Mai Neng Moua has been an immigration attorney for the past 14 years, helping individuals navigate the byzantine laws that regulate whether they can stay in the United States.
Many of her cases involve Southeast Asian men who came to the country as refugees, often more than two decades ago. As young, impoverished refugees, they committed minor crimes, pleaded guilty, and now, as adults, face deportation proceedings because of their convictions decades ago.
U.S. law requires that diplomatic relations with countries where deportees would land. For years the U.S. had none with Cambodia and Laos, so the government did not deport refugees to those countries. Now Cambodia accepts deportees, endangering the status of Cambodian refugees who might have minor criminal records.
Because they have no passports from the U.S. or their countries of origin, these refugees “are stateless,” Moua says. If deported, they arrive in countries where they do not speak the language or have family. Yet they often leave behind families in the U.S., she says.
Last September, Moua also argued before the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals that individuals who entered as refugees should be allowed to reapply for permanent resident status if they meet specific criteria. The board agreed, and the decision should save many refugees with minor convictions from being sent back to their native countries.
Another case involved a Cambodian man’s 1998 deportation order which the government finally acted on in 2020. The 44-year-old left behind a wife and two children. Moua represented him before the Board of Immigration Appeals, which reopened his case and allowed him to return to Minnesota.
She says it was the first successful case in the Midwest of a deported individual returning from Cambodia. It reminded her of why she is a lawyer.
“When we have decisions like that when we’re able to keep family united, well, I think that’s what makes being a lawyer worth it for me,” Moua says.
Read more about Minnesota Lawyer’s superb class of Attorneys of the Year for 2021 here.
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