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Court Will Hear Boat People Dispute

June 17, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Supreme Court today agreed to decide whether U.S. officials in Hong Kong may refuse to issue immigrant visas requested by Vietnamese boat people seeking entry into this country.

The justices voted to review a federal appeals court ruling that said a State Department policy illegally discriminates against Vietnamese refugees on the basis of their nationality.

Clinton administration lawyers had urged the justices to overturn the lower court ruling and reinstate the requirement that all such people return to Vietnam before filing visa requests.

The government’s appeal said the appeals court ruling ``will undermine the effectiveness of ... a major foreign policy initiative that has been responsible for bringing an end to the dangerous, uncontrolled and clandestine migration of Vietnamese nationals in Southeast Asia.″

The appeal said the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia had misinterpreted federal immigration law and exceeded its authority in reviewing a dispute involving aliens not yet in the United States.

The Hong Kong government is eager to close Vietnamese refugee camps before the British colony returns to Chinese rule in 1997.

Well over 1 million Vietnamese boat people have been resettled _ mostly in the United States and Europe _ since 1989, but 36,000 remain in camps in Hong Kong and other Southeast Asia locations.

The possibility of returning them involuntarily to the country they fled, where they say they will be punished for deeds committed years ago in service to the United States, concerns many Americans.

U.S. officials, however, report there is little evidence that repatriated Vietnamese have been repressed.

Since the 1975 capture of Saigon by the North Vietnamese, large numbers of refugees have fled Vietnam to Hong Kong. From 1979 to 1988, the treatment of those people was guided by an informal agreement that accorded them presumptive refugee status and sought to resettle them.

But in 1988, the Hong Kong government revoked the presumptive refugee status of Vietnamese immigrants and began detaining and screening them to determine whether they qualified as political refugees.

Until 1993, State Department employees processed visa applications for Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong at the U.S. consulate there. But beginning that year, such applicants were required to return to Vietnam for visa processing.

Two American citizens with Vietnamese relatives in Hong Kong and an advocacy group called Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers sued the government in 1994 over the new policy.

A federal judge threw out the lawsuit, but the appeals court reinstated it and ruled that the policy violated an immigration law barring discrimination based on nationality.

The appeals court noted that the policy used for Vietnamese immigrants in Hong Kong was not enforced against any other people there.

The case is U.S. Department of State vs. Legal Assistance for Vietnamese Asylum Seekers, 95-1521.