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Visa rules widen the rift between Vietnam and U.S. families

Aging refugees in this country often cannot spend time with relatives they left behind.

April 21, 2009|My-Thuan Tran

Luong Vu asks his daughter the same question each time she visits his Westminster hospital room: "When are my sons coming?"

Kimberly Vu sighs, as usual. "We are still waiting," she says to the 85-year-old family patriarch, who is fast losing his battle with prostate cancer.

But his sons aren't coming. Cuong and Vuong Vu live an ocean away in a suburb of Ho Chi Minh City, and their requests for visas to the United States for a final reunion have been denied over and over again.

The U.S. Consulate says the brothers have failed to prove they will return to Vietnam after the visit. The brothers' argument that they have family, businesses and homes in Vietnam has not swayed immigration officials.

The plight is not a new one for families split between two countries, but increasingly it is becoming an issue among Vietnamese as the refugees who fled to the United States at the end of the Vietnam War grow old.

Many of those who left their homeland in the 1970s and '80s have been separated for decades from siblings, parents and children still in Vietnam. In recent years, as Vietnam's economy boomed, relatives suddenly had the financial means to travel to the U.S for reunions or final gatherings. But many families, like the Vus, find themselves entangled in a long and agonizing visa process.

Luong Vu's eight children are scattered from Orange County to Bien Hoa, Vietnam. The family was pulled apart in 1982 when Kimberly and two younger brothers fled the Communist government by boat. Nine years later, their parents followed under a government program.

But Cuong and Vuong had families in Vietnam and did not want to move to the U.S. It was a decade before the parents became U.S. citizens and were able to travel to their homeland to visit their children and grandchildren there. Luong Vu's wife died in 2005.

Now in Bien Hoa, a suburb with new factories and warehouses, Cuong, 45, and Vuong, 52, live on the same street and run their furniture businesses in front of their houses. Each is married; each has three children. "They aren't rich, but they have comfortable lives in Vietnam," Kimberly said.

When his father's health began to fail, Cuong made plans to get a non-immigrant visa. He interviewed three times with U.S. Consulate officials, his sister said, and each time he was asked only a few questions. Some seemed off point: "Do you have a car?" His visa requests were denied each time.

Vuong, the older brother, had applied to immigrate to the U.S. in 2000, a request that has further complicated his effort to get a visa, Kimberly said. Family members say that Vuong wanted to move to the U.S. so his daughter could get a good education but that he has since changed his mind.

Obtaining a temporary visa can be tough, with much depending on individual circumstances and the country where would-be visitors live. Foreigners must show they have strong ties to their homelands -- family relationships, employment and possessions -- to prove they will return when their visas expire, according to the U.S. State Department.

Laura Tischler, a department spokesperson, said many visa applicants mistakenly believe that having a heart-wrenching story is enough to get a visa. Looming deaths or momentous occasions, including weddings and graduations, are irrelevant, she said.

The government has legitimate concerns, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors tighter controls on immigration. More than a quarter of the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants in this country are those who come on temporary or work visas, but do not return home, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) tried to intervene on behalf of the Vu brothers, but Charles E. Bennett, the consular section chief for the U.S. consulate general in Ho Chi Minh City, said the brothers did not show enough proof they would return to Vietnam.

Bennett, in a letter to Feinstein, said that immigration often separates family members and acknowledged the situation was "particularly true for the Vietnamese, as many of their relatives left Vietnam and entered the United States as refugees."

The two countries reestablished diplomatic ties in 1995 but didn't sign a bilateral trade agreement until 2001. Since then, business and tourist visas have increased steadily. Last year, 46,000 temporary visas -- for about two-thirds of those who applied -- were granted to Vietnamese nationals, according to the State Department's bureau of consular affairs.

A. Mina Tran, a Santa-Ana based immigration attorney, said cases like the Vus' surface frequently in Orange County, home to 150,000 Vietnamese, the largest population outside Vietnam. Cases are on the rise, she said.

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