“The refugee comes to us in his pristine vulnerability. His is the most poignant of all human sufferings and deprivations: for he has lost a country. We may say that he has no rights in the legal sense; but in the human sense, he has every right to our justice and compassion. … We Asians and Filipinos … know how it feels to be strangers in our own land. Generations of Asians have suffered the brutalities of colonization, exploitation and oppression … as we gaze at the refugees, we see our very own faces.
Refugees seem purely defined as human tragedies yet they participate in politics. They are the concern of citizens, neighboring states, the international community, and, of course, fellow refugees. How these interests interact provide the contested conditions for refugees’ reception, their possible trajectories, and the availability of their rights. That is to say, refugee mobility is not guaranteed. Rather, according to law, refugees are subjected to political tests of truth regarding their persecution, their past, and their future interests. These legal calculations compromise humanitarian values, such as those emblazoned on the Statute of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Years of waiting in camps for displaced asylum-seekers indeed remains the norm—not the exception—as can be witnessed today in encampments adjacent to Syria or along the Thai-Burma border. Duc Nguyen’s timely documentary Stateless, which will be presented at the Seattle Asian American Film Festival, tells one such story of a Vietnamese community who became “stateless” through a set of circumstances not entirely their own.
While the collective struggles and mass displacement of up to 2 million Southeast Asian refugees is well known, what’s less widely known is how 2,300 “screened out” Vietnamese lived in the Philippines for more than 15 years after the formal end of the Indochina refugee program in 1997. Indeed, what Duc Nguyen found was, “it’s a story not many know about, even in the Vietnamese community.”
Provoked by this fact and interested in what ties the histories and trajectories of Vietnamese and Filipinos together, I set out researching at University of Washington how this particular community of Vietnamese came to live mostly in the far West of the Philippines. In the spring of 2014, I got in touch with Duc Nguyen. We sat down and chatted before a presentation of Stateless at UW in May. While discussing Stateless and his current project, we recently returned to the question of these ties and the global relations of U.S. immigration policy.
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James Pangilinan: How did you arrive at the stories of the stateless?
Duc Nguyen: I discovered the stateless when I went to the Philippines to shoot for the film Bolinao 52, in 2005. I got connected with VOICE [Vietnamese Overseas Initiative for Conscience Empowerment], which was based out of Manila. … The founder, Trinh Hoi, was raising money and actually lobbying [on behalf of the stateless] in the United States. … At that time, he was looking for someone to help make advocacy media, and I was looking for contacts in the Philippines for my film there.
Pangilinan: So one story led to another, but how did you come to grapple with such a migratory predicament?
Nguyen: The day I arrived in the Philippines was the very day the U.S. government sent a delegation back to Manila to reopen the case of the stateless, to re-interview them for resettlement, because there’s a quota every year to accept immigrants under the status of humanitarian resettlement. And that year, because of the lobbying by overseas Vietnamese, this particular group got on that list.
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Nguyen effectively retraced the collective yet particular story of “The Boat People’s” escape through the Philippines from post-war Vietnam. Methodically, he revisited a popular route of “Indochinese” refugees navigating the South China Sea to find asylum in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines before potential resettlement in a third country. Nguyen’s foray in the Philippines revealed another story: the unfurling tale of “stateless” Vietnamese still living there. “Statelessness” is a category wherein citizenship or legal immigrant status, such as refugee status or asylum, is not granted to a displaced or minority subject. After no less than 2,700 Vietnamese were permitted to stay in the Philipinnes after 1997, their existence in the Philippines remained precarious without documentation, citizenship, or civil rights.
As a matter of chance, Nguyen followed their uncertain journey as it hinges on the technical process of satisfying an immigration interviewer who examines a stateless individual’s fear of persecution as opposed to her desire to immigrate. When asked how Stateless found its eventual form, Nguyen underscored this interview process.
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Nguyen: The plan was that we would come to the interview and be present to make sure that the process is done correctly, fairly, transparently. That was the strategy. We got the camera rolling filming the process, the interview, and the stateless in their own home—at that time, mostly in Manila. … I had been focusing on Bolinao 52; thus, I didn’t know what would become of logging footage of the interviews. But what later became apparent were the stateless’ emotions—the intensity of their feelings as they went through the process.
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This structure of feeling is significant because proving one’s fear of persecution remains necessary for formally grounding “refugee” identity. As a historical document, Stateless traces an emergent politics of proof deemed “necessary” in the early 1990’s, when there were calls for both decreased funding of welfare in the United States and restrictive immigration politics in 1996, which entailed increasing rapprochement of criminal justice and immigration law—as experienced by, e.g., Cambodian and Guatemalan deportees.
For some, closing the Indochina refugee program became necessary, as did limiting “dependency” on social welfare that refugees are legally entitled to. That’s to say, there are interwoven trajectories of displaced people, policies, and global effects of our immigration system on countries like the Philippines. Closing the Indochina Refugee Program was implemented by Southeast Asian states of asylum and developed countries through the 1989 Comprehensive Plan of Action.
The United States, Vietnam, and the Philippines collaborated in this agreement stipulating a process for determining eligibility for resettlement or repatriation. But, given this logic, what happens when the displaced Vietnamese insist on proper due process and their fear of persecution? They become “stateless” and thereby entangled in further politics. Their trajectories become tied to the politics of the United States and the Philippines. As an the extreme example, Nguyen’s current project- Freedom at Last- shows how stateless Vietnamese can even become ensnared in Thailand’s crisis of martial law.
In sum, Stateless remains a relevant depiction of the uncertainty and global intimacy of individual human beings amidst the complexities of immigration and refugee policy. Reaching beyond the register of rational immigration procedures, Nguyen’s film remains a valuable testament to the deeply felt anxieties and states of mind that stateless and undocumented immigrants are subject to. It is the stateless’ poignant stories that, as Nguyen put it, “shows how global policies and national immigration laws fall on human shoulders. This comes into view not at the borders, which preoccupies our debates, but in far off communities where policies are felt.”
Stateless screens as part of the Seattle Asian American Film Festival at Northwest Film Forum Screen 1 (large theater) on Sunday, February 15 at 12:00 p.m. Preceded by the short film Who is Park Joo Young? Q&A with Stateless Director Duc Nguyen and Who is Park Joo Young Director Beth Kopacz. Co-presented by Adult Asian Adoptees of Washington.
A fundraising campaign for the latest installment of the Stateless Vietnamese saga was launched a few days ago. Freedom At Last is a documentary that tells the story of approximately 100 Vietnamese refugees who have each lived in hiding for 25 years hoping to one day reclaim the dignity of being a recognized person. For more information, and to donate to this project, visit the Indiegogo page at http://igg.me/at/freedom-at-last.