WASHINGTON – When Guy and Genevieve Vang came to the United States 18 years ago, they thought they did everything they needed to do to raise their family and work legally in the United States.
They and their two children came to the United States from France, the country they fled to after they escaped war in Laos and Vietnam. They got working papers, filed for political asylum and waited.
They eventually opened up a restaurant, Bangkok 96, in Dearborn, Mich., and had two more children. But they continued to wait on word from the government about their asylum application.
The wait lasted more than 10 years.
And now, in fewer than 60 days unless Congress intervenes, they likely will be deported.
"I pray every day," Genevieve Vang told FOXNews.com in a telephone interview, with the din of her busy restaurant in the background. "It’s difficult … working every day but to have this issue on your shoulder is very stressful. You don’t know what you face, you don’t know what will come tomorrow, it’s just a big black mirror."
It’s her children and their future she worries about the most.
"All of our fight to stay here is about our kids ... that’s what they know, from here," she said. "We’ve been through a lot for the past four years and everybody knows what’s going on. It’s been very terrible. The kids deserve their parents."
The Vangs' lawyer, Jason Peltz, said all of the family’s legal recourses have been exhausted and that their hope now lies with Congress.
"Legally they’re not in a great situation … the government messed up in taking years and years to file their asylum claim," Peltz said. "There’s no remedy in the law for that. They don’t have a great pure legal case — it’s a moral case. We’re asking the government not to see this case in black and white."
Lawyer: 'They Can't Get Legal'
Guy Vang’s father and grandfather worked for the CIA in Laos during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1975, after the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia and the communist Pathet Lao government took over, those loyal to the deposed leader were hunted down. Guy Vang’s family — his parents and their 11 children — fled when he was 14. Guy was the only one who jumped aboard a plane taking military and government officials and their families to Thailand, where he spent the next three years in a refugee camp.
Guy and Genevieve met in France, where both were sponsored by relief groups. They married in 1983, had two daughters — Christine, now 23, and Melanie, now 18, both of whom live and attend college in the United States — and became French citizens. Guy Vang, who thought his entire family was dead, then received a letter with news that his entire family made it out of Laos alive and were in the United States. He went to the U.S. embassy and applied for a visa so he could go see them.
At that time, the new Visa Waiver Pilot Program [now the Visa Waiver Program] had been in effect for about 45 days. Guy Vang told officials he wanted a visitor visa, and they told him to sign a form to participate in the waiver program. What Guy Vang did not understand at the time, Peltz explained, was that with that stroke of the pen, he had signed away any ability to ever protest his deportation.
"They didn’t even realize what they were doing, otherwise they would’ve gotten visas," Peltz said. "The only recourse they have is asylum — they can’t get legal any other way."
Under the waiver program, visitors were supposed to go back to their home country within 90 days of entering the United States. But the Vangs, who were now approved to be in the U.S., thought they had permission to stay, and within their first year in the country, the Immigration and Naturalization Service granted them temporary Social Security numbers so they could get work permits while their asylum petition was processed.
Asylum petitions at that time normally took about six months to process. The Vangs waited and waited, and a year went by. They didn’t think too much of it, knowing the speed of the bureaucratic process for immigration documents.
They eventually had two more children here who are U.S. citizens — Steven, now 17, and Christine, now 11 — and scraped enough money together to buy a house and open a restaurant, where they both work. They got their work permits regularly renewed every year, and gave the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service their updated home address.
They heard nothing back until November of 2000, when the INS finally contacted the Vangs for an interview in Chicago. Three weeks later, the agency said there was no point to the interview, since Guy Vang entered the country under the Visa Waiver Pilot Program. The INS began removal proceedings.
A 2002 asylum hearing failed to help the Vangs and in 2004, their lawyers appealed, knowing it probably wouldn’t do much good.
"We just threw a whole bunch of darts at the board hoping one will stick," Peltz said.
Peltz all but acknowledged that the asylum argument is pretty much moot since the Vangs actually had safe harbor in France before they came to the United States. However, Peltz said, the government could have exercised its prosecutorial discretion and waived the form signed by Guy Vang, which would have allowed the Vangs to have a full deportation hearing to make their case.
"The government said ‘no.’ They said ‘they signed the document, tough, we’re not going to change anything,’" Peltz said.
An appeal with the immigration board also failed. So Peltz and his co-counsel, John Boudia, filed with the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
"There’s simply no legal remedy," Peltz said, adding that he and Boudia even argued for a change in the law.
Peltz said in 2002, he contacted the office of Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., for help. Levin’s office told him he had to exhaust all legal remedies before a legislative one could be considered. That last straw came on May 27 of this year, when the Circuit Court denied their deportation appeal.
On June 9, Levin introduced what’s known as a "private bill." It would would provide relief for Guy and Genevieve Vang, as well as their two oldest children who were born in France. It was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee but no hearing has been scheduled yet.
Peltz said it's his understanding that before the bill can be debated in the Senate, Immigration and Customs Enforcement — which absorbed INS and other agencies after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — gets a chance to respond to the legislation. Once ICE responds, the Vangs can get a freeze put on the deportation order while the legislation is pending. Levin's staff — swamped Wednesday with the immigration bill pending in the Senate, among other things — was not able to track down whether ICE had been contacted yet.
"That’s sort of the urgent thing they need. Whether this private legislation goes through or not, they need time to have the bill run its course," Peltz said, adding that as far as he knows, ICE had not yet responded to Levin's bill. "I’m hoping ... sometime here we’ll hear that a stay has been put in place."
An ICE spokeswoman said the agency could not comment on any specific case.
'This Family Did The Right Thing'
Peltz said the fact the Guy Vang’s family worked for the U.S. government for many years should come into the play, as well as the fact that the rest of his entire family is legally here — either with refugee status, valid green cards or other documents.
"Their case took 14 years to come to a decision. During this time, they had work authorization, they were allowed to stay here, they were allowed to work and they built this life here … they had two other children who grew up just in the United States," Peltz said. "The government messed up in this case but there’s no recourse when the government messes up. And that’s the biggest issue in this case — there’s been a 14-year delay and they built a life."
It would have been one thing if the government decided the Vangs were illegal and deported them even a few years after arriving in the United States. But throughout the whole legal ordeal since then, Peltz said, there has been no good explanation of why it took so long for their asylum application to be processed.
"They acknowledged it took a long time but that’s about it — that’s the understatement of the year," he said. "There clearly was a mess up, these things don’t take that long."
As for the Vang family, they are just hoping Levin’s efforts pay off.
Genevieve Vang said INS never gave an explanation — or an apology — as to why the agency took 10 years to get in touch with them.
"I just don’t want to blame INS, I just don’t want to blame anybody," she said. "I know this family did the right thing for this year, they got the work permit … we pay tax and have a house. I think the system, is kind of slow, that’s why we have to wait for 10 years to do something. It should happen early — two years instead of 10 years."
Christine Vang told FOXNews.com in an e-mail that whatever happens with her family, they are going to stay together.
The family has even launched an online petition, encouraging supporters to contact federal lawmakers in the Senate and House, as well as others, to champion their cause to allow them to stay in the only country they call home. The Web site for the petition says the Senate will consider the bill in August.
"I don't want my family or anyone else to suffer from the injustice of a broken system anymore," Christine Vang said. "I will have no choice but to leave with my parents. In a bittersweet sense, I will return to France knowing that we did everything we could to stay where we truly belong."