Alan Lowenthal Alexandra Le Christopher Lapinig Court Games Longform News Tania Pham Tuan Truong Tung Nguyen

Tung Nguyen Changed His Life in Prison, Beat Deportation and Helps Others Resist Trump’s war on Vietnamese Refugees

Tung Nguyen Changed His Life in Prison, Beat Deportation and Helps Others Resist Trump’s war on Vietnamese Refugees
Tung Nguyen. Photograph by Michael Ziobrowski

A hip-hop live performance inside San Quentin State Jail got here to a harrowing halt one morning in 2006, with bass-rattling beats changed by the sounds of a blaring alarm. Tung Nguyen, an inmate serving a life sentence after a first-degree-murder conviction for a Backyard Grove slaying, knew a riot had erupted earlier than jail guards ordered everybody to get on the bottom. He noticed a rumble within the crowd, one which reworked moments later into seen punches flying between black and Mexican inmates.

Tasked with appearing as safety for rappers, nonprofit staff and volunteers, Nguyen ignored the jail guards’ instructions. As an alternative, he flashed an instinctual take a look at a half-dozen others from his inmate exercise group, every member of which understood the necessity to defend guests from the melee. “As soon as we shaped a line, I might see the worry of their eyes,” says Nguyen. “We ushered them to security.”

By the point they got here again, jail guards quelled the riot however allowed the group to remain behind and clear up. They later debriefed on the morning’s mayhem. “The jail guards truly stated we did a very good job sustaining the peace,” Nguyen recollects. “No one ever talked about it after that till I went to the parole board two years later.”

His heroics proved pivotal in displaying himself to be a modified man. However regardless of his greatest efforts, he was denied parole in 2008, with one board member deriding him as an “murderer.” The inmate, who spent his complete grownup life behind bars however wasn’t the deadly stabber within the 1994 homicide, didn’t surrender hope. He traded his job on the Catholic chapel for research time at San Quentin’s regulation library. Two years later, Nguyen gained parole with a launch date set in 2023.

He’d nonetheless be locked inside jail in the present day if not for an intervention from then-California Governor Jerry Brown in 2011. Reviewing all parole selections for that yr, the governor’s workplace reversed 71 of them and modified just one: Nguyen’s case.

“Mr. Nguyen was recommended by a correctional lieutenant in 2009 for his position in escorting a gaggle of roughly 50 civilians to security once they discovered themselves on the jail yard throughout an inmate riot in 2006,” Brown wrote in an April 1, 2011, choice. “The lieutenant made some extent of commending Mr. Nguyen for his braveness in defending the civilians within the face of attainable retaliation by rioting inmates, and concluded that this incident confirmed the ‘genuine change’ in his determination making that he had undergone since his incarceration.”

In ordering his quick launch, Brown allowed Nguyen to stroll out as a free man for the primary time since being imprisoned at 16 years previous. However his freedom proved short-lived. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) waited outdoors San Quentin and took him into custody, detaining him for 2 weeks inside a federal constructing in San Francisco. A Vietnamese refugee when he arrived together with his household to Orange County within the early 1990s, Nguyen’s conviction value him his inexperienced card.

Worrying about being deported to Vietnam didn’t weigh closely at first; a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between america and Vietnamese governments provided protections towards repatriations for Vietnam Conflict refugees similar to Nguyen, who arrived earlier than July 12, 1995.

However nervousness arose when Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2015, stirring up a wave of xenophobia towards non-white immigrants. After turning into president, the chilliness turned actual in 2017, when ICE arrested and detained Vietnamese refugees with previous felony convictions; fears additionally ran rampant via Little Saigon in OC, the most important such ethnic enclave within the nation following a post-war wave of Vietnamese “boat individuals” refugees, about Trump looking for to renegotiate the MOU to have Vietnam settle for extra deportees, pre-1995 or not.

The concentrating on of a inhabitants as soon as thought-about off-limits despatched shockwaves by means of the Vietnamese American group, together with its loyal Republican base in OC.

“Earlier than Trump got here into workplace, the marketing campaign itself already instilled worry in me,” says Nguyen. “After the election, my sense of freedom died.”

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Tania Pham and Alexandra Le with Tung Nguyen. Photograph by Michael Ziobrowski

Born a yr after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen grew up in Ho Chi Minh Metropolis, because the capital was renamed beneath communist rule. His father fought towards the federal government as a soldier within the Military of the Republic of Vietnam. Nguyen witnessed native police harass his father. As his son, Nguyen was handled unfairly at college. Positive, Nguyen’s mother and father handed down an anti-communist animus, however he started creating that sentiment on his personal towards the federal government and police. “I didn’t even know what my future might be,” he says. “On prime of that, I stored listening to my household speak about how once I reached a sure age, the federal government was going to enroll me in a army faculty.”

To keep away from that, the Nguyen household left Vietnam in 1991, stopping at a refugee camp within the Philippines earlier than settling within the United Said. Nguyen’s mom had an uncle who lived in Santa Ana; he helped them transfer into an condominium that was nicer than their digs in Vietnam. Nguyen enrolled at Saddleback Excessive Faculty whereas nonetheless adjusting to life in a brand new nation. “The primary six months have been tough,” he says. “There have been lots of Vietnamese college students, however on the similar time, I received checked out like I used to be bizarre. After faculty, I’d take my backpack and hurry residence, the place a minimum of my brothers have been.”

Getting referred to as a “nip” by classmates and sitting by himself each lunch interval solely fueled the isolation. The freshman lastly discovered a way of belonging when Vietnamese gang members approached him in the future. “After faculty, they requested me if I needed to hang around,” Nguyen recollects. “I made a decision I needed to go kick it with them.” Quickly, he began sporting saggy pants fixed with a army net belt that hung down by the aspect. He shaved his head, save for prolonged, slicked-back bangs.

“I hated gang members once I first got here right here,” says Nguyen. “I despised them, however I ended up turning into considered one of them.”

When not ditching and stealing from department shops, Nguyen acquired into fights at college. In a single incident, he defended himself from three teenagers who pummeled him, making an attempt to stab one with a dart. The tussle received him expelled from Saddleback Excessive.

One other struggle, on April 13, 1993, virtually value him his life. A good friend of Nguyen’s had gotten right into a heated argument over the telephone with Tuan Truong, an previous acquaintance who owed him cash. Nguyen received right into a black Isuzu with two buddies and headed to the Inn Cal Motel in Backyard Grove to show Truong a lesson in respect. “We have been alleged to go there simply to speak shit, let these two fools beat the shit out of one another, after which go house,” he says. Armed with knives, the trio barged into Truong’s room. Nguyen held one individual at knifepoint whereas appearing as lookout. Within the midst of the motel melee, Nguyen’s good friend stabbed Truong’s thigh, a deadly puncture to the 20-year-old’s femoral artery.

At one level, Nguyen peered by way of the curtain and noticed a police automotive outdoors the motel. When he appeared once more, it disappeared from sight. Believing they have been within the clear, the trio returned to their Isuzu and sped off. A Backyard Grove policeman heard a radio name shortly after a few slain sufferer on the motel he had simply patrolled. He had already pulled over the Isuzu and later found blood stains on Nguyen’s pals. “Bloody Trio Arrested After Deadly Stabbing,” learn the headline of the Los Angeles Occasions the next morning. As a result of Nguyen was a minor, the story recognized him as a 16-year-old from Santa Ana.

Tried as an grownup, he stood accused of first-degree homicide and theft alongside his associates. “I by no means thought I’d be convicted,” he says. “I assumed I’d get in hassle for my participation to the diploma that I used to be there.” However the verdict discovered Nguyen responsible of all expenses towards him. All that he might do in that beautiful second was stare on the Superior Courtroom decide’s nameplate, which learn, “Decide David O. Carter.”

“After the jury verdict, I misplaced it,” Nguyen says. “I didn’t care anymore.” When he headed again to a Santa Ana courtroom for sentencing, one other man within the inmate van tried to start out an argument. A sheriff’s deputy later escorted him and his accoster right into a holding cell. “As quickly because the deputy took off my handcuffs, I piled on him,” Nguyen recollects. “That incident received reported to the decide.” Carter, now within the public eye as a U.S. District Decide on the forefront of a landmark OC homelessness lawsuit, sentenced Nguyen to 25 years to life with harsh phrases he’d finally show fallacious: “You can’t be redeemed!”

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Protesters in Little Saigon. Photograph by Jeanette Duran

Free of jail, Nguyen hustled odd jobs and development gigs. It made cash, however as a studious inmate who discovered the best way to advocate for himself, Nguyen sharpened a talent set higher fitted to group organizing. At San Quentin, he shaped the KidCAT group for juvenile lifers like himself. Out and in of jail, Nguyen efficiently advocated for state legal guidelines akin to Senate Invoice 260 that referred to as for earlier parole hearings—ones that’d supply due consideration for inmates convicted earlier than turning 18—later revised to 23. Seeing a necessity locally, Nguyen additionally based the Asian & Pacific Islanders Re-entry of OC (APIROC).

However the activist shifted his focus from juvenile-justice reform to immigration in 2017, when he started listening to about deportation instances affecting the Vietnamese group. His telephone quickly flooded with requires assist. Responding to the overwhelming nervousness locally, he shaped the Vietnamese Anti-Deportation Community—and the work hasn’t stopped since.

“I began always dealing with instances,” says Nguyen. “Individuals obtained detained. I defined to them what occurred. Principally, I turned a case supervisor.”

A key doc within the battle comes within the type of the MOU between the U.S. and Vietnam. It provided clear tips on deportations for nearly a decade. “Vietnamese residents aren’t topic to return to Vietnam underneath this settlement in the event that they arrived in america earlier than July 12, 1995, the date on which diplomatic relations have been re-established between the U.S. authorities and the Vietnamese authorities,” reads an necessary passage.

However all that modified when Trump started ramping up enforcement actions towards Vietnamese refugees, together with those that arrived earlier than 1995, whereas the Division of Homeland Safety confirmed assembly with the Vietnamese Embassy.

“The USA and Vietnam signed a bilateral settlement on removals in 2008 that establishes procedures for deporting Vietnamese residents who arrived in america after July 12, 1995, and are topic to ultimate orders of removing,” James Thrower, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, advised The Atlantic in December. “Whereas the procedures related to this particular settlement don’t apply to Vietnamese residents who arrived in america earlier than July 12, 1995, it doesn’t explicitly preclude the removing of pre-1995 instances.”

And people instances began to pile up.

Tania Pham and Alexandra Le, two native Vietnamese American attorneys, observe an inflow over the previous two years. “Earlier than Trump, the pre-1995 Vietnamese have been detained for less than 90 days, after which they’d get launched,” says Pham. “Now, lots of them have been detained for greater than six months, and a few of them have been approaching greater than a yr. I used to be getting calls throughout the nation and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t probably file a habeas corpus for each single individual.”

Uneasy conversations inside the group adopted, particularly since instances concerned Vietnamese refugees with felony pasts. “It’s a disgrace, actually, as a result of we’re like ostriches,” says Le. “We nonetheless have the mentality of disgrace and assume that we now have to cover the dangerous issues about ourselves and our group. Sure, we’ve got kinfolk and associates who did one thing a very long time in the past that they may not be so pleased with. However, hey, they grew, overcame and have become profitable.”

Outstanding Vietnamese American politicians in OC weighed in with shocking stances. Huntington Seashore-based state Assemblyman Tyler Diep and county Supervisor Andrew Do, each Republicans who got here to the U.S. as refugees, signed a Dec. 13, 2018, letter to the president that requested him to rethink his insurance policies. Michelle Park Metal, a Korean American county supervisor, adopted up seven days later with an op-ed within the Washington Occasions. “We’ve seen the lethal impact of legal unlawful aliens being launched to wander our streets as a result of California’s ‘sanctuary’ legal guidelines,” Metal wrote, affirming her previous help for Trump’s lawsuit towards the state. “Nevertheless, deporting Vietnamese refugees who’ve dedicated crimes shouldn’t be in the identical class, nor does it name for a similar arguments for deporting felony illegals.”

Democrats additionally gave Trump an earful that very same month. Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-Lengthy Seashore) led a coalition of 26 Home members who expressed dismay with the administration’s agenda. “Since 2008, the MOU has not been renegotiated,” the Dec. 13 letter learn. “We strongly oppose any renegotiation of the MOU that strips the present protections afforded to Vietnamese refugees, together with the exclusion from the settlement of pre-1995 immigrants and the humanitarian issues offered to all others.”

Nguyen helped to arrange a protest on the streets of Little Saigon in December that introduced dozens out in Westminster to oppose any such effort. “They’re starting to see the wrongs of it now, even with the Trump supporters,” Nguyen says of his group. “The Vietnamese transfer very quick. Even for me, proper now, with the quantity of labor having been carried out since 2017 to get to this dialog is fairly quick.”

Past protests, there are hopes of codifying the MOU into regulation. Lowenthal favors the thought however hedges hopes of the 2020 election altering the stability of energy in Washington, D.C. “Codifying this whereas the administration is within the means of reinterpreting it’s extremely unlikely at this second,” he says. “The large challenge that we have now to do proper now’s complete immigration reform. This could be part of these discussions that we’re going to have.”

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Tania Pham and Alexandra Le. Photograph by Michael Ziobrowski

With ICE concentrating on Vietnamese refugees, Pham’s lengthy record of potential shoppers turned an necessary useful resource for a class-action lawsuit filed by Asian People Advancing Justice (AAAJ) in February 2018, one other entrance within the battle towards Trump’s deportation machine. Each fluent Vietnamese audio system, Pham and Le started visiting the Theo Lacy facility in Orange, the place they interviewed detainees. Phi Nguyen, an Atlanta-based employees lawyer with AAAJ, got here throughout comparable instances in Georgia.

Hoang Trinh and Vu Ha, two of the 4 lead plaintiffs within the go well with, are each OC residents who got here as pre-1995 refugees. Trinh spent seven months at Theo Lacy after serving a yr sentence for possession of a marijuana plant. Ha stayed on the personal Adelanto Detention Middle for 5 months following a theft conviction. Each had legal data much less harsh than Nguyen’s however suffered lengthier spells within the arms of immigration authorities.

The go well with famous between eight,000 and 10,000 Vietnamese individuals have been within the U.S. with deportation orders, most of whom have been pre-1995 arrivals. The U.S. claimed that Vietnam was “prepared to think about” pre-1995 repatriations, however then did an about-face in September. That’s when an ICE official acknowledged that such refugees are not “considerably more likely to be eliminated to Vietnam within the fairly foreseeable future.”

However ICE’s phrase is not any grounds for settlement within the class-action go well with. “That’s what they are saying proper now, and there’s no assure that they gained’t change their place tomorrow with any transparency as to why,” says Christopher Lapinig, a employees lawyer with AAAJ. “That’s why we proceed to litigate this lawsuit and ensure there’s one thing greater than only a assertion from ICE.”

Because the courtroom submitting, it seems that pre-1995 detainees are not being held for prolonged durations of time. In reviewing month-to-month reviews by ICE, Lapinig believes that there’s solely a handful left in detention. The 4 plaintiffs named are not in custody themselves. However each AAAJ and the plaintiffs it represents search a decision that may hold Vietnamese refugees from indefinite detention by establishing their class-based constitutional rights. Even with such a judgement of their favor, it’d nonetheless depart different questions unresolved.

“The lawsuit doesn’t handle the underlying deportation orders that people have,” says Lapinig. “It’s actually simply targeted on the apply of the detention and the time period by which individuals are held. Even for our lead plaintiffs, we’ve inspired them to acquire immigration attorneys in order that they will tackle their underlying deportation orders.”

For Nguyen that meant getting ready for an April 23 listening to in San Francisco that, because of former Governor Brown, proved a formality. Within the backdrop of California’s clashes with the Trump administration over immigration, Brown granted Nguyen a pardon the day earlier than Thanksgiving.

“In recognizing that a pardon might allow Mr. Nguyen to stay within the nation, a volunteer Catholic chaplain at San Quentin Jail wrote that a pardon would give Mr. Nguyen the chance to proceed his advocacy and re-integration work with lately paroled people,” Brown wrote. “Tung Thanh Nguyen has paid his debt to society and earned a full and unconditional pardon.”

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The night time earlier than Nguyen’s remaining courtroom listening to, he made positive to crash in mattress, hoping to keep away from a flood of “what if” ideas. “Going again to courtroom yet one more time actually made me nervous,” says Nguyen. “Everybody thought it was a carried out deal, nevertheless it’s by no means completed till a decide says so.” It helped to have half-a-dozen supporters include him for the large day, together with Pham and Le. Collectively, they headed into an not noticeable financial institution constructing in San Francisco the place a small immigration courtroom rested a number of flooring up.

Decide Arwen Swink referred to as Nguyen’s case early within the morning and shortly requested for Brown’s pardon letter. However Nguyen had framed and proudly hung it in his house. Representing Nguyen, Pham famous she despatched a replica to the courtroom and defined the place the unique was. Swink appeared to obtain the replace warmly, turning to the lawyer representing the federal government to see if there have been any objections; none existed.

Shortly after, the listening to ended with the termination of Nguyen’s deportation order. Swink smiled and wished him the perfect of luck in life—an entire turnabout from the scolding he acquired as an adolescent in legal courtroom.

Every week later, Nguyen confirmed no indicators of slowing down. He provides an interview with Nua Vong Trai Dat TV over Facetime whereas sitting at a desk in Backyard Grove Plaza. However Nguyen’s not speaking about his case; he’s rallying the pressing reason for Lengthy Bao Ho, a father and husband who has been out of jail for a decade after pleading responsible to an ecstasy-pill racket when he was a 19-year-old school scholar (see R. Scott Moxley’s “Vietnamese Teen Turned Position Mannequin After ‘Ecstasy’ Tablets Rap, Now Faces Deportation,” April 23). Since then, he has joined Nguyen’s APIROC group, earned a bachelor’s diploma and began a profitable profession and household.

Ho’s gaining group and congressional help however is slated to be deported as early as this month. “We’re now serving to [Ho]who, sadly, got here in 1998,” says Lowenthal, who as soon as accompanied Nguyen to an ICE check-in alongside Congressman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana). “He doesn’t have the [pre-1995] safety.”

However Nguyen hopes there’s nonetheless a strategy to hold him house, pulling up the MOU on his smartphone and pointing to Article 2, Part four, through which the Vietnamese authorities “might request a humanitarian reconsideration” in the event that they obtain info not beforehand thought-about by the U.S. authorities. In Ho’s case, that’s household separation. “There’s plenty of media publicity concerning the pre-1995 refugees,” says Nguyen. “We haven’t talked about the way it’s additionally unfair to deport post-1995 refugees.”

Others, comparable to Tin Thang, hope to comply with Nguyen’s path to a pardon. Launched on parole because of SB 260, Thang served 22 years and 6 months in jail after being convicted for 2 second-degree murders dedicated when he was 17. “Every little thing that helped me change my damaging conduct, I did it,” says Thang. “I demonstrated all of the constructive change that I completed whereas I used to be in jail.” ICE held him at Adelanto for eight months following his 2017 launch. Thang nervously checked in with the company simply final month and is working to submit a pardon request to Governor Gavin Newsom.

When requested about taking a break from the motion, Nguyen tilts his head again and laughs heartedly. “It’s not proper for me to only stroll away with a pardon when there’s lots of people that also need assistance,” he says. “However then, it’s draining me emotionally and psychologically.” Nguyen could also be free, however the previous eight years have value him lots, together with his marriage. After his ex-wife suffered a miscarriage, Nguyen hid fears of making an attempt to start out a household once more—lest he be deported away from them. Whereas not afraid of going again to Vietnam, he factors to what he doesn’t have in America: financial savings, a house, a profession.

What he does have is an countless demand for his activism. “Now that my deportation ordeal is over, I understand that I’ve an issue with working an excessive amount of,” he says. “I would like to have the ability to handle and stability my time in order that I’ll have the ability to stay free.”

Nguyen additionally muses about going again to high school, turning into a citizen and writing a ebook about his life experiences. He even needs to return to Vietnam to go to and assist deportees there.

The chances lastly appear countless, a far cry from the incarceration- and deportation-hampered hopes of yesteryear.

“America is constructed on the inspiration of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” says Nguyen. “Once I first got here right here as a younger child, I used to be given that chance and messed it up. Now, I’ve been given a second probability, a restored alternative to go ahead.”

Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He additionally as soon as stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in trade without spending a dime meals from DönerG’s!