Former Idaho Chief Justice and Vietnam veteran Jim Jones advocates for refugees
For 50 years, Jim Jones has nursed an aching heart.
As a Republican attorney general, candidate for Congress and Senate, and as an Idaho Supreme Court justice, he wasn’t able to do much to ease that heartache.
Since retiring from the court in January, he’s making up for lost time. He’s speaking to any organization that will have him. He’s writing for any website or publication that will print his opinions. He’s recruiting lawyers to do free legal work for refugees. And he’s helping organize legal seminars and offering refugees legal assistance himself, such as to the young man from the Congo who had his car repossessed four days after he bought it, or the woman from Yemen who faced obstacles opening a neighborhood daycare.
He’s a man on a mission.
“The mission I’d like to have is to help people who have been victims of war, particularly refugees,” said Jones. “I want to speak out for these people, because no one else will. These are some of the most beleaguered people in the world.”
The new documentary from filmmaker Ken Burns is giving Americans a chance to learn, or re-learn, the causes and costs of the war in Vietnam. For Jones, what he saw in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969 and what happened to the Americans and the Vietnamese killed, wounded or otherwise damaged by the war is never far away.
“It grabs you by the heart,” he says. “The experience sort of carries all throughout your life.”
Jones was a 26-year-old from the Magic Valley with a fresh law degree when he joined the Army in 1968. He got sent to Vietnam, where he was a liaison officer with a heavy artillery unit in the Tay Nihn province, 50 miles northwest of Saigon. He worked with South Vietnamese soldiers and interpreters and lived among the Vietnamese. Those included North Vietnamese, mostly Catholics, who’d been forced south by religious persecution.
“They were all refugees. There was this lieutenant who told me he’d seen his cousin get gunned down.” As Jones tells the tale, he chokes up, and pauses to collect himself. “They are just normal people. All they wanted was peace and safety. Here they were, refugees in their own country, good citizens. I trusted them with my life.”
The ache worsened in 1975, as Jones and other Americans watched Saigon fall to the North Vietnamese, watched the last Americans and Vietnamese evacuees helicoptered out. Jones knew that meant the South Vietnamese who’d worked with Americans like him would be killed or sent to re-education camps — dire fates for soldiers and interpreters who’d been his friends.
“When the country fell, and you had people over here saying, ‘Well, we don’t want those people here. They’ll bring disease, they’ll be subversive,’ it just made me so damn mad. I thought, ‘We have to give those people safe harbor.’”
“And you know, eventually a million Vietnamese came to the U.S. They’re good citizens. A lot of their kids are top of their class. They go into engineering and pursuits that add to the value of the country. And I see that same thing (today) with the refugees here.”
IDAHO VIEWS ON IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEES
Today, Jones doesn’t see the national and Idaho discussion about immigration and refugees as about Syrians or Iraqis or Somalis. He views it not through the lens of a 75-year-old Idaho judge or politician. He looks through the eyes of a young soldier in a foreign country befriended and protected by the residents of a poor village. He sees the faces of children in a Cao Dai orphanage who’d lost their parents to war.
Now that Jones has found his voice, people are listening.
“For us the greatest strength has been to have someone with his reputation and prestige and passion lend a level of credibility to good work that is already being done,” said Karan Tucker, director of Jannus, the umbrella organization for the Idaho Office of Refugees, the Agency for New Americans, Global Talent Idaho and 17 other programs. “And he is helping us reach a group of people that we couldn’t have reached nearly as effectively without his commitment.”
Tucker cites recent Boise State public opinion survey data that shows Idahoans who have met refugees have a more positive view of refugees than those who don’t know any. “When you have a personal relationship with a refugee, that changes your perspective,” she said.
By writing and speaking and connecting lawyers and other volunteers to refugees, Jones is literally helping rewrite the Idaho narrative about refugees.
RETURN TO VIETNAM
Jones wants to return to Vietnam. He wants to visit, but also to look for some of the children from the orphanage that he and other soldiers helped with clothes, food, toys and other basics.
A trip planned for early this year was delayed when Jones was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Such a diagnosis is often a death sentence, but his cancer was detected early. After surgery and months of chemotherapy, he has just learned he is cancer-free. People who saw Jones this summer at a podium or walking about town would have been surprised to learn just what he was going through.
With that medical scare behind him, Jones and his wife, Kelly Jones, have rescheduled their Vietnam trip for January, and he plans to take his 1960s photos of the orphans with him, knowing some of them will be in their 60s. He wants to write a book about his experience there. He’s disturbed that the U.S. keeps getting into unwinnable wars.
“It’s like we forgot what that experience taught us altogether,” he said.
Meanwhile, he’s serving on the board of Tucker’s Jannus, whose programs offer refugees services ranging from resettlement to language to gardens to jobs and business and financial literacy. Its other programs serve veterans, family caregivers and seniors, provide early childhood education and nutrition programs and operate Idaho’s Suicide Prevention Hotline.
When Jones joined, he asked for a meeting with staffers about what refugees needed most. Then he set about doing it.
He’s working with the Idaho Law Foundation’s Volunteer Lawyer Program to boost the number of lawyers helping refugees who struggle to afford legal assistance. He’s organizing a series of information sessions on fair housing, employment and setting up small businesses.
It’s not glamorous work. At a recent Monday night forum on fair housing, Jones set out the cookies and juice in a side room on the third floor of the Boise library. But he’s heartened by the response he receives and the steady trickle of lawyers who come up to him after his presentations to say, “I want to be a part of that.”
He got the volunteer lawyers program to add a check-off box about working with refugees to the pro-bono form that Idaho lawyers fill out. A simple thing, but it’s working.
“We’re definitely seeing a lot of people checking that off, giving us a new pool of volunteers,” said Anna Almerico, the program’s director. “He’s really bringing attention to the need and putting it on the radar.”
SHARING MORE THAN LEGAL ADVICE
Beyond the legal help that people of limited means often need, refugees also often have language and cultural barriers to confront. Newcomers have little or no credit history. It’s hard to get loans. They are often trusting, and easily victimized by unscrupulous landlords, payday lenders and others.
“I told him,” Jones said of the advice he gave his young car buyer, “it isn’t a rule of our country, but just be a little careful of used-car dealers.”
Latonia Haney Keith is an assistant professor at Concordia University School of Law in Boise, and runs the school’s three free legal clinics. She’s worked with Jones on workshops to educate refugees about the rights and duties of renters under Idaho law. This means convincing people to read and understand their leases before signing, to understand their security and cleaning deposits, and the basics of being an apartment renter in American culture. That neighbor’s bike, for instance, is not communal property.
“Our refugee community is one where we still have a tremendous gap, and he’s helping bridge that gap,” she said. “Having Justice Jones re-launch and reinvigorate this education effort on our behaviors and our laws is really helpful.”
DEEP EMOTION AND FIERCE PASSION
After his service in Vietnam, Jones went to work for Idaho Sen. Len Jordan in Washington, D.C. In 1973, he came home to practice law in Jerome. He lost the 1978 and 1980 Republican primaries to Congressman George Hansen, before being elected Idaho attorney general in 1982. He served until he ran for the U.S. Senate, losing in 1990 to Larry Craig.
It was that first run for Congress in 1978, when a TV reporter asked about his Vietnam experience, that he found his lungs empty and his throat closed, emotions stealing his voice. You don’t expect such deep emotion and fierce passion from a man with such a soft voice and slight build. He won election to the nonpartisan Supreme Court post in 2004, and says today he is not affiliated with any party. His opinion articles have been tough on Republicans this year, including President Trump and Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador.
Jones was also tough as attorney general when the Aryan Nations established a stronghold in North Idaho in the 1980s and ’90s. He sees a parallel between those times and today, in the effort it took to persuade Idahoans to get on the right side of history.
“I think as time went by and the people from both parties got educated, pretty soon it was state policy: ‘We’re not going to put up with that.’” He’s comforted that Idaho is having a more productive conversation, including in the Magic Valley, about welcoming refugees.
“I think,” he says, in his typically understated way, “this thing is kind of going the same way.”
HOW TO HELP, FIND OUT MORE
Lawyers and others can volunteer, donate or get more info about efforts to provide refugees and others with free legal assistance. Visit the Idaho Volunteer Lawyers Program at Idahoprobono.org or call 208-334-4510.