The United States involvement in the Vietnam War was well-intentioned — American leaders sought to save South Vietnam from communist rule — but incompetently conducted and ultimately catastrophic. The conflict cost the lives of 58,000 Americans and 3.1 million Vietnamese on both sides. (Many of the victims, to be sure, were killed by communist forces.) The one small bit of redemption lay in the United States’ willingness to open its arms to the South Vietnamese who fled communist tyranny beginning in 1975.
The United States initially helped to evacuate 125,000 refugees. Today, 1.3 million people born in Vietnam live in the United States. They have a higher median income than the native-born, and their ranks include generals, doctors, lawyers, novelists, members of Congress and successful executives. But inevitably in any large population there will be a few wayward souls. President Trump is now trying to deport more than 9,000 Vietnamese refugees who have been in trouble with the law — even though all of them already served their time, in many cases for nonviolent offenses committed when they were much younger.
The only thing standing in the way is a 2008 agreement between Hanoi and Washington that precludes the deportation of refugees who arrived before 1995. But the Trump administration is trying to browbeat the Vietnamese government into rescinding that accord. If Trump is successful, the result will be the expulsion of Vietnamese Americans such as 43-year-old Nam Nguyen.
Nguyen recently related his amazing life story to me in a telephone conversation and emails. He was born to a South Vietnamese army officer and his wife just a month after the fall of Saigon. His father, who had fought alongside U.S. troops, was shipped off to a brutal reeducation — i.e., concentration — camp, while his mother struggled to provide for Nam and his older brother. In 1983, she became so desperate that she placed 8-year-old Nam and his 9-year-old brother on a small boat crowded with other refugees fleeing the country.
As many as 200,000 “boat people” died at sea. Nam and his brother were among the lucky ones. Their boat was attacked by pirates, but the two little boys made it to a U.N. refugee camp in Indonesia. Two years later, in 1985, the boys came to the United States. Nam wound up in a series of foster homes and group homes in Orange County, Calif. He fell in with a rough crowd. When he was 17 years old, some of his friends got into a fight with another group of teenagers in a pool hall. The fight escalated outside, and a couple of shots were fired in the air. No one was hurt, but everyone was booked for assault with a firearm.
According to what Nguyen told me, supported by immigration records provided by his lawyer, he was sentenced to probation. Just before his probation was over, he was arrested along with a friend who had drugs on him. Nguyen spent 16 months in jail — and when he got out, he was remanded to the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now Immigration and Customs Enforcement). He spent four more years being shuttled between jails. In other words, he did far more time for his offense than a citizen would do for the same crime.
Along the way, Nguyen developed a drug problem. In 2004, he overdosed and had a near-death experience. When he recovered, he became a born-again Christian. He attended a seminary to become a pastor and now ministers to troubled Vietnamese American youths while also working as the manager of a Northern Virginia store serving the Vietnamese American community. He hasn’t been in trouble with the law since 2009.
Nguyen now has a house, a steady job, and a wife and two young children who are American citizens. But he lacks U.S. citizenship or even a green card; he needs to get his work permit renewed every year. He is a living testament to the possibility of redemption, yet he and his family live in constant fear of the ultimate punishment — deportation.
“If I get deported,” he told me, “my kids won’t have a dad, my wife won’t have money to pay the mortgage or health insurance. They will become homeless. If I get deported, it will victimize my own family.” Nguyen, too, will be a victim if he is sent to Vietnam. He says: “I feel like I’m American. I’ve been here all my life. If I go back to Vietnam, I will probably be persecuted because I’m a kid from the old government — I will be viewed as a traitor.”
If Trump does succeed in deporting Nam Nguyen and thousands of other Vietnamese Americans, it will be a tragedy not just for them and their families. It will be a tragedy for all of America. The United States establishes a sacred bond with allied states when U.S. troops shed blood alongside their own. Deporting Vietnamese refugees would be another betrayal of South Vietnam and of America’s own Vietnam veterans.