A hip-hop concert inside San Quentin State Prison came to a harrowing halt one morning in 2006, with bass-rattling beats replaced by the sounds of a blaring alarm. Tung Nguyen, an inmate serving a life sentence after a first-degree-murder conviction for a Garden Grove slaying, knew a riot had erupted before prison guards ordered everyone to get on the ground. He saw a rumble in the crowd, one that transformed moments later into visible punches flying between black and Mexican inmates.
Tasked with acting as security for rappers, nonprofit workers and volunteers, Nguyen ignored the prison guards’ commands. Instead, he flashed an instinctual look at a half-dozen others from his inmate activity group, each member of which understood the need to shield visitors from the melee. “Once we formed a line, I could see the fear in their eyes,” says Nguyen. “We ushered them to safety.”
By the time they came back, prison guards quelled the riot but allowed the group to stay behind and clean up. They later debriefed on the morning’s mayhem. “The prison guards actually said we did a good job maintaining the peace,” Nguyen recalls. “Nobody ever talked about it after that until I went to the parole board two years later.”
His heroics proved pivotal in showing himself to be a changed man. But despite his best efforts, he was denied parole in 2008, with one board member deriding him as an “assassin.” The inmate, who spent his entire adult life behind bars but wasn’t the fatal stabber in the 1994 murder, didn’t give up hope. He traded his job at the Catholic chapel for study time at San Quentin’s law library. Two years later, Nguyen won parole with a release date set in 2023.
He’d still be locked inside prison today if not for an intervention from then-California Governor Jerry Brown in 2011. Reviewing all parole decisions for that year, the governor’s office reversed 71 of them and modified only one: Nguyen’s case.
“Mr. Nguyen was commended by a correctional lieutenant in 2009 for his role in escorting a group of approximately 50 civilians to safety when they found themselves on the prison yard during an inmate riot in 2006,” Brown wrote in an April 1, 2011, decision. “The lieutenant made a point of commending Mr. Nguyen for his courage in protecting the civilians in the face of possible retaliation by rioting inmates, and concluded that this incident showed the ‘authentic change’ in his decision making that he had undergone since his incarceration.”
In ordering his immediate release, Brown allowed Nguyen to walk out as a free man for the first time since being imprisoned at 16 years old. But his freedom proved short-lived. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) waited outside San Quentin and took him into custody, detaining him for two weeks inside a federal building in San Francisco. A Vietnamese refugee when he arrived with his family to Orange County in the early 1990s, Nguyen’s conviction cost him his green card.
Worrying about being deported to Vietnam didn’t weigh heavily at first; a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the United States and Vietnamese governments offered protections against repatriations for Vietnam War refugees such as Nguyen, who arrived before July 12, 1995.
But anxiety arose when Donald Trump campaigned for the presidency in 2015, stirring up a wave of xenophobia against non-white immigrants. After becoming president, the chill became real in 2017, when ICE arrested and detained Vietnamese refugees with past criminal convictions; fears also ran rampant through Little Saigon in OC, the largest such ethnic enclave in the nation following a post-war wave of Vietnamese “boat people” refugees, about Trump seeking to renegotiate the MOU to have Vietnam accept more deportees, pre-1995 or not.
The targeting of a population once considered off-limits sent shockwaves through the Vietnamese American community, including its loyal Republican base in OC.
“Before Trump came into office, the campaign itself already instilled fear in me,” says Nguyen. “After the election, my sense of freedom died.”
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Born a year after the Fall of Saigon in 1975, Nguyen grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, as the capital was renamed under communist rule. His father fought against the government as a soldier in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. Nguyen witnessed local police harass his father. As his son, Nguyen was treated unfairly at school. Sure, Nguyen’s parents passed down an anti-communist animus, but he began developing that sentiment on his own against the government and police. “I didn’t even know what my future could be,” he says. “On top of that, I kept hearing my family talk about how when I reached a certain age, the government was going to enroll me in a military school.”
To avoid that, the Nguyen family left Vietnam in 1991, stopping at a refugee camp in the Philippines before settling in the United Stated. Nguyen’s mother had an uncle who lived in Santa Ana; he helped them move into an apartment that was nicer than their digs in Vietnam. Nguyen enrolled at Saddleback High School while still adjusting to life in a new country. “The first six months were rough,” he says. “There were a lot of Vietnamese students, but at the same time, I got looked at like I was weird. After school, I’d take my backpack and hurry home, where at least my brothers were.”
Getting called a “nip” by classmates and sitting by himself every lunch period only fueled the isolation. The freshman finally found a sense of belonging when Vietnamese gang members approached him one day. “After school, they asked me if I wanted to hang out,” Nguyen recalls. “I decided I wanted to go kick it with them.” Soon, he started sporting baggy pants fastened with a military web belt that hung down by the side. He shaved his head, save for lengthy, slicked-back bangs.
“I hated gang members when I first came here,” says Nguyen. “I despised them, but I ended up becoming one of them.”
When not ditching and stealing from department stores, Nguyen got into fights at school. In one incident, he defended himself from three teens who pummeled him, trying to stab one with a dart. The tussle got him expelled from Saddleback High.
Another fight, on April 13, 1993, almost cost him his life. A friend of Nguyen’s had gotten into a heated argument over the phone with Tuan Truong, an old acquaintance who owed him money. Nguyen got into a black Isuzu with two friends and headed to the Inn Cal Motel in Garden Grove to teach Truong a lesson in respect. “We were supposed to go there just to talk shit, let these two fools beat the shit out of each other, and then go home,” he says. Armed with knives, the trio barged into Truong’s room. Nguyen held one person at knifepoint while acting as lookout. In the midst of the motel melee, Nguyen’s friend stabbed Truong’s thigh, a fatal puncture to the 20-year-old’s femoral artery.
At one point, Nguyen peered through the curtain and saw a police car outside the motel. When he looked again, it disappeared from sight. Believing they were in the clear, the trio returned to their Isuzu and sped off. A Garden Grove policeman heard a radio call shortly after about a slain victim at the motel he had just patrolled. He had already pulled over the Isuzu and later discovered blood stains on Nguyen’s friends. “Bloody Trio Arrested After Fatal Stabbing,” read the headline of the Los Angeles Times the following morning. Because Nguyen was a minor, the story identified him as a 16-year-old from Santa Ana.
Tried as an adult, he stood accused of first-degree murder and robbery alongside his associates. “I never thought I’d be convicted,” he says. “I thought I’d get in trouble for my participation to the degree that I was there.” But the verdict found Nguyen guilty of all charges against him. All that he could do in that stunning moment was stare at the Superior Court judge’s nameplate, which read, “Judge David O. Carter.”
“After the jury verdict, I lost it,” Nguyen says. “I didn’t care anymore.” When he headed back to a Santa Ana courtroom for sentencing, another man in the inmate van tried to start an argument. A sheriff’s deputy later escorted him and his accoster into a holding cell. “As soon as the deputy took off my handcuffs, I piled on him,” Nguyen recalls. “That incident got reported to the judge.” Carter, now in the public eye as a U.S. District Judge at the forefront of a landmark OC homelessness lawsuit, sentenced Nguyen to 25 years to life with harsh words he’d ultimately prove wrong: “You cannot be redeemed!”
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Freed from prison, Nguyen hustled odd jobs and construction gigs. It made money, but as a studious inmate who learned how to advocate for himself, Nguyen sharpened a skill set better suited for community organizing. At San Quentin, he formed the KidCAT group for juvenile lifers like himself. In and out of prison, Nguyen successfully advocated for state laws such as Senate Bill 260 that called for earlier parole hearings—ones that’d offer due consideration for inmates convicted before turning 18—later revised to 23. Seeing a need in the community, Nguyen also founded the Asian & Pacific Islanders Re-entry of OC (APIROC).
But the activist shifted his focus from juvenile-justice reform to immigration in 2017, when he began hearing about deportation cases affecting the Vietnamese community. His phone soon flooded with calls for help. Responding to the overwhelming anxiety in the community, he formed the Vietnamese Anti-Deportation Network—and the work hasn’t stopped since.
“I started constantly handling cases,” says Nguyen. “People got detained. I explained to them what happened. Basically, I became a case manager.”
A key document in the fight comes in the form of the MOU between the U.S. and Vietnam. It offered clear guidelines on deportations for almost a decade. “Vietnamese citizens are not subject to return to Vietnam under this agreement if they arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995, the date on which diplomatic relations were re-established between the U.S. government and the Vietnamese government,” reads an important passage.
But all that changed when Trump began ramping up enforcement actions against Vietnamese refugees, including those who arrived before 1995, while the Department of Homeland Security confirmed meeting with the Vietnamese Embassy.
“The United States and Vietnam signed a bilateral agreement on removals in 2008 that establishes procedures for deporting Vietnamese citizens who arrived in the United States after July 12, 1995, and are subject to final orders of removal,” James Thrower, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, told The Atlantic in December. “While the procedures associated with this specific agreement do not apply to Vietnamese citizens who arrived in the United States before July 12, 1995, it does not explicitly preclude the removal of pre-1995 cases.”
And those cases started to pile up.
Tania Pham and Alexandra Le, two local Vietnamese American attorneys, note an influx over the past two years. “Before Trump, the pre-1995 Vietnamese were detained for only 90 days, and then they’d get released,” says Pham. “Now, many of them have been detained for more than six months, and some of them were approaching more than a year. I was getting calls all around the country and didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t possibly file a habeas corpus for every single person.”
Uneasy conversations within the community followed, especially since cases involved Vietnamese refugees with criminal pasts. “It’s a shame, really, because we’re like ostriches,” says Le. “We still have the mentality of shame and think that we have to hide the bad things about ourselves and our community. Yes, we have relatives and friends who did something a long time ago that they might not be so proud of. But, hey, they grew, overcame and became successful.”
Prominent Vietnamese American politicians in OC weighed in with surprising stances. Huntington Beach-based state Assemblyman Tyler Diep and county Supervisor Andrew Do, both Republicans who came to the U.S. as refugees, signed a Dec. 13, 2018, letter to the president that asked him to reconsider his policies. Michelle Park Steel, a Korean American county supervisor, followed up seven days later with an op-ed in the Washington Times. “We’ve seen the deadly effect of criminal illegal aliens being released to wander our streets due to California’s ‘sanctuary’ laws,” Steel wrote, affirming her past support for Trump’s lawsuit against the state. “However, deporting Vietnamese refugees who have committed crimes is not in the same category, nor does it call for the same arguments for deporting criminal illegals.”
Democrats also gave Trump an earful that same month. Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) led a coalition of 26 House members who expressed dismay with the administration’s agenda. “Since 2008, the MOU has not been renegotiated,” the Dec. 13 letter read. “We strongly oppose any renegotiation of the MOU that strips the current protections afforded to Vietnamese refugees, including the exclusion from the agreement of pre-1995 immigrants and the humanitarian considerations provided to all others.”
Nguyen helped to organize a protest on the streets of Little Saigon in December that brought dozens out in Westminster to oppose any such effort. “They’re beginning to see the wrongs of it now, even with the Trump supporters,” Nguyen says of his community. “The Vietnamese move very fast. Even for me, right now, with the amount of work having been done since 2017 to get to this conversation is pretty fast.”
Beyond protests, there are hopes of codifying the MOU into law. Lowenthal favors the idea but hedges hopes of the 2020 election changing the balance of power in Washington, D.C. “Codifying this while the administration is in the process of reinterpreting it is highly unlikely at this moment,” he says. “The big issue that we have to do right now is comprehensive immigration reform. This might be a part of those discussions that we’re going to have.”
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With ICE targeting Vietnamese refugees, Pham’s long list of potential clients became an important resource for a class-action lawsuit filed by Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ) in February 2018, another front in the fight against Trump’s deportation machine. Both fluent Vietnamese speakers, Pham and Le began visiting the Theo Lacy facility in Orange, where they interviewed detainees. Phi Nguyen, an Atlanta-based staff attorney with AAAJ, came across similar cases in Georgia.
Hoang Trinh and Vu Ha, two of the four lead plaintiffs in the suit, are both OC residents who came as pre-1995 refugees. Trinh spent seven months at Theo Lacy after serving a year sentence for possession of a marijuana plant. Ha stayed at the private Adelanto Detention Center for five months following a robbery conviction. Both had criminal records less harsh than Nguyen’s but suffered lengthier spells in the hands of immigration authorities.
The suit noted between 8,000 and 10,000 Vietnamese people were in the U.S. with deportation orders, most of whom were pre-1995 arrivals. The U.S. claimed that Vietnam was “willing to consider” pre-1995 repatriations, but then did an about-face in September. That’s when an ICE official acknowledged that such refugees are no longer “significantly likely to be removed to Vietnam in the reasonably foreseeable future.”
But ICE’s word is no grounds for settlement in the class-action suit. “That’s what they say right now, and there’s no guarantee that they won’t change their position tomorrow with any transparency as to why,” says Christopher Lapinig, a staff attorney with AAAJ. “That’s why we continue to litigate this lawsuit and make sure there’s something more than just a statement from ICE.”
Since the court filing, it appears that pre-1995 detainees are no longer being held for extended periods of time. In reviewing monthly reports by ICE, Lapinig believes that there’s only a handful left in detention. The four plaintiffs named are no longer in custody themselves. But both AAAJ and the plaintiffs it represents seek a resolution that will keep Vietnamese refugees from indefinite detention by establishing their class-based constitutional rights. Even with such a judgement in their favor, it’d still leave other questions unresolved.
“The lawsuit doesn’t address the underlying deportation orders that individuals have,” says Lapinig. “It’s really just focused on the practice of the detention and the period of time in which people are held. Even for our lead plaintiffs, we’ve encouraged them to procure immigration attorneys so that they can address their underlying deportation orders.”
For Nguyen that meant preparing for an April 23 hearing in San Francisco that, thanks to former Governor Brown, proved a formality. In the backdrop of California’s clashes with the Trump administration over immigration, Brown granted Nguyen a pardon the day before Thanksgiving.
“In recognizing that a pardon may permit Mr. Nguyen to remain in the country, a volunteer Catholic chaplain at San Quentin Prison wrote that a pardon would give Mr. Nguyen the opportunity to continue his advocacy and re-integration work with recently paroled individuals,” Brown wrote. “Tung Thanh Nguyen has paid his debt to society and earned a full and unconditional pardon.”
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The night before Nguyen’s final court hearing, he made sure to crash in bed, hoping to avoid a flood of “what if” thoughts. “Going back to court one more time really made me nervous,” says Nguyen. “Everyone thought it was a done deal, but it’s never done until a judge says so.” It helped to have half-a-dozen supporters come with him for the big day, including Pham and Le. Together, they headed into an inconspicuous bank building in San Francisco where a small immigration court rested a few floors up.
Judge Arwen Swink called Nguyen’s case early in the morning and quickly asked for Brown’s pardon letter. But Nguyen had framed and proudly hung it in his home. Representing Nguyen, Pham noted she sent a copy to the court and explained where the original was. Swink appeared to receive the update warmly, turning to the attorney representing the government to see if there were any objections; none existed.
Shortly after, the hearing ended with the termination of Nguyen’s deportation order. Swink smiled and wished him the best of luck in life—a complete turnabout from the scolding he received as a teenager in criminal court.
A week later, Nguyen showed no signs of slowing down. He gives an interview with Nua Vong Trai Dat TV over Facetime while sitting at a table in Garden Grove Plaza. But Nguyen’s not talking about his case; he’s rallying the urgent cause of Long Bao Ho, a father and husband who has been out of jail for a decade after pleading guilty to an ecstasy-pill racket when he was a 19-year-old college student (see R. Scott Moxley’s “Vietnamese Teen Became Role Model After ‘Ecstasy’ Pills Rap, Now Faces Deportation,” April 23). Since then, he has joined Nguyen’s APIROC group, earned a bachelor’s degree and started a successful career and family.
Ho’s gaining community and congressional support but is slated to be deported as early as this month. “We’re now helping [Ho], who, unfortunately, came in 1998,” says Lowenthal, who once accompanied Nguyen to an ICE check-in alongside Congressman Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana). “He doesn’t have the [pre-1995] protection.”
But Nguyen hopes there’s still a way to keep him home, pulling up the MOU on his smartphone and pointing to Article 2, Section 4, in which the Vietnamese government “may request a humanitarian reconsideration” if they receive information not previously considered by the U.S. government. In Ho’s case, that’s family separation. “There’s a lot of media exposure about the pre-1995 refugees,” says Nguyen. “We haven’t talked about how it’s also unfair to deport post-1995 refugees.”
Others, such as Tin Thang, hope to follow Nguyen’s path to a pardon. Released on parole thanks to SB 260, Thang served 22 years and six months in prison after being convicted for two second-degree murders committed when he was 17. “Everything that helped me change my destructive behavior, I did it,” says Thang. “I demonstrated all the positive change that I accomplished while I was in prison.” ICE held him at Adelanto for eight months following his 2017 release. Thang nervously checked in with the agency just last month and is working to submit a pardon request to Governor Gavin Newsom.
When asked about taking a break from the action, Nguyen tilts his head back and laughs heartedly. “It’s not right for me to just walk away with a pardon when there’s a lot of people that still need help,” he says. “But then, it’s draining me emotionally and psychologically.” Nguyen may be free, but the past eight years have cost him a lot, including his marriage. After his ex-wife suffered a miscarriage, Nguyen hid fears of trying to start a family again—lest he be deported away from them. While no longer afraid of going back to Vietnam, he points to what he doesn’t have in America: savings, a home, a career.
What he does have is an endless demand for his activism. “Now that my deportation ordeal is over, I realize that I have a problem with working too much,” he says. “I want to be able to manage and balance my time so that I’ll be able to live free.”
Nguyen also muses about going back to school, becoming a citizen and writing a book about his life experiences. He even wants to return to Vietnam to visit and help deportees there.
The possibilities finally seem endless, a far cry from the incarceration- and deportation-hampered hopes of yesteryear.
“America is built on the foundation of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” says Nguyen. “When I first came here as a young kid, I was given that opportunity and messed it up. Now, I’ve been given a second chance, a restored opportunity to go forward.”
Gabriel San Román is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and the tallest Mexican in OC. He also once stood falsely accused of writing articles on Turkish politics in exchange for free food from DönerG’s!