A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was knocking on Tung Nguyen’s door during a disturbance at a hip-hop concert at San Quentin State Prison in 2006.
While conducting a tour of the prison for about 50 non- profit workers and volunteers, a riot broke out between Black and Hispanic inmates. Ac- cording to Nguyen’s interview for OC Weekly, correctional officers ordered all inmates on the ground, but Nguyen ignored their commands. He and his fellow inmate tour guides formed a line in front of the terrified visitors to protect them from the riot.
“Once we formed a line, I could see the fear in the [visitors’] eyes,” said Nguyen. “We ushered them to safety.” In a debriefing after the riot, the officers said that “we did a good job maintaining the peace,” Nguyen recalled.
In 2010, four years later, Governor Brown gave Nguyen a 2011 parole date for his heroic act.
Born a year after the fall of Saigon in 1976, Nguyen came to the U.S. in the early 1990s. Ostracized by class- mates, who called him a “Nip,” Nguyen turned into prime recruiting material for a Vietnamese gang for protection. In 1993, at age 16, one of Nguyen’s fellow gang members fatally stabbed someone over an unpaid debt. Accused of first-degree murder and robbery alongside his associates, Nguyen did not think the charges would result in convictions, but the jury found him guilty. He received a sentence of 25 years to life.
Later when Nguyen was released on parole, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) waited outside San Quentin to arrest him. Nguyen was confined inside a federal building in San Francisco for two weeks. As a Vietnamese refugee, Nguyen had lost his U.S. Permanent Residency Status – his green card – because of his conviction.
Initially, Nguyen was protected from deportation due to a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the U.S. and Vietnamese governments. The agreement vowed to harbor Vietnam War refugees such as Nguyen, who entered the U.S. before 1995.
However, this protected condition changed with the election of Donald Trump. In 2017, ICE started to arrest and detain Vietnamese refugees with criminal convictions. President Trump has since begun seeking to renegotiate the MOU to deport more people to Vietnam, pre- 1995 or not.
Nguyen’s act of heroism at San Quentin once again saved him from deportation. Nguyen applied to then Gov. Jerry Brown for a pardon, and in 2018, on the day before Thanksgiving, he received the pardon. It was granted partly because of his courageous act during the riot. The pardon effectively erased his conviction, protecting Nguyen from ICE’s target list.
After his release from prison, Nguyen has lived an exemplary life. He success- fully advocated for early parole hearings in SB260. He also founded the Asian and Pacific Islanders Re-Entry of Orange County (APIROC). After 2017, he shifted his fo- cus to immigration in cases that affected the Vietnamese community.
Vietnamese citizens who have run into problems with the law flooded him with calls. Many had entered the U.S. prior to 1995, the period protected by the MOU.
Nguyen says this has turned him into a case manager for such persons. He offers advice, explains to them how they can help themselves and describes to them the processes they may encounter.
Nguyen’s advocacy does not end here. In December, 2018, he helped organize a protest on the streets of Little Saigon, a Vietnamese area in Orange County.
That same month, “Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D- Long Beach) led a coalition of 26 House members, who expressed dismay with the administration’s agenda,” re- ported the OC Weekly. A Dec. 13 letter signed by Lowenthal and his supporters read, “We strongly oppose any renegotiation of the MOU that strips the current protections afford- ed to Vietnamese refugees, including the exclusion from the agreement of pre-1995 im- migrants and the humanitarian consideration provided to all others.”
In order to get MOU codified into law, Representative Lowenthal is counting on the 2020 election to change the balance of power in Washington, D.C. He believes any codifying of this issue while the administration is trying to renegotiate the terms of MOU will be unlikely to succeed.
Lowenthal considers comprehensive immigration reform as the issue of greater importance for the next administration, according to The OC Weekly.