Trump administration raises concern in the Triad Montagnard community
“After reading that, I felt stabbed in the back,” said Liana Adrong, administrative coordinator of the Montagnard Dega Association of Greensboro, whom I interviewed on Dec. 29. “My father did so much to help U.S. Special Forces back in the day, and the president is making it sound like this country doesn’t care about us anymore.”
She was referring to “Trump Moves to Deport Vietnam War Refugees,” a Dec. 12 Atlantic article about the administration’s intention to unilaterally reinterpret a 2008 agreement protecting Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before 1995 from deportation.
Trump first tried to change this policy in 2017, when ICE began rounding up long-term immigrants from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. This received bipartisan criticism and prompted the resignation of Ted Osius, the U.S. Ambassador to Vietnam, who called it a broken promise to those now facing imprisonment or worse in those countries. In November of 2018, the New York Times reported that the administration “has quietly backed away from” deporting these refugees, but this reversal was short-lived.
Three weeks later, The Atlantic quoted James Thrower, a spokesperson for the U.S. embassy in Hanoi, as stating that, while pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants are not subject to the 2008 agreement, it “does not explicitly preclude” their removal.
In their article, Charles Duntz and Krishnadev Calamur wrote that this “reflects an entirely new reading of the agreement,” and that the Trump administration now considers all pre-1995 Vietnamese immigrants as potentially deportable.
Adrong told me that these reports had caused great concern in the Triad’s Southeast Asian community, particularly among her fellow Montagnards. Montagnards are the indigenous people of the Central Highlands of Vietnam.
The French term, used as a common name for linguistically and ethnically different highland tribes, means “Mountain People.” Initially habitants of the coastal lowlands, they were gradually pushed into the highlands by invading Vietnamese and Cambodians from the 9th century onward. In the 1960s, they became known for their fierce opposition to the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi, and their bravery fighting alongside U.S. special forces.
With the North’s 1975 victory over the corrupt U.S.-backed government in Saigon, Montagnards became increasingly subject to persecution, imprisonment, and death in the newly united Vietnam. Many fled to Cambodia, only to face more persecution by that country’s ruling communist party, the Khmer Rouge.
In 1985, the first Montagnard refugees entered the U.S. In 1992, others were evacuated from Eastern Cambodia under threat of annihilation by the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese. With the assistance of Lutheran Family Services and Catholic Social Services, the majority of the approximately 3,000 Montagnard refugees who made it to the U.S. were resettled in Greensboro, Raleigh and Charlotte.
Adrong told me that, although she arrived here after 1995 and her family are all citizens, Trump’s plan affects her friends and neighbors. “Some have been here since 1986 but haven’t been naturalized due to the language barrier. They’re afraid that they won’t pass the tests.”
She became emotional as she described her family’s history. “My father served seven years in a Vietnamese jail, and my mom struggled so much to raise her kids and to keep our family together while my father was imprisoned for helping the U.S. Special Forces.” A Dec. 8 bulletin from the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center stated it was about the 2008 repatriation agreement.
“We don’t know what the meeting entailed,” Bujri said, “but we know the administration wants to change that repatriation agreement, making everyone deportable, not just anyone who came after 1995.” She said her organization has worked to spread awareness and express the concerns of the Montagnard community and the larger Vietnamese-American one.
Ksor said that, in her work with the CNNC, she’s spoken to Montagnards who fought for the U.S. and who are greatly concerned about this administration’s intentions. “One has bullet fragments all through his body, basically from head to toe, and he nearly died just a couple of weeks ago because his liver and pancreas got some bacterial viruses from those old fragments still in his body.”
When the man first came to the U.S., she said, he expected to find support here, but this wasn’t the case. “He wants to get U.S. citizenship, but because of the language barriers, because he can’t drive, because he has no money, there are so many things that prevent that from happening. If he did something wrong – for example, stole food or did something just to survive, that could get him sent back. It doesn’t make sense that he sacrificed so much for his friends and then for this country not to care about him because he did something wrong in the past.”
Bujri elaborated on the dangers facing her community.
“We still have a really terrible relationship with the Vietnamese government because of the American war in Vietnam, although I want to make it clear that is my own take. People don’t realize how much we sacrificed by aligning ourselves with the U.S. It’s so hard to imagine going back there and starting a life that you left when you were 6. You’re not a farm kid anymore. You don’t know what farming is like; you don’t know how to grow the seeds.”
She said the Triad’s Montagnard community doesn’t always comprehend the barriers to remaining in the country they or their parents fought for. “They don’t have an understanding of the law, don’t know what their rights are. So, some just agree to things or sign things that they don’t know will ever hurt them. You have this feeling of, ‘I’m in the U.S. now, I’m good as any other citizen.’ You don’t realize that being a legal permanent resident is not the same as being a citizen. And that’s what we’re all learning and struggling with. Because citizenship is the only way we can protect ourselves. And that’s why we encourage that community and have our citizenship workshops. Because if your Green Card expires, and you get caught in this mess, if you’re caught for drug trafficking, or being in gangs, it just makes it 10 times worse.”
She called many of those now facing deportation “our uncles and husbands and fathers and grandfathers, the men who came in during the ‘80s and ‘90s.”
Bujri explained that many Southeast Asian refugees came to the U.S. during that time of mass incarceration due to the Clinton/Bush War on Drugs. “Refugees are placed in impoverished neighborhoods that are over-policed and lack support.” Because of this environment, as well as the lack of both cultural competency and assistance in adapting to the U.S., she said some refugees ended up in prison, but served their time and moved on with their lives, “Now, their old convictions are haunting them and making them deportable.”
A week after I met with Adrong, Bujri and Ksor, I traveled to the rural outskirts of Asheboro to talk to U.S. Special Forces veterans who’d fought alongside men like Adrong’s father. Highlands Lane, a gated gravel road off Waynick Meadow Road, leads to the compound that the men who built it call the New Central Highlands. One of those men is George Clark, president of Save the Montagnard People, a nonprofit charity founded by Vietnam veterans in 1986.
Clark, a Green Beret who served with the Mobile Strike Force Command (MIKE Force), explained the purpose of this small rural Montagnard community.
“The 101 acres have been 100 percent bought and paid for by special forces guys.” He pointed to a cedar building that he said a Montagnard couple plus another Montagnard man live in. “It’s split in half, so each one’s got their own apartments. There’s also the guest house donated by a special forces guy who left it in his will. We’ve got another whole Montagnard family that lives in it.” He also said there was a traditional Montagnard graveyard here, gardens, a foundry, and soon, a ceramics shop. “The goal here is to give them skills and teach them independence.”
I’d come here to get quotes from American veterans who fought alongside Montagnards in the Vietnam War, but the New Central Highlands deserve an article of their own, and I hope to write it between now and Memorial Day (YES! Weekly covered a Montagnard Christmas there back in 2005, but it’s grown since then).
Clark has strong opinions on the subject of deporting Montagnards back to Vietnam.
“I’ve butted heads with the Feds and the judicial system when they tried that crap.” He described one such occasion, involving what he called “a young kid with a brain disorder” whom he said missed taking his meds one day in Greensboro.
“He got off the bus one block off from where he lived in one of those apartments on Textile and Church that all look the same. Walks into the wrong house, peels down to his skivvies and turns on the T.V. Next thing, he’s in jail, and they’re going to deport him. The Feds had him in Atlanta and were going to ship him back.”
Clark said he asked them why they intended to send the young man back to Vietnam. “I told them he wasn’t born there.”
They asked him what he meant, as the detainee was a Vietnamese immigrant.
“I told them he was born on the floor of a jungle somewhere between Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Last time I checked, they don’t give out birth certificates in the damn jungle. I asked them what country they thought they were going to send him back to. It was a big fight, but we got that stopped.”
Clark saw much bigger fights in Vietnam and almost died in one. A Montagnard he called Charlie saved him. Here’s the story as he told it.
“We were helping the SEALS out when they were getting hammered pretty bad down in the Mekong Delta. The Nha Trang MIKE Force, that emblem on my jacket, we hit everywhere. From ’69 on, we would send one of our Montagnard companies down there, to some hot spot where the NVA [North Vietnamese Army] was shooting up our boats.
“One hot night in the cypress swamp, we were slugging it out, and I got hit in the shoulder. Then an RPG peeled my scalp up. Thought I lost my eye, but it was just full of mud. Then I got hit again. Three or four Montagnards jumped on top of me to keep me from getting shot more. I called the [helicopter] gunships in. Almost everybody was dead. I told those who weren’t to get in the water, but they didn’t, they stayed on top of me while the gunships hosed the area
“Charlie eventually pulls me into the river and some time goes by, and I think he’s dead and probably me, too. I always carried a grenade in my cargo pocket, figuring if I was going to be taken prisoner, I’d just pull the pin and boom! I go to do that, and a hand grabs that cargo pocket. It was Charlie. He told me I wasn’t going to die yet.
“We hid in the sawgrass until the helicopters came and got us. But Charlie, he took those hits for me. He was a legend for doing that. He’d got his nose shot off saving one American before me. They put it back together, made it look nice, and then in ‘75 when everything was going to Hell, a fragment of a shell from a Soviet-made tank takes half his nose off again. He was one of the 800 prisoners the Vietnamese let the Russians experiment on, one of the four out of that 800 that made it here. The rest died.”
Clark said the future looks grim for those Montagnards sent back there by this administration.
“They don’t have a chance unless the people in North Carolina get off their ass and start raising Hell. It has to start with public awareness of who these people are and what they did for us. Nobody’s talking about that. What’s that little newspaper you got up there in Greensboro, the Rhino? I talked to them 15 or 20 times, and they keep promising to write about it but haven’t. How hard is it to keep our word to the people who sacrificed so much for us?”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.
Author’s Note: As the print version of this article was going to press, I learned that the real name of “Charlie,” the Montagnard who saved George Clark’s life in the Mekong Delta, is Y’Diam Hmok and that he is buried in Guilford County. His birthdate is unknown, but he was a veteran of the French Indochina War, where he parachuted into Điện Biên Phủ in 1954 on the eve of the French surrender.
He earned his American nickname of “Charlie Dot” (sometimes given as Charley Dot) from the black shrapnel scar on his forehead. In 2003, he was present with George Clark at the dedication of the MIKE Force monument at Fort Bragg. He died of stomach cancer in June of that year.
While using the word “Montagnard” for the indigenous people of Vietnam’s Central Highlands is a relic of French Colonialism, the alternatives ‘Dega” and “Degar” present their own problems, according to Raleigh Bailey, author of The Montagnards: Their History and Culture. (Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics, 2002). Dr. Bailey wrote the following in response to an email in which I used those words:
“You may know that the Montagnards are several tribes. You are using the term Dega. Some of the community do not identify with that term. The first group chose Dega, a Rhade word meaning something like the first people or chosen people, to identify their community. Others objected, noting that they were not Rhade, but from other tribes, plus the outside community did not know that word. Then another Montagnard group who came as refugees were under the influence of a resistance movement that was trying to organize more people for the resistance movement and used the term DEGAR. I believe that it is supposed to be the initials of dominant tribes. However, those who do not identify with the resistance do not like that term.”