Vietnam’s ‘Dust Children’ in Limbo — U.S. Law Grants Visas to Those With American Features, But Some Are Still Denied

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Any Vietnamese resident who has “American facial features” and was born between 1962 and 1976 is entitled to an American immigrant visa. So why are two young men who look like African-Americans and two others who look more Hispanic than Vietnamese living in a filthy small room in one of this city’s worst slums?

A quarter century after American troops left Vietnam, an unknown number of their offspring are still here. Some of the men have beards and hairy chests, rare among Vietnamese. But a number of them carry rejection letters from the U.S. consulate that state: “It was found that you do not have the physical appearance characteristic of Amerasians.”

Tran Van Hai, one of the dark-skinned men who live in the small room, says his mother told him that his father’s first name is Mark and that he worked at a radar station near an American military base. In spite of his African features, the American consulate has repeatedly rejected his visa application. “I’m not Vietnamese,” he says, “and I will never be happy here.”

The Amerasian Homecoming Act, enacted by Congress in 1987, has enabled 24,000 Amerasians and 67,000 of their family members to immigrate to the U.S. (Officials at the U.S. consulate declined to say how many applicants have been rejected.) Unlike other immigrant categories, the standards were intended to be liberal, and the program isn’t restricted by deadlines or quotas. But some Amerasians appear to be trapped in a Kafkaesque bureaucratic limbo.

An official of the American consulate, who was made available by the consulate on condition he wouldn’t be identified, said the consulate receives about 20 new applications every week and has a backlog of “several hundred applicants” who haven’t been evaluated. The decision-making process begins — and frequently ends — with the most superficial of evaluations: a look at the applicant’s face, the official says. Anyone thought to look like an American is immediately approved, regardless of whether he or she has any supporting evidence.

“Anyone I don’t admit will then be seen right then and there on that same day by two other consular officers,” says the official. “And if either of those two think the applicant’s appearance is credible to establish that they’re Amerasian, they will go directly into the program. So basically, it takes three nos for anyone to be screened out of the program and only one yes” to be accepted. “The rule of thumb is that any benefit of doubt goes to the applicant,” he said.

So why are applicants who appear so unlikely to be the son or daughter of a Vietnamese father being rejected?

The U.S. consul general in Saigon, Emi Lynn Yamauchi, declined to comment for this article. But consulate officials acknowledge that the approval process can’t be conducted with scientific certainty. They also suggest that some of the Amerasians who are still here were rejected because they had previously submitted falsified applications.

Some Amerasians, in fact, have allowed middlemen known as traffickers to facilitate the application process. The traffickers use the Amerasians as a means to extract money from other Vietnamese who hope to immigrate to the U.S. as well by claiming to be relatives. Applicants suspected of claiming false relatives are generally rejected, even if they reapply later on their own.

Amerasians, almost all of them indigent and uneducated, seem vulnerable to such exploitation. Indeed, after the Amerasian Homecoming Act was enacted, they were called “gold children” by the Vietnamese who wanted to move the U.S. and sought to claim blood relationships.

And Amerasians may have little reason to assume that any government process is free of corruption. Many grew up as orphans, abandoned not only by their fathers but also by their mothers, who are often assumed by Vietnamese to have been prostitutes. Ridiculed for being “half breeds” or “children of dust,” many have been denied access to schools. Those with African features are treated particularly badly because many Vietnamese hold people with dark skin in low regard.

Submitting false applications doesn’t explain the fate of candidates with non-Asian features who say they completed legitimate applications but were rejected on the grounds that they don’t look Amerasian. Among them are a woman named Tran Thi Du, who has an Afro and dark skin, and a Caucasian-looking man named Duong Hoa Du, both of whom received single-page form letters saying they were rejected because of their appearance. Consulate officials say they have a policy against discussing specific applications.

The four men who live in the small room here in Ho Chi Minh City — Tran Van Hai, Nguyen Thanh An, Nguyen Van Thi, and Nguyen Thanh Hien — admit to working with traffickers. They say they first submitted legitimate applications, but were rejected. Then they let the middlemen create new applications, thinking that would give them a better chance.

They say the traffickers didn’t offer to pay them, but convinced them that their acceptance by the consulate was guaranteed if they agreed to claim fake family members. After their false claims were discovered by the consulate, three of the four say they have tried to meet with consulate officials to explain what happened and apply again but have been unsuccessful.

The fourth, Nguyen Thanh Hien, received an immigrant visa in November after agreeing to provide the consulate with a detailed statement about the trafficker who had arranged his falsified application. Even so, Hien is still in Vietnam because he has been unable to obtain other required travel documents.

Pham Thi Anh Tuyet, a fair-skinned 30-year-old who looks a bit like Dorothy Hamill, also finds herself in limbo. She says she was adopted by a taxi driver who heard that she was going to be abandoned by her mother because Tuyet was fathered by an American. Although Tuyet, who still lives in a house owned by the taxi driver, works as a seamstress to support her two brown-haired sons, ages nine and 10, she says, “I don’t have a future here, and I don’t want that for my sons.”

Tuyet has applied for a visa but was rejected. She complains that there’s no one to advise her in the visa-application process.

The process also frustrates some Americans. Dan Cobb, a 74-year-old Texan, recently visited Vietnam because he believes he fathered 32-year-old Nguyen Tan Phat, whose application was rejected in 1999 because the consulate said he had a non-American appearance. “Phat’s mother says I’m the father,” says Mr. Cobb, who had worked for a military contractor and who recently contacted the woman he had dated during the war. Mr. Cobb complains that consulate officials won’t even meet with him due to a policy that only applicants are given appointments. “Phat was produced by America,” he says, “and I would like him to be an American.”