In the days leading up to Tung Nguyen’s check-in with immigration officials in October, he couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep and couldn’t concentrate at work.
In case he got detained, he cleaned the house and made sure his wife knew where to find important financial information so she can take over paying the bills.
“It’s traumatizing,” says Nguyen. “All I think about is that ... this time, I might not come back and see my wife and kid.”
Nguyen came to the US from Vietnam with his family as a refugee in 1991 when he was 13. At age 16, he was convicted of murder and robbery and was sentenced to life in prison. After saving the lives of 50 people during a prison riot, he was granted early release by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011. In Brown’s executive order, he noted that Nguyen did not initiate or participate in the assault and stabbing that led to his conviction. The order also praised Nguyen’s conduct and rehabilitation as “exceptional.”
Today, he lives in Southern California and works construction and other odd jobs. And he’s been checking in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) regularly since his release.
Checking in with ICE is something millions of people in the US do. In the past for Nguyen, it’s meant filling out paperwork and then going on his way. But this time around, Nguyen had been hearing news that ICE was stepping up efforts to detain and deport people like him.
“Something that might not have happened last year could happen this year. It's unpredictable,” says Nguyen, who once had a green card but now has a final deportation order, which means ICE is able to remove him from the US.
At his October check-in, Nguyen says, he was escorted to the back office and his picture was taken. That means ICE is potentially requesting travel documents from his native country, Vietnam, a necessary step before deportation, he says.
Immigrant advocates say the scenario that played out for Nguyen is an increasing occurrence among Vietnamese immigrants with final removal orders, but who had been protected from deportation in previous years. They say it’s part of the Trump administration’s broader immigration crackdown and it’s leaving more immigrants vulnerable.
“People are confused as to why now they're being detained and possibly deported,” says Katrina Dizon Mariategue with the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC). The group recently sent out an alert warning community members about an increase in the number of Cambodian Americans and Vietnamese Americans being detained.
This week, advocates are closely watching Pres. Donald Trump’s Nov. 10 visit to Vietnam. The meeting is seen as a potential setting for the US government to pressure Vietnam to accept more deportees — a move that would deeply impact Vietnamese American communities. There are about 116,000 undocumented immigrants from Vietnam in the US, according to the most recent studies by the Migration Policy Institute, out of almost 1.3 million Vietnamese immigrants overall.
The US and Vietnam have had an agreement since 2008 that allows those who came to the US prior to 1995 to stay, even if they have deportation orders. The agreement was meant to protect people who came into the country as refugees, fleeing war in Vietnam. In 1995, the US and Vietnam restored diplomatic relations.
But this year’s ramp-up seems to indicate that the US is no longer adhering to the agreement, advocates say.
According to SEARAC, as many as 95 cases this year have been submitted to the Vietnamese government for processing, which is seen as a procedural step toward deportation. Those cases involve both pre-1995 and post-1995 immigrants. In comparison, during the 2016 fiscal year, only 35 people were deported to Vietnam.
“This is the first time that we're seeing an administration actually try to force the repatriation of those that came as refugees prior to 1995,” says Dizon Mariategue.
James Schwab, a spokesperson with ICE, released the following statement in response to inquiries about changes to the agreement with Vietnam:
“International law obligates each country to accept the return of its nationals ordered removed from the United States. The United States itself routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked, as do the majority of countries in the world.”
Vietnam is not the only government that’s being pressured to accept more deportees.
In September, the US stopped issuing temporary visitor visas for Cambodian officials and their families. Cambodia historically does not have a good relationship with the US and has been reluctant to take in deportees because many of them were not actually born in Cambodia, but in refugee camps in other parts of Asia.
“What we're seeing is that these community members are being used as political pawns and we don't think that that's right,” says Dizon Mariategue.
Advocates have filed a lawsuit on behalf of Cambodian detainees, saying ICE shouldn’t be allowed to detain people when it’s unclear if they’ll ever be accepted by another country.
“ICE detains people really arbitrarily, there was no rhyme or reason to who got detained, they are just trying to grab up as many people as they possibly can,” says Anoop Prasad, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, which represents immigrants in deportation proceedings. “ICE cannot indefinitely detain people if there's no reason to believe that that individual person's going to be deported in the near future.”
Prasad says what’s happening with Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrant illustrate a broader, more aggressive strategy on the part of the US government.
“I think that's where the US diplomatic priorities are,” says Prasad. “These people are being used as pressure tactics against these countries even when there's really no realistic reason to believe that some these countries will take back that many people.”
Back at the October check-in, Nguyen says immigration officials allowed him to remain in the country under an order of supervision, which requires him to continue to check-in with federal agents. But his situation remains precarious.
“It is safe to assume that there is no more pre-95 or post-95, but it's about all Vietnamese who received final removal orders,” says Nguyen.
Nguyen got involved in as many programs that he could while he was incarcerated. The Orange County Register told his story in December 2016.
When he returned home to Southern California, Nguyen learned there were no resources available for ex-offenders in the Vietnamese community. He created Asian and Pacific Islander Re-entry of Orange County to help formerly incarcerated men and women re-integrate into society.
Still, the US government took away his green card, his legal permanent resident status, and he became undocumented.
These days, Nguyen finds himself spending hours on the phone after work, trying to give advice to others who are anxious about their ICE check-ins. He says most of the people he talks to want to contribute to society.
“We’re the people who made a mistake, we’re building our lives, making America better. We’re not hurting America,” he says.
Hai Nguyen, a member of Tung’s group, was just 15 when he was arrested and convicted of robbery. He was sentenced to 35 years in prison, but was released in 2015 under a California law meant to give juvenile offenders a second chance.
Hai also has a removal order and is worried that he might sent back to Vietnam, a country he’s never been to. Hai was born on a boat while his parents fled to the Philippines from Vietnam in 1982. He says, it’s especially dangerous for him because his father fought with Americans during the war and fled the country after spending years in a concentration camp.
“I'm way beyond the point of worry right now. I am really, psychologically — I'm breaking down,” he says. “I'm going to lose everything, my life might be in jeopardy.”
Hai says he understands why some people would feel he deserves to be deported. But he hopes people can see the difference between those who are criminals and those who are trying to do better.
“There's a difference between an individual that's getting incarcerated and gets out and continues to do crime,” he says. “But there are certain people that actually get out and contribute, pay taxes and everything else. And then on top of that, they spend all the days helping other individuals.”
He says his work with other felons trying to re-enter society is what keeps him going during this time of uncertainty.
“I look at individuals like myself and if I can help one person stay away from crime, I'm doing my job,” Hai says.