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Biden administration lifts what critics call ‘backdoor immigration ban’ on Laos

The measure is a "great first step to undo some of the harm that’s been done by the Trump administration," Kham Moua, of the nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said.

The Biden administration has lifted most of its visa sanctions on Laos, marking a significant step for thousands of Southeast Asian Americans, many of them refugees, and their families in the immigration process, experts say.

The development, announced Monday, ends a Trump-era immigration ban that effectively halted the issuing of any travel or immigrant visas to people in Laos. The sanctions, largely seen as a retaliatory measure used to pressure Laos into accepting more deportees, could reunite some 2,000 people with loved ones. 

“Over the last few years, they’ve been unable to sponsor their spouses or kids … because of these arbitrary sanctions that are very ethnically based,” Kham Moua, director of national policy at the nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, told NBC Asian America. “For us to see the administration take the steps for lifting was a really great first step to undo some of the harm that’s been done by the Trump administration.” 

In a memo, the Biden administration wrote that the majority of Lao citizens who have applied, or will apply, for travel or immigrant visas will no longer be subjected to the ban, a move authorized by Secretary of State Antony Blinken. However, the document noted that sanctions will continue to be in place for certain government officials, contingent on whether Laos cooperates with the U.S. demands to accept deportees.

The move comes after more than 30 advocacy groups and several members of Congress signed a letter, spearheaded by Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., that demanded the Department of Homeland Security lift the Trump-era sanctions, which included those on Laos. The letter, in part, called the sanction a “backdoor immigration ban.”

“The visa sanctions continue to harm refugees and asylum seekers in the United States by tearing families apart and forcing governments seeking to harm asylum seekers to repatriate those individuals,” the letter, addressed to the Biden administration in September, read. 

Moua explained that, for years, Laos has remained on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency’s list of “recalcitrant” countries, a distinction given to governments that routinely refuse to issue the travel documents required for the U.S. to carry out deportations. In 2018, under the Trump administration, the country was slapped with diplomatic sanctions as pressure to aid in the removal of more Laotian immigrants. The Department of Homeland Security had asked Laos to accept a quota of deportees, which the country failed to meet. Moua said the U.S. responded by escalating its punitive measures, expanding the visa ban. 

“It just is indicative of how certain niche and technical laws can be used by nefarious administrations to target communities of color and immigrant communities,” Moua said. 

The Laotian American community is made up of a large refugee population that was forced to flee their home countries in Southeast Asia due to U.S. occupation in the 1970s. With loved ones separated due to war, family-based immigration has been one way in which these households can reunite. But obtaining the documents has come with a wait, and even without bans, families can end up on a visa backlog for more than a decade in the worst cases. 

Moua said organizers will continue to press the Biden administration to lift all visa sanctions, which have been imposed on Myanmar, Burundi, Cambodia and Eritrea as well. 

“These sanctions need to be repealed because they are being used as a tool to pressure countries into removing more folks — folks that those countries don’t even want back, or those who face harm if they were to be removed for those countries,” Moua said. 

In the Southeast Asian community, for example, sanctions on Cambodia led to an increase in the deportation of Cambodian nationals by 279 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to ICE data. Many of those who were removed came to the U.S. legally as refugees but had since been convicted of crimes.

Kevin Lo, an immigration attorney at legal rights organization Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, previously explained that Cambodian Americans who face deportation have often avoided any contact with the criminal justice system and have established families and careers. 

“For almost all the cases we’ve encountered, the crime was committed decades ago,” Lo said. “Since that time, most of these people have demonstrated that they have changed their lives, started families and are essential members of their communities.”

Without family ties and language skills, along with new cultural barriers, many of those repatriated have difficulty finding housing, jobs and medical access once relocated to Cambodia, and they subsequently confront high rates of suicide and mental health issues.

“There is no reason why [visa sanctions] should remain on the books anyway because the Department of Homeland Security has other means and tools of communicating and working bilaterally with these countries,” Moua said. “What we need is an overhaul with this tool, so that future administrations can’t use it in the same way that they did with Laos.”