It is easier--at least in my opinion--to approach the problem by looking at a specific case, and working from there. So let's look at the example of Mr. Vu from the NPR piece.

First off, Mr. Vu's case is quite sympathetic. His crimes occurred a long time ago, the convictions were vacated, he has U.S.-citizen children, and if deported, he faces persecution. Also, Mr. Vu might argue that his prior crimes were a consequence of his difficult upbringing (and few people have had a more difficult time than Amerasians during the post-war era in Vietnam). In addition, Mr. Vu has been in the United States for a long time, and so perhaps America is more "responsible" than Vietnam for setting him on a criminal path. Finally, as an Amerasian, Mr. Vu would not even exist if the U.S. hadn't been present in Vietnam, and so this might also constitute a reason that we--and not Vietnam--are responsible for him.

On the other hand, Mr. Vu committed some serious crimes (larceny and assault), which harmed other people. He would likely have been deported in 2001 (per an Immigration Judge's order), but was able to remain here only because Vietnam was not accepting its nationals for repatriation at that time. Further, as a sovereign nation, we have a right to determine who gets to stay in our country, and Mr. Vu violated that covenant. Worse, Mr. Vu likely came to the U.S. through a program to assist Amerasians. If so, we brought him to our country, only to have him turn around and slap us in the face by committing crimes. Finally, if we give Mr. Vu a pass, won't that send a signal to other aliens that they can come to our country, commit crimes, and avoid the immigration consequences?

As I see it, there are legitimate reasons to deport Mr. Vu, and legitimate reasons to allow him to stay. Of course, making a moral determination in his case--or any case--hinges on how we balance the competing interests. The all-or-nothing nature of our immigration system compounds the challenge of reaching a fair conclusion: Either Mr. Vu gets deported, or he gets to stay. There is no middle ground.

Though I know where I stand on the case, I am not so sure that there is a correct answer here. Maybe it depends on one's individual moral code. For what it's worth, if we could somehow rate criminal-immigration cases, I think Mr. Vu would land on the more sympathetic side of the continuum. So if you believe Mr. Vu should be deported, there are probably few criminal-aliens who you believe deserve to remain in the U.S.

So is it morally right to deport Mr. Vu? Or any person with a criminal conviction?

For me, the answer to these questions is tied to the immigration system in general. I have seen far too many examples where non-citizens and their families are severely harmed for seemingly arbitrary reasons. If we had a more fair, more just, and more rational immigration system, I would have less of a problem with deporting criminals. But given the system that we are stuck with, it is difficult for me to morally justify most deportations. That is doubly true in a case like Mr. Vu's, where his prior bad behavior has apparently been long overshadowed by his current equities. To deport Mr. Vu and break up his family seems cruel and pointless. But sadly, that is often exactly what we get from our current immigration system.

I hope that the Trump Administration will abandon its plan to remove Vietnamese refugees, especially Amerasians. But if it persists, and if Vietnam agrees, I hope that Mr. Vu--and other like him--will fight to remain here. He has been here for decades, his family is here, and this is his home. Despite his criminal acts, I believe he belongs here. To send him away would be immoral.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: