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Vietnamese Man From OC Sues Immigration Authorities After Repeated Deportation Attempts

A 48-year-old man of Vietnamese descent with a shaven head looks somberly into the camera, with a window with slatted blinds behind him.
An Nguyen of Cypress is suing federal immigration authorities after a third detention.
(still frame via Zoom)
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An Nguyen thought he would be free to restart his life after serving 26 years in prison for robberies he committed when he was 20.

But since Nguyen’s release from California state prison in 2019, he has been in and out of immigration holding cells and living in constant fear of being deported to Vietnam, which his family fled in the war's aftermath.

This week, Nguyen sued Immigration and Customs Enforcement over the last time he was detained, which was in 2020. His attorneys say that detention violated a court order.

It was the agency’s third attempt to deport Nguyen in less than a year. Nguyen, now 48 and working as a forklift operator, said he had been lured to the ICE office in Los Angeles under the pretext that his ankle monitor would be removed. But then he was handcuffed.

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“They tricked me to come and then they put me back in detention to deport me,” Nguyen said. “I told [the officer] I had a court order to prevent me from being deported. But ICE did not listen to me, did not care.”

An ICE spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Nguyen’s case is the latest to galvanize California’s immigrant advocates who are trying to stop the Biden administration from deporting former inmates. They’re also calling on California leaders to end the state prison-to-ICE pipeline. The first time Nguyen was detained by ICE was when he was transferred to the agency by the state upon his release from prison.

A bill pending before the state legislature, called the VISION Act, would bar state law enforcement agencies from assisting ICE with inmate transfers. The Asian Law Caucus said that during the 18-month period between Jan. 2020 and July 2021, the state handed nearly 2,200 formerly incarcerated Californians over to ICE.

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The VISION Act, introduced by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo of Los Angeles, has gathered support among Southeast Asian community groups and prisoners' rights advocates. They argue that incarcerated immigrants and refugees who committed crimes as young people in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and violence are being “double-punished” after completing their sentences.

“The VISION act is one structural remedy to address the anti-Asian violence and racism in the immigration system,” said Allison Vo of the Orange County-based VietRISE.

ICE says it removes non-citizens who threaten public safety and national security. In Nguyen’s case, the agency has been thwarted multiple times.

Its first attempt to remove him after he was released from prison in Nov. 2019 failed when Vietnam would not repatriate Nguyen, allowing him to return to his family in Cypress.

In March 2020, Nguyen was detained again, just as the pandemic was quickly worsening. After a month at Adelanto ICE Processing Center, his lawyers won his release, arguing his asthma made him especially vulnerable to COVID-19. U.S. District Court Judge Terry Hatter declared Nguyen could not be detained again without the court's permission.

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So when Nguyen was told to report to the ICE office in July 2020 to get his ankle monitor removed, he was shocked to be placed in a holding cell. His legal team intervened, and later that day Judge Hatter ordered Nguyen’s release and found ICE in contempt of court.

“I have been doing this work for about 10 years and I've seen very few cases where ICE persistently went after a person, even in violation of the court order,” said Nguyen’s attorney, Jenny Zhao of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus. “We think it's emblematic of an agency that tends to go rogue and doesn't believe that it's truly accountable to the law.”

Nguyen's mother was the first to arrive in the U.S., coming as a refugee. Other family members would join her, including Nguyen who came in 1990 as a legal permanent resident when he was 17. He recalls being “young, naive, and immature” and dealing with the intergenerational trauma of the Vietnam War. He said his father had been imprisoned by the Vietnamese government for four years after the war.

Nguyen struggled in school and was bullied for his inability to speak English. He said he fell in with the wrong crowd and helped commit several armed robberies in the fall of 1993. He was convicted on counts of robbery, burglary, assault and sexual battery, according to the Asian Law Caucus. While he maintains that his co-defendants committed the assault and sexual battery, he took full responsibility for his role in the robberies.

“I failed to see things right or wrong,” Nguyen said at a press conference Tuesday. “I make many mistakes. That led me to the situation where I am today.”

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Nguyen’s fight to stay in the U.S. has drawn the support of Orange County activists and community leaders such as Santa Ana Councilmember Thai Viet Phan, who last year penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that the detention of immigrants who have completed prison sentences is tantamount to a “double punishment.”

She and other community leaders have been calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to support the VISION Act and are leading a petition drive pressuring him to pardon Nguyen to ward off deportation.

“Governor Newsom has to do better. And I know he can,” Phan said.

Asked about Nguyen’s quest for clemency, Newsom’s office said in an email that it does not comment on individual cases. Last year, the governor granted pardons to two Laotian men who had fought wildfires as inmates after their impending deportations drew national attention.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.