A Lifetime in Limbo
SAN FRANCISCO, 30 May
Nhan (not his real name) fled Vietnam by boat in 1980. He left his wife, child and parents behind to come to the United States in search of freedom and a better life, and hoped to someday be able to sponsor his family to come over as well.
He settled in Kansas, and worked in a meatpacking company, skinning cows in an underground work area. Nhan says he was provoked by a co-worker and they got into a fight with knives, and Nhan ended up stabbing his co-worker. The man he injured survived, and a judge ordered Nhan to serve three years probation. After he fulfilled the terms of his probation, Nhan was ordered deported by a judge.
'I was defending myself. I wasn't looking for trouble,' said Nhan. 'Why do I have to pay the debt for the rest of my life? I left my country to find freedom, but here in the beginning, I didn't know much, didn't know the language, I was just working to make a living and improve my life, but the incident occurred and I lost everything. I lost my future.'
For nearly two decades, Nhan has been living in a state of limbo. Vietnam still has no repatriation agreement with the United States, so he's still living here, now in California. He has no residency permit, known as a green card, has to reapply every year for a work permit and has to check in with his local immigration office every three months.
'It was hard to find work. I tried to commit suicide,' recalled Nhan. 'At that time, Vietnam was just opening up, it was possible to make telephone calls home. My wife and child asked me to do paperwork to sponsor them to the United States. But, with my situation, I couldn't sponsor them. There was no future. I couldn't get work, I was depressed. I tried to commit suicide.'
'They found me and took me to the emergency room. I survived. Then I got the hospital bills. I found charity groups to help me pay them off, and I applied for government aid.'
Nhan cannot travel to Vietnam to visit his family, and he can no longer sponsor them to the United States. For him, the hardest part of his situation is the family separation.
'I have no future. I have nothing. I can never sponsor my family over. I can never see them again. I will never see my parents again. When my mother was sick, I wasn't able to go to see her before she died. My wife and child are in Vietnam, and they don't understand why I don't visit them or sponsor them over. I haven't told them. I haven't told anyone. No one can help me, so I keep it to myself.'
Lou, who did not want to give his last name, previously lived under a deportation order for 10 years. He arrived in the United States as a three-month-old political refugee from Laos, and grew up in Oakland, California. When he turned 18, he landed himself in jail with a two-year sentence. Upon release, he was picked up by immigration officials and shipped off to a detention facility in San Pedro, Terminal Island. Lou said the five months he spent in detention was the worst time in his life.
'You're treated less than human,' he said. 'They are not telling me I have to stay for any amount of time but at the same time, they're not going to let me go either, so there's uncertainly hanging over your head day by day by day. There are some guys there [the detention facility] from Cuba, who have been there since the early '80s and they're still there to this day, but have received no hearing and no sentence.'
Lou said after several months, he was simply told to go home and check in with his local immigration office every so often. He didn't think much about it again until after he got married. Soon after, Lou and his wife Maricar received a deportation order for Lou in the mail. Maricar, a U.S. citizen, says their lives suddenly became uncertain.
'Should we think about having children? We wanted a couple of kids before age 30 but we've had to put that on hold,' she said. 'And, what's the point of us saving all this money and me put away money for retirement if you're [Lou] not even going to be here, or what's the point of owning another home if you're gone and I can't afford to pay the mortgage on my own, that's even if I decide to stay what if I decide to go with you.'
Lou and Maricar sought legal help from the Asian Law Caucus, which has seen two dozen cases similar to that of the husband and wife. Attorneys there helped Lou obtain a hearing and a rare reversal of his deportation order. With his green card restored, the couple is now making a fresh start. They want to have children and savor their time together.
Nhan is still waiting for an ending to his story.
Despite all he's been through, he wants to stay in the United States, and says that if someday Vietnam takes him back, he would be filled with heartache, not happiness.
'If I committed crimes and had to be returned, then I must be a criminal. Even if I were wrongly accused, no one understands that. If I were deported, I must be a bad person,' he said.
Eddy Zheng, who served 19 years in prison for a crime he committed at age 16, could be sent back to China at any moment, but he says he's made peace with that.
Behind bars, Zheng learned to read and write, and even self-published an anthology of essays from incarcerated Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He's spending the time his has left speaking to youth about making positive choices and the importance of education.
'At the time, I was kicked out of school, and basically, I was going reckless with my life,' Zheng told IPS. 'I didn't speak much English, I had no education, low self-esteem, and I was naive and materialistic.'
'My family did the [prison] time with me, especially my mom and dad, but their mind wasn't free. It was haunted,' he said.
*This article is the last of a two-part series on the impact of U.S. deportation policies on the South Asian immigrant community. Part one appeared on May 28.