Five years after arriving in the U.S., Long Bao Ho, a Southern California-based Vietnamese refugee, directed a 2004 narcotics deal that would bring him pain and anguish—and, years later, make him the face of a growing cause célèbre in Little Saigon. Ho organized the sale of 10,000 banned ecstasy (or MDMA) pills for $60,000. But the then-19-year-old college student didn’t know that one of his co-conspirators unwittingly tried to sell the party-circuit drugs to an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in a Riverside parking lot.
That crime produced a staggering 379 months in federal-prison sentences for the seven arrested defendants. Given Ho’s key role, he faced the harshest potential time: a maximum of 151 months of incarceration. But he negotiated a deal: In exchange for pleading guilty before trial in 2005, the government dropped some charges and reduced his time to 70 months, plus a $10,000 fine.
Ho later contested the fine and sentence, arguing they were unfairly greater than ones given to his co-defendants. In 2007, a U.S. District Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit panel rejected his complaint. The judges ruled the stiffer sentence was reasonable because Ho was “more involved in the conspiracy” than the others, who’d agreed to testify against him. They also upheld the fine.
More than 65 percent of freed inmates in California commit additional crimes and return to custody within three years. After his release in August 2009, Ho proved an exception to that high recidivism rate. He earned education degrees, found a wife in 2012, fathered two boys, managed an Irvine company and created his own side business that produced around $80,000 in annual income. Ho also donated to charities, treated his family to luxury vacations and kept himself out of trouble.
But the Westminster resident is now living in a nightmare. Nine years after securing his freedom and molding himself into a model green-card resident, Ho was re-arrested, this time by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents acting on a stale September 2009 deportation order the government previously failed to enforce. During his first year in office, President Donald Trump issued orders to crack down on non-citizens who’ve committed aggravated felonies as well as convinced Vietnam to accept more deportees. His target? About 8,500 Vietnamese living here.
“After Trump’s election, everything changed,” Ho declared in court. “[Deportation] will permanently separate me from my wife and children. Additionally, I am anti-communist because of what they have done to my family. I have made anti-communist posts on my Facebook page, and I am friends on Facebook with actively anti-communist persons.”
Ho says one of his grandfathers served as a high-ranking government official in what was South Vietnam and endured persecution—including the loss of a family estate—when the North Vietnamese communists took over in 1975. Initial efforts by his family to flee by boat through Thailand were unsuccessful. But in 1998, at the age of 13, he made it to Los Angeles with his dad, stepmother and two step-siblings.
To block deportation, Ho hired James D. Riddet, one of Orange County’s elite defense attorneys. Riddet campaigned against his client’s forced removal. He highlighted Ho’s rehabilitation and importance to his wife and kids. He even asked prosecutors to show compassion by reducing the conviction to an offense that didn’t qualify for deportation, but his efforts failed.
Undeterred, Riddet last year took the case to U.S. District Court Judge Dale S. Fischer, arguing Ho wouldn’t have pleaded guilty in the non-violent drug case if he’d fully understood the deportation consequences. “Mr. Ho pled guilty to conspiracy to distribute MDMA after being affirmatively misled by his appointed criminal-defense counsel that his guilty plea was unlikely to lead to his deportation,” Riddet advised Fischer. “Mr. Ho realized he had been misadvised after the election of Trump, the U.S. Government’s ensuing roundup of deportable Vietnamese citizens and Trump’s extensive efforts to ensure that deportable Vietnamese citizens would actually be deported.”
Assistant United States Attorney Frances S. Lewis believed Ho hadn’t been misled, wondered why he’d waited 12 years to challenge the conviction and urged his deportation. “At his  sentencing, Ho unsuccessfully argued for a downward variance [from 70 months to 46 months of incarceration] before this court, in part, because he faced deportation to Vietnam after his release,” Lewis told the judge. “ICE initiated removal proceedings after he served his 70-month sentence. In those proceedings, the defendant requested immediate removal to Vietnam, stating under penalty of perjury that he understood he was removable and that he did not believe he would be persecuted or harmed if he returned to his home country.”
According to Lewis, Ho signed a 2009 document that guaranteed he would leave and not re-enter the U.S. for 20 years without permission from the Attorney General. He also “has not provided any evidence that the government would have permitted him to plead to a non-deportable offense or that he would have insisted on going to trial when all six of his co-defendants pleaded guilty before trial,” she observed.
Last July, Fischer sided with Lewis. “While Ho asserts that he would have proceeded to trial if he had known that deportation was ‘mandatory,’ the court finds this assertion to be incredible on its face and that there was no reasonable probability that he would have proceeded to trial. Ho was facing a sentencing-guideline range of 121 to 151 months if he had gone to trial, but the plea agreement lowered his range to 70 to 87 months. It is not credible that he would have gone to trial with a strong chance of conviction and an additional 50-plus-month prison sentence in exchange for a small chance of acquittal and escape from deportation.”
Ho—who is being held in a federal detention center in San Bernardino—likely will be deported in the coming days. Agents have advised him to have his bags prepared for the one-way trip. His plight earned coverage on April 16 in Little Saigon’s Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese-language daily newspaper in the nation. The paper published numerous endearing photos of Ho and his family, sad quotes from his wife about her anxiety, and a story ending that goes like this in translation: “America is extremely humane. But America is also cruel for what is happening to families like Ho’s.”
Some people see this deportation as counterproductive.
“[Ho’s] dedication and passion toward rebuilding a better community is the perfect example of people who make a mistake in life, who paid for it through incarceration and, most important, who turned their terrible experiences into something beneficial to save lives,” according to Tung Nguyen, founder of Asians and Pacific Islanders Re-Entry of Orange County (APIROC), a nonprofit group that helps former inmates re-adjust to life outside of prison. “The community needs people like Ho.”
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; earned six dozen other reporting awards; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; featured in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.