Tin Nguyen arrived from Vietnam as a boy, in 1979, with hope for a better future in a new country. But his refugee story took a bad turn.
As the only Vietnamese kid in his grade school classes, he was bullied. As a teen, he joined gangs and, as an adult, he committed crimes. Nguyen ended up doing 20 years for murder and robbery.
But Nguyen turned his life around in prison. And, last year, after his sentence was commuted, he was given a chance at freedom.
That’s when he was picked up for deportation, to be sent back to a country he hadn’t seen for decades.
On Wednesday, a day after a petition was filed in court seeking his release, his family and supporters, including two regional Congressional representatives, gathered outside the Santa Ana offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to draw attention to Nguyen’s plight. In seeking his release from the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, they said his detention is unconstitutional and a violation of an agreement between Vietnam and the United States.
“We’re calling on our elected officials, community members, and our Vietnamese community in Orange County, to take action to prevent the deportation of a Vietnamese refugee,” said Allison Vo, of VietRise, a local social justice organization.
Nguyen, now 47, arrived in the U.S. at the age of 6.
As a second grader in Pomona and the only Vietnamese kid in his class, he was called names and bullied. As a teen, he used drugs and drank and he joined Vietnamese gangs, one in Pomona and, later, a separate gang in Los Angeles.
In 1996, he killed a jewelry importer in San Jose. Three years later, after being found guilty of murder and robbery, Nguyen was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
For some two decades, Nguyen felt remorse and, according to his family and supporters, worked to turn his life around within the confines of prison.
In a 2018 interview with the online publication Boom California, Nguyen said: “How do I express my remorse and say, “I am so sorry” to a man whose life and future I took, to a family whom I hurt, or to the community I damaged? It’s not enough. And I realize that I must do this in person…”
He took college classes through a Cal State program at Lancaster prison. And he overcame his fear of dogs to work in a program that trains shelter dogs to work as therapy animals.
“Twenty years in prison changes a man’s life,” said Nguyen’s sister, Cheri Li, of West Covina. “Tin today is college educated, disciplined, compassionate and eager to give back to society.”
One prison to another
On Christmas Eve 2018, California Gov. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence. And a year later, Nguyen, a parolee, walked out of prison in Lancaster, only to be picked up by immigration agents who took him to an immigration detention facility in San Bernardino County.
“He never walked free. He never saw his mother. He never saw his family,” said his attorney, Ben Seelig.
Nguyen remains at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center, where he faces possible deportation. Immigration officials are seeking to deport him because of his criminal convictions, Seelig said.
If he’s sent back to Vietnam he faces a potentially difficult future. He has no family there and his Vietnamese language skills are limited.
“What happens if he goes back to Vietnam is a big question,” Seelig said. “His family fled…He’s afraid he could potentially be arrested.”
His supporters include two House members, Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, and Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana. Both sent representatives to the Wednesday press conference advocating for Nguyen’s release. Both said that Nguyen has rehabilitated himself and deserves another chance.
They also noted that if his deportation is carried out it would violate a 2008 repatriation agreement between the United States and Vietnam. That agreement protects Vietnamese refugees who came to the United States before 1995 from deportation back to their native land.
Santa Ana Councilman Vicente Sarmiento, who also is supporting Nguyen, said society should be welcoming him back. “But what do they do? They wait outside and they detain (him) for something else.”
Other supporters include two professors from Cal State Los Angeles, the school that offered Nguyen his college classes while in prison.
“Tin is not only one of the strongest students in our Cal State L.A. BA class at Lancaster, but also one of its leaders: a man who constantly helps his fellow students, organizes study groups, mentors weaker students and is an inspiration to all those who encounter him,” wrote Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy in a 2019 letter on Nguyen’s behalf.
Another professor, Taffany Lim, helped Nguyen find pro bono counsel, Seelig, the San Francisco attorney who filed a petition in federal court Tuesday.
Seelig said the U.S. government last month repatriated 30 Vietnamese Americans, including a dozen who arrived before 1995, despite the 2008 agreement between the two countries. A 2018 lawsuit challenging the indefinite detention of some Vietnamese is pending.