Today, at 48, with a son and two young grandsons in Kentucky, he faces the prospect of being sent back to Vietnam, a country he has not visited since he left and where he has no relatives or friends.
Huynh is one of about 8,000 Vietnamese potentially caught up in a tough new immigration policy adopted by the Trump administration, significantly escalating deportation proceedings against immigrants who have green cards but never became U.S. citizens and have violated U.S. law.
Huynh, who helps out these days in his family’s nail salons, has several criminal convictions. In his 20s, he served nearly three years behind bars for dealing in the drug ecstasy; more recently, he served a year’s probation for driving under the influence, and he was given another period of probation for running illegal slot-machine “game rooms” with his girlfriend in Texas, where he now lives.
He acknowledges that he made mistakes but says he accepted his punishments and tried to build a life here. Now he risks losing it all.
“My mother is 83 years old right now, and I want to be here when she passes away,” he said by telephone from Houston. “I don’t have anybody in Vietnam. My life is here in the United States.”
Nearly 1.3 million Vietnamese citizens have immigrated to the United States since the communist takeover of South Vietnam in 1975. Many came in the wave of “boat people” who made headlines in the late 1970s as they fled Vietnam in overcrowded and unsafe vessels.
The new arrivals were given green cards when they reached the United States, but many — Huynh among them — lacked the education, language skills or legal help needed to negotiate the complex bureaucratic process of obtaining citizenship.
Many came as children, attended schools and colleges in the United States, worked, paid taxes and raised families. Decades later, their lives and families could be ripped apart again.
The Trump administration, in a policy shaped by senior adviser Stephen Miller, has reinterpreted a 2008 agreement reached with Vietnam by the George W. Bush administration — that Vietnamese citizens who arrived before the two countries established diplomatic relations in 1995 would not be “subject to return.” Now, the White House says, there is no such immunity to deportation for any noncitizen found guilty of a crime.
Critics of the shift accuse the administration of reneging on the 2008 agreement. The State Department disputes that, citing a line in the agreement noting that both sides “maintain their respective legal positions” regarding the pre-1995 arrivals.
“The U.S. position is that every country has an international legal obligation to accept its nationals that another country seeks to remove, expel, or deport,” the State Department said in a statement, declining to respond on the record specifically on the issue of Vietnam.
The Trump administration’s view is that the 2008 agreement was not aimed at protecting a certain population of immigrants from political persecution if they were returned to Vietnam.
Rather, the administration asserts, the deal was reached after a “stalemate” between the United States and Vietnam over the pre-1995 immigrants that has not been resolved, said a senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“We were in a situation in which for a long time they were accepting zero people back,” the official said. “The theory [in 2008] was, ‘Let’s try to create a functioning system and try to get them to take back at least some portion of the convicted-criminal population.’ ”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement public affairs officer Brendan Raedy said enforcement resources are focused “on individuals who pose a threat to national security, public safety and border security.”
Opponents of the new policy say the Vietnamese in question were refugees from a communist regime and deserving of a haven in the United States.
At least 57 people who arrived before 1995 were in ICE detention in mid-June, according to figures that ICE supplied to attorneys. An additional 11 have been sent back to Vietnam, where they are certain to face suspicion from the security services for their perceived loyalty to the defunct South Vietnamese state. Several are struggling to obtain the identity cards they need to work or even drive, attorneys say.
Vietnam does not want them back, said former U.S. ambassador to Vietnam Ted Osius, who was appointed by President Barack Obama.
“The majority targeted for deportation — sometimes for minor infractions — were war refugees who had sided with the United States,” he wrote in an essay for the American Foreign Service Association’s Foreign Service Journal after leaving office. “And they were to be ‘returned’ decades later to a nation ruled by a communist regime with which they had never reconciled.”
Some committed violent crimes and have served their prison terms. Others were convicted of various nonviolent crimes, including possession of marijuana, passing counterfeit money or driving under the influence, attorneys say.
“Some of the crimes took place in the nineties when people were initially being resettled here, growing up in poor neighborhoods and often being bullied,” said Phi Nguyen, litigation director at the Atlanta chapter of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who has filed a class-action lawsuit in California requesting a stay on the detentions.
Huynh was served a deportation order after being released from prison in 2006 and was kept for four more months in immigration detention before the authorities acknowledged that Vietnam would not take him back.
In 2017, after his conviction for running the unlicensed gambling operation, he was ordered to report to a probation officer every month.
“The first month I went to report, it was Obama as president, and it was okay,” he said. “The second month, it was still Obama, and it was still okay. But the third time when I went to report, Donald Trump had taken over. It was February 2017; Donald Trump had only taken over 17 days before. ICE picked me up outside the probation office.”
Huynh was to spend another year in immigration detention.
Tung Nguyen came to the United States in 1991 as a 13-year-old: His parents had adopted an Amerasian daughter, and the whole family was allowed to immigrate under the Amerasian Homecoming Act. But with his parents working long hours in low-paid jobs just to put food on the table, he was often left alone and struggled to adapt.
“I was young, I didn’t speak English, and I was bullied at school, so I took refuge in people who had a similar identity, to give me a sense of belonging,” he said by telephone from Santa Ana, Calif. That meant associating with Vietnamese boys who were living a “gangster-like” existence, he said.
In 1994, when he was 16, he was involved in a fatal stabbing, stemming from an argument over “respect.” Tung held a knife but didn’t carry out the stabbing; he was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. But after Tung served 18 years, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) reviewed his case and released him on parole on the basis of “exceptional rehabilitation.”
Tung has since dedicated himself to helping crime victims and offenders in the Vietnamese American community and working for juvenile justice reform. In 2014, he got married. This year, the Open Society Foundations awarded him a Soros Justice Fellowship, recognizing him as an “outstanding individual” working to improve the U.S. criminal justice system.
“I don’t have a child of my own because I can’t live with the fact that any day, they can come and take me,” he said. “This is my life; this is my home.”
Former ambassador Osius calls the new U.S. policy “repulsive” and racist.
“To me, it is very tragic and very un-American,” he said in an interview. “That we would treat people in this way, people who sided with us in the war and the children of our soldiers.”
Huynh finally reunited with the American side of his family in 2016, after a DNA test led him to a cousin who was trying to find his own father — the younger brother of James A. Falls, Huynh’s father.
There was bad news and good news. Huynh found out that the man he had wondered about all his life had died when Huynh was just 4, in a car accident in the United States in 1974. But he also found an older half brother and a half sister and his father’s two younger sisters, who live near him in Houston. “Both my aunties really love me,” he said. He can’t imagine leaving his entire family behind now.
“For years, America was a country that used to help people escape communist repression in Vietnam,” said Tom Malinowski, who served as assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor in the Obama administration. “Now, here we are forcing people to go back to it and asking the government of Vietnam to be complicit in that.”
David Nakamura contributed to this report.