Hien's gloom that day was interrupted by a soft hiss. He looked up to see a woman in a dark suit, beckoning him to a coffee shop across the street. She had carefully coiffed hair and wore gold rings and necklaces. Her chauffeur-driven car was around the corner. According to Hien, she had a proposition for him. "She said she knew everyone who works in the consulate," Hien, 30, recalls. "She said, 'There's no need for you to worry anymore. Auntie will take care of everything.'" A week later, Hien found himself with a U.S. immigrant visaapproved, he says, by the same Vietnamese staffer of the consulate who had rejected him previously. There was only one catch: Hien had to travel with his new "family," four Vietnamese whom he believes had paid the woman, Nguyen Thi Thanh Phuong, up to $20,000 to secure them visas to the U.S., piggybacking on Hien. When he wanted to delay his planned departure because of his real brother's death, he says Phuong threatened him, saying she had powerful friends and would have him maimed if he wouldn't do as she said.
Vietnam's long-suffering Amerasians are not just scornedthey're scammed as well. Undetected until recently, a network of brokers has for years been using Amerasians to traffic Vietnamese into the U.S. Eleven people, including Phuong, have been arrested for providing Amerasians with false identities and matching them with people willing to pay for a U.S. resident visa (those detained have pleaded not guilty and await trial). Since the Amerasian Homecoming Act was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1987, some 23,000 Amerasians and 67,000 of their relatives have emigrated to the U.S. How many of those kin are fake may never be known.
What's also disturbing is that the con seems to have required the complicity of consulate staffers, possibly local Vietnamese. Unlike most immigration policies, the Amerasian regulations are designed to be lenient. A visa can be granted to anyone deemed to possess "Amerasian facial features." So it's hard to understand how Tran Van Hai could have been rejected. Dark-skinned with kinky hair and built like a linebacker, Hai, 30, says he's the son of an African-American airman named Mark who lived with his mother in the 1970s. Denied a visa, he went to the consulate to protestunsuccessfullyand says he was then approached by Phuong. Desperate, he accepted her offer, and was promptly issued a new visa that came with a new family: a woman posing as his wife and her two children. But Hai already had a wife and curly-haired son Van, 9, and daughter Thuy, 10. "I didn't want to leave them behind," he says. He wrote to the U.S. embassy complaining that he had been rejected under his real name and accepted with a fake name. He got no reply, he says, but within a month his new visa was revoked.
One U.S. veteran who has returned to Vietnam, Gil Watts, has collected more than 100 files of Amerasians he says have been unfairly rejected by the U.S. immigration program. Watts says that almost all the rejected applicants on his listpoor, illiterate and desperatehave later been approached by traffickers. There have been suggestions that some Amerasians took money for their part in the scheme, but most say they were tricked. "The Amerasians are preyed upon," says one U.S. official familiar with Phuong's trafficking ring. "They were clearly victims."
U.S. officials won't say if an investigation of the consulate staff is under way. The consulate insists that the Amerasian visa program is tightly controlled, that American staffers are involved in interviewing and that if an officer determines an applicant is not Amerasian, two others must agree for the person to be rejected. But the problem persists and applicants report never seeing an American. As long as legitimate Amerasians are denied visas, they will be victims of fraudor stay where they are living reminders of a painful past.