Hundreds of Southeast Asian refugees in the Bay Area whose immigration status has been in limbo for at least a decade may now apply to become permanent residents under a new immigration program.
Scores of Vietnamese residents in recent weeks have flocked to local post offices in San Jose to be among the first to mail their applications to the Immigration and Naturalization Service for one of 5,000 green cards that the government will issue in the next three years.
These refugees fled from war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos beginning in 1988. But unlike other refugees, they were not required to wait in refugee camps abroad until being allowed into the United States. Rather, they were granted temporary or “parolee” status and, for more than a decade, have lived in the United States without passports or the ability to travel outside the country without prior permission from the INS.
Congress decided two years ago to end their limbo status, but it took another year to write INS regulations. Last month, the INS began receiving the first applications, paving the way for many of the refugees to eventually become U.S. citizens.
“This is good news,” said Loc Vu, director of the Immigrant Resettlement and Cultural Center in San Jose, a 22-year-old agency that has helped resettle tens of thousands of refugees in the Bay Area.
No one knows how many of the 5,000 green cards will go to Bay Area residents, but Vu and others believe that residents of San Jose, home to the largest concentration of Vietnamese in the country, will receive many of them.
“I’m very, very happy I can finally get a green card,” said Lang Huynh, 40, a part-time cook who lives in San Jose. The mother of a 15-year-old American daughter said she plans to apply for citizenship after getting her green card.
Huynh came to the United States in 1993 from the Khanh Hoa province north of the former Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City — along with her mother, father and younger sister — to join Huynh’s brother, who escaped Saigon in 1975. They were allowed into the country under the Orderly Departure Program, which gave relatives of Vietnamese refugees the opportunity to reunite with family in the United States.
But because Huynh was over 18 — she was 30 at the time — she did not qualify for refugee status as did her sister and parents. Her family was able to apply for green cards years ago. Huynh, however, had to settle for a legal work permit, which she has had to renew every year with the INS.
If Huynh receives a green card under the new government program, she will also be eligible for a permanent work permit that she would not have to renew every year, said Danielle Sheahan, an INS spokeswoman in Washington, D.C.
The program also allows the new permanent residents to apply for naturalization almost immediately after they receive their green card, Vu said. Normally, an immigrant who gets a green card has to wait five years to apply for U.S. citizenship.
Many Cambodians who have been in a similar limbo status also stand to benefit from the program, said Perom Uch, vice president of the Cambodian American Resource Agency, a Santa Clara-based non-profit cultural and educational group. There are an estimated 10,000 Cambodians living in the Bay Area, Uch said.
But Loan Dao, a Cambodian community activist, said the 5,000 green cards that will be issued won’t be enough. It is estimated that as many as 20,000 refugees like Huynh nationwide could qualify under the new program. Congress has said it will consider issuing more green cards if the 5,000 limit is reached.
“Even though it alleviates some of the precarious situation that people are in, it still leaves other people in limbo,” Dao said.