Op-Ed: Vietnamese refugees who’ve served prison time unjustly face deportation. That must change
Like me, An Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese refugee. We both came here as children. After a life largely spent in Santa Ana, I became the city’s first Vietnamese American council member last year. Nguyen, whose family lives in nearby Cypress, is facing deportation to Vietnam.
I know all too well the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that confront families and children seeking to rebuild their lives in a foreign land. Like many Vietnamese refugees, Nguyen’s father fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War; he spent four years as a prisoner of war. After Nguyen’s mother fled the country in 1985, her seven children finally joined her in 1990.
While resettling in the U.S., Nguyen — facing poverty, racism and bullying — struggled to fit in and feel at home. He was a young man when his life took a wrong turn, and he committed several robberies. While serving more than 20 years in state prison, he took advantage of programs that could help him turn his life around.
Yet, upon completing his prison sentence in October 2019, he was immediately transferred to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement instead of being released to his family and community or given the opportunity to rebuild his life. He was detained, released, detained again — and was last released a year ago.
However, his nightmare has not ended. Nguyen can be deported at any time for being an immigrant who committed a crime — despite a 2008 agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam that excludes Vietnamese nationals who arrived here before July 12, 1995, from being deported to Vietnam.
More than 2,000 Southeast Asian refugees, including Vietnamese refugees who arrived before 1995, have been deported from the U.S. since 2017. As of 2018, about 8,000 Vietnamese immigrants who came to the U.S. at a young age had been impacted by the criminal justice system and the immigration system — both of which can be unforgiving.
Nearly 7,700 Vietnamese immigrants currently facing deportation have a criminal conviction.
Orange County organizations rallied against the deportation of about 30 Vietnamese refugees detained by ICE. The deportation flight out of Texas landed in Vietnam on Tuesday.
This detention of immigrants who have already served their prison sentences is known as “double punishment.” Even though Nguyen is no longer in ICE detention, he still wakes up every day unsure whether he will be deported to Vietnam. ICE can choose at any moment to expel him from the U.S., and only a pardon from Gov. Gavin Newsom can prevent that from happening.
Newsom must immediately use his executive power to pardon Nguyen, who is among the thousands of immigrants who continue to face potential deportation to a country most have not seen since they were children.
And once AB 937 makes its way through the state Legislature, Gov. Newsom must sign it into law. The bill, introduced in February, would protect immigrants who have been deemed eligible for release from being transferred from state prisons and local jails to ICE detention. Leading Asian American organizations such as VietRise and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-California have made clear that this bill is needed to prevent immigrants like Nguyen from being unjustly transferred to ICE detention after completing their jail or prison sentences.
My November election to the City Council in Santa Ana — which has one of the nation’s largest immigrant communities — came after years of attacks on immigrant and refugee communities by the Trump administration, which increased Southeast Asian detainment and deportations by ICE by more than 100% across the country. I am the representative for Ward 1, which has Santa Ana’s largest population of Vietnamese residents, and my constituency has been especially hurt by these attacks.
Despite the Biden administration’s promises to do better by our country’s Asian immigrant communities, ICE deported about 33 Vietnamese immigrants and refugees to Vietnam on March 15. A day before the flight departed, protesters in Westminster Park chanted, “Deporting Vietnamese refugees is anti-Asian violence.” I agree.
The continued deportation of victims of war and of immigrants and refugees is not only wrong but also unconscionable and cruel. The country cannot continue to perpetuate this hateful, inhumane practice.
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