Episode 005: Hello, Freedom Man

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About the episode

Under the Trump administration, the United States has pushed aggressively to deport Southeast Asian Americans with criminal records. Hurt that members of the Vietnamese community would support this action, guest producer Thanh Tan (creator of the podcast “Second Wave”) seeks out the people at risk of deportation — and the organizers fighting to keep them in the only home they’ve known. Along the way, she learns to embrace a new direction for Vietnamese Americans confronting the deeply rooted narrative of “the good refugee.”

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Resources and Recommended Reading:

  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones.

  • "Know Your Rights" resources to prepare for ICE raids written in Arabic, Bangla, Burmese, Chinese, Dar/Farsi, Gujarati, Hindi, Karen, Khmer, Korean, Nepali, Punjabi, Tagalog, Urdu, and Vietnamese, compiled by the Asian American Federation in NY.

Primary sources:

Reporting and analysis on the federal government’s role in detention and deportation of immigrants:

Reporting and analysis on the detention and deportation of Vietnamese Americans and Cambodian Americans:

Credits:

  • Produced by Thanh Tan and James Boo

  • Edited by Julia Shu and Cheryl Devall

  • Production support by Austin Jenkins, Jamala Henderson, Kevin Rinker, and Merk Nguyen

  • Sound engineering by Timothy Lou Ly

  • Theme music by Dorian Love

  • Music by Blue Dot Sessions and Epidemic Sound


Shout Outs:

John Woo and Kerry Donahue voiced the English translations of Thanh’s parents. Thanks to Julia Preston and Willoughby Mariano for their advice on reporting this story.


About:

Self Evident is a Studitobe production. Season 1 is presented by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), the Ford Foundation, and our listener community. Our show was incubated at the Made in New York Media Center by IFP.

About CAAM: CAAM (Center for Asian American Media) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting stories that convey the richness and diversity of Asian American experiences to the broadest audience possible. CAAM does this by funding, producing, distributing, and exhibiting works in film, television, and digital media. For more information on CAAM, please visit www.caamedia.org. With support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, CAAM provides production funding to independent producers who make engaging Asian American works for public media.

Transcript

CATHY: Hey, it’s Cathy.

CATHY: This episode of Self Evident discusses some pretty heavy stuff: war, kidnapping, suicide, incarceration, deportation, family separation, and the trauma that comes with all of these things.

CATHY: It’s not graphic, but it’s honest. Also, you’ll hear some four-letter words that aren’t beeped. Just thought you should know.

Cold Open


SOUND: ABC’s “Nightline” theme song plays on an old TV set

THANH: So, I remember when I was a kid, I would sneak out of my room in the middle of the night. Everyone would be asleep… except my dad.

MUSIC: Deliberate, forward-moving beat

CATHY: That’s Thanh Tan. She’s a Seattle based producer, a storyteller… and the daughter of refugees from Vietnam.

THANH: He’d be sitting on the couch in his pajamas, watching Nightline. And I would hide under the kitchen table, and kind of secretly watch the news with him.

SOUND: News anchor announces the fall of the Berlin wall

THANH: This was 1989. And these really extraordinary things were unfolding around the world. Germans were tearing down the Berlin Wall. Chinese protesters took over Tiananmen Square. The Soviet Union was on its last legs.

SOUND: News clips describe events heralding the end of the Cold War

THANH: He was waiting to hear that Vietnam was next. He wanted to know that Communism was over in his homeland.

THANH: But... that never happened.

THANH: So when I was growing up in Olympia, my dad never let me forget that we were lucky to be here.

THANH: He would bring me along to political events for Vietnamese Americans.

THANH: Where I would always feel this... sense of pride. Lots of Vietnamese faces, banh mis, signs calling for human rights and political change back in Vietnam. The stars and stripes of America next to the flag of South Vietnam.

MUSIC: Everything drops except the backbeat

SOUND: President Ronald Reagan, during his farewell address, tells a story: “As the refugees made their way through the choppy seas, one spied the sailor on deck, and stood up and called out to him. He yelled, ‘Hello, American sailor. Hello, freedom man.’”

THANH: And it just felt like… here we are. Refugees in Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill.

THANH: You know, we’re alive. We’re together. Always ready to stand up for freedom.

CATHY: What do you think about those memories today?

MUSIC: Backbeat drops out and a haunting tone lingers

THANH: Well, in a lot of ways it was an illusion. I could tell you about that for hours. It gets really complicated.

CATHY: Mm, yeah. And what about that feeling of pride?

THANH: Well, I look around today. The U.S. is accepting a record low number of refugees seeking asylum, while there’s a record number of people being displaced in the world.

THANH: The government is running detention camps filled with children at the border.

THANH: And at the same time, former refugees in the U.S. from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos have been targeted for deportation.

CATHY: Yeah.

THANH: So the question I’ve been asking is: Does this America really match our values?

THANH: And if not.. what are we, as Vietnamese Americans, going to do about it?

MUSIC: Theme music starts

Open

CATHY: This is Self Evident, where we challenge the narratives about where we’re from, where we belong, and where we’re going… by telling Asian America’s stories

CATHY: This season is presented by the Center for Asian American media.

CATHY: I’m your host, Cathy Erway. And today I’m handing we’re mic to Thanh, who brings us this story about people being detained without knowing when they’ll ever see home again...

Dy: At that time no one has been ever released from ICE after incarceration. Only deportation.

CATHY: ...whether someone gets a chance to change their life after making a mistake….

Kris: If you're a U.S. citizen, you could do a heinous crime multiple times, and when you get out, you still have that chance of redemption. If you’re an immigrant and you committed a crime, you don't have that — you don't have that ability.

CATHY: ...and organizers who are changing the political voice of Vietnamese Americans in a major way.

Nikki: It’s not just blood family. It’s a whole group of people that you’ve never met before who will come together and support you.

MUSIC: Theme music ends

Lan: Today, there is a realization that that dream of a free and democratic Vietnam is much further away than we had hoped, but the dream remains alive.

THANH: That’s Lan Diep, a second-generation Vietnamese American, and a member of City Council in San Jose, CA.

THANH: In March 2019, he publicly denounced the Trump administration’s deportation of Vietnamese refugees.

THANH: Specifically, refugees who’ve been convicted of crimes and served their time… but under our immigration laws, can be thrown back into a prison and deported to the very country that they, or their parents, escaped years ago.

Lan: We’re sending people back… who don’t speak the language, who aren’t respected as people with full rights back in Vietnam….

Lan: ...to a country that sees you as a traitor, that sees you as somebody who would undermine the existence of the government, who has used tactics like re-education camps, who don’t see you as an equal citizen.

THANH: The San Jose city council supported Diep, because several hundred San Jose residents could be at risk. But the people who showed up to oppose him… were Vietnamese elders.

San Jose resident: We don’t want to keep criminal that’s in America… even we are, that’s a refugee.

San Jose resident: We don’t care about this, and deport them. 9,000 people. If you deport them to Vietnam, that’s fine.

THANH: That tension and division that we Vietnamese Americans face in our own communities, when the question of supporting Trump comes up… might be the biggest reason I’m doing this story about deportation.

THANH: I mean, OUR story IS a refugee story.

THANH: After the Communists won the war, my dad was sent to a re-education camp for six months.

THANH: Then, he and my mom fled Vietnam by boat, to avoid being persecuted by the government, and to give my older sister — who was their only child at the time — a shot at a better life.

THANH: So many others share our story. Which makes me ask, how we can possibly support the deportation of our own people BACK to Vietnam?

THANH: The first place I started looking for answers was in my own family.

Part 1: Dad

SOUND: Thanh and her dad greet each other

THANH: I try to visit my parents whenever I can.

SOUND: Thanh and her parents prepare pho

THANH: Stereotypical as this sounds, we make pho and catch up.

THANH: And eventually, I can’t help but bring up the subject of refugees and who deserves to be here.

Thanh: Dad likes politics. Mom, do you like politics?

Mom: No. Anything related to politics I don’t like. Gives me a headache.

Mom: Let me live in peace. I don’t like committees, meetings. I don’t like it.

THANH: My mom prefers to stay out of these discussions. Which is common for Vietnamese Americans. The war was traumatic and bloody. They were pulled in different directions by different political factions, often against their will. A lot of people didn’t make it out alive.

THANH: So I don’t blame my mom for wanting to put it all behind her.

THANH: Dad’s different. He leans into these conversations.

Dad: Some things sit well with your conscience. Some things don’t. That’s why it’s not just about politics.

THANH: He’s thoughtful and kind, and never has a knee-jerk reaction. So I feel OK asking him for his thoughts about the people trying to get into America today.

Thanh: What do you think about separation at the border children being taken from their parents?

Dad: So, the separation policy from a human standpoint, of course, that's not nice. It's not a good policy.

Dad: But if you think about the reality though, it could be a deterrent.

Dad: If people know that possibility is there, perhaps they won’t put themselves in that kind of danger.

Thanh: Well, what if, like, the Vietnamese refugees who fled and came to seek asylum in the Philippines and Malaysia... what if they had separated the children from the parents?

Dad: Well, we were different. The Vietnamese were different.

Dad: We weren’t coming right up to the U.S. border. We were seeking asylum from other Southeast Asian countries.

Dad: When we fled Vietnam, we knew it would be dangerous. We knew we could die at sea.

Dad: And really, we had no idea what the future held. We saw there were people going to America, Australia and other countries. But we didn’t know where we’d be accepted.

THANH: Once my parents made it to Washington, he and my mom volunteered to help later waves of Vietnamese refugees resettle in their community. He’s passionate about human rights, and he knows that fleeing is not a decision to take lightly.

THANH: Of course, the circumstances for migrants from the Middle East, Africa, Central America… they’re all different from the refugee process he went through.

THANH: But the shared experience that I see, of people fleeing for their lives, doesn’t seem to register.

THANH: And it’s even harder to grapple with the experience of refugees who’ve been convicted of a crime, and are about to be deported. To him, it all seems pretty black and white.

Thanh: So there are Vietnamese refugees who have criminal records of all kinds. Some of those records have been vacated, some of them are people who have served their time, and there are thousands of them now who are at risk of being deported back to Vietnam. How do you feel about that?

Dad: With regards to the deportees…

Dad: They let us in by the hundreds of thousands. You're bound to have some bad apples in there, and we need to be thoughtful about this.

Dad: If you've come here as a refugee, and you've lived here, and you continue to commit crimes, and you continue to cause problems in America, then maybe there’s a good reason for you to go back to Vietnam.

Dad: But if they’ve been tried and punished already, and they’ve followed the law all these years… then we should continue to be open-minded and welcome them here.

THANH: Honestly, as far as refugee families go, we’re the lucky ones. My dad and I have never personally known anyone who was sent back to Vietnam.

THANH: So I wanted to meet some of the people our community talks about, even argues about, but doesn’t really give a chance to speak for themselves.

Part 2: Detention

SOUND: Dy leads a prayer in Vietnamese

THANH: Thats Dy Nguyen, leading a prayer with the youth group at his church in Atlanta.

SOUND: Dy leads a short hymn in Vietnamese

THANH: Dy and his mother moved from a Malaysian refugee camp to the U.S. when he was 12 years old, in 1998.

THANH: As a teenager, Dy got onto the wrong side of the tracks. He ran away from home, and in 2008, he committed a burglary that landed him in state prison for five years.

THANH: That conviction took away Dy’s green card and made him eligible for deportation. So when he finished serving his sentence, ICE took him straight from the penitentiary to a detention center.

THANH: But Vietnam did not take Dy back, so after a few months, he was released... under the condition that he check in with ICE on a regular schedule to review his status, and show he was staying out of trouble.

MUSIC: Hopeful piano tune begins

THANH: And Dy took that pretty seriously.

Dy (preaching to youth group): We have to change constantly. Renew our mind constantly. Changing to be, to become the person like Christ each and every day.

THANH: He turned his life around. He reconnected with his mom. He became a really respected member of his local church.

THANH: He started mentoring teenagers and trying to help people avoid the same mistakes he’d made.

Dy (preaching to youth group): Following Jesus is not easy sailing. There's going to be hatred from the world, there’s going to be jealousy from the world.

Dy (preaching to youth group): As long as we are in this world, we're going to face trouble being a Christian, being a disciple of Christ.

MUSIC: Hopeful piano tune ends

THANH: Three years after he left prison, Dy got married. He and his wife had their first child in 2017. And just a few months later, they got a call from Dy’s mom.

Dy: She said there was some ice agents at her house looking for me. And I told my wife that I went to report, like, two weeks prior to that day. They didn't say anything to me.

Dy: So they came over, and I went out and talked to them because they give me a reason. They were saying that “Your address is not updated into the system, so we need to bring you into the office.”

Dy: But deep down inside my guts, I had a bad feeling about this.

Dy: Because things had happened, you know, to my friends who are in the same situation as me, and it has came to my attention that they are incarcerating people left and right, you know. So when it came to my house, I knew something is up.

Dy: But I don't want to refuse. I don't want to resist, you know. I want to show them that I'm complying with them.

Dy: And they handcuffed me. They brought me into the back of the car. You know, they did not give me a chance to say goodbye to my kid and wife.

Dy: And as I was in the car, handcuffed and sitting in the back… I asked the guy, “Hey. You know, my wife is not here, my kid’s not here, your supervisor's not here. It's just me and you. Am I going in for good?”

MUSIC: Mysterious beat begins

THANH: While Dy was trying to figure out what was going on, he was not the only one being picked up by ICE.

Phi: We started hearing that all of these Vietnamese people across the country were being detained.

THANH: That’s Phi Nguyen, the Litigation Director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta.

THANH: She’s leading a class action lawsuit against ICE, arguing that it’s illegal to detain certain Vietnamese people for indefinite amounts of time, when Vietnam will not take those people back.

Phi: And the story that was told to these individuals was, "We're taking you in. The Vietnamese government is in town. They will be interviewing people to see if they will accept individuals back for repatriation. And after these interviews we'll let everybody go home.”

THANH: But that’s not what happened to Dy.

Dy: And when I got to the actual prison. That's when I realized the whole journey was just a series of lies from ICE.

Dy: From the beginning, where they were, when they came to my mom’s house, to all the way when I was finally incarcerated... and they're just a series of lies, because I found out my fellow, you know, Vietnamese in there... some of them eight months have not been released, or whatnot, so... I was heartbroken.

Phi: All of these Vietnamese people were being basically transferred to Stewart Detention Center, which is I think two and a half hours from Atlanta. It's in the middle of nowhere.

Dy: At that time no one has been ever released from ICE after incarceration. Only deportation. So a few friends of mine has been deported, you know during the first sweep. And all of us are worried every day of that because of that fear.

THANH: We asked ICE what their agents are told to communicate to someone when taking them in, but they did not provide an answer.

THANH: Anyway, Phi found Dy with the help of other lawyers and advocates on the ground.

MUSIC: Mysterious beat fades out

Phi: Like one of the organizers was in contact with one of the folks who was detained. And so, through that one contact in the inside, we were able to help organize the folks on the inside, to give us a lot of information about who was there, what their names were, and what their A numbers were, and we — and we gave out a number that they could call for free.

Dy: it was good news for all of us. You know, I my wife let me know, and I let the group know, said, “Hey, you know, brothers. There’s going to be a group of lawyers.” They’re going to come here. They're going to interview us. They're going to see us and see what they can help.”

Dy: So everybody was encouraged just to know that there was a group of people that are out there fighting for us.

Ad Break

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Part 3: The Fine Print

CATHY: Thanh… why exactly ARE people like Dy being rounded up like this?

THANH: So, this is where things get complicated.

THANH: The U.S. has a long, long history of detaining and deporting immigrants. It goes beyond political parties.

THANH: But to focus on what’s happening to Dy and thousands of other Vietnamese Americans right now, let’s go back to January, 2017.

SOUND: Broadcast news anchor says, “In a major development in the Trump administration’s premier week, with the stroke of a pen, the former real estate developer launched...”

THANH: One of the first things that President Trump did after being sworn into office was sign three executive orders.

MUSIC: Pensive tune begins

THANH: One of those was the travel ban, but the other two orders focused on border security and deportation.

THANH: The Obama administration had been quietly deporting people over the years.

SOUND: President Barack Obama says, “Over the past six years, deportations of criminals are up 80%.”

THANH: But with those two executive orders, the Trump administration went even further, by instructing ICE to detain and deport anyone who can legally be deported.

THANH: And that set the stage for the escalation of immigration enforcement that we’ve seen all over the country.

CATHY: Like separating kids from their parents at the border with Mexico.

THANH: Right. But also going after people like Dy, who came to the U.S. as refugees, were convicted of a crime while they were not citizens, and became eligible for deportation because of that.

CATHY: I see, so that’s why Southeast Asian Americans who’ve lived here for years are affected. Even if what we see on the news is people being detained at the border.

THANH: Yeah, and ICE has detention facilities all over the country, and they’re deporting Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Lao refugees... Many of whom have no real connection to their heritage countries, and could actually be in danger if they were sent back.

CATHY: But if all these folks were already legally deportable, what was stopping ICE from doing that before?

THANH: Well, ICE can’t deport an individual without government approval from the countries accepting the deportation.

THANH: And if you look at Cambodian Americans, hundreds of people actually have been deported, and those deportations started before Trump was elected.

THANH: That said, the Trump administration IS actively putting pressure on countries, like Cambodia and Vietnam, to accept higher numbers of deportees.

THANH: When we reached out to ICE on this story, they confirmed that the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State have been working together, with this view that every country is obligated to accept deportees.

CATHY: So this is part of a plan.

THANH: Yeah, I think that’s fair to say. These departments are looking at the number of countries who don’t want to accept deportees. And they’re measuring progress in terms of reducing that number — and reducing the number of people who’ve been approved for deportation, but are still living in the U.S.

CATHY: I see.

MUSIC: Pensive tune ends

THANH: ICE told us that in 2017, the U.S. government put visa sanctions on Cambodia, because they historically have not accepted deportees. As a result of those sanctions and other efforts, deportations to Cambodia increased by 279% from 2017 to 2018. And those efforts continue today.

CATHY: OK. And what about the Vietnamese government?

THANH: Well, since 2008, the Vietnamese government and the U.S. government have had a Memorandum of Understanding — which everyone calls “the MOU” — saying that Vietnam will ONLY accept Vietnamese American deportees who arrived AFTER July 12, 1995.

CATHY: But why —

THANH: Why this date? It’s when Vietnam and the U.S. restored diplomatic relations after the war.

THANH: That might seem random, but the thing to know is this: If you’re a Vietnamese refugee who got here before July 12, 1995, the Vietnamese government won’t take you back as a deportee.

THANH: But the Trump administration has reinterpreted the MOU to exclude refugees with criminal records, treating them as deportable, regardless of when they arrived in the US. Even though nothing’s changed with the agreement itself.

THANH: And when the Trump administration started putting pressure on Vietnam to accept more deportations, even the U.S. ambassador to Vietnam resigned in protest.

CATHY: Is Vietnam OK with this?

THANH: We’ve reached out to the Vietnamese Embassy in Washington to ask about this, we but haven’t gotten a response.

THANH: At the end of the day, ICE has the authority to detain anyone with a deportation order, even if they’re not likely to be deported.

CATHY: OK. So what about Vietnamese refugees who came here after July 12, 1995?

THANH: They’re not protected in this way. But the MOU specifically says that the U.S. will consider “humanitarian needs” and “family unity” when deciding who should be deported.

CATHY: That sounds a lot like Dy. Because he came in the late 90s, right? 

THANH: Yeah, 1998. And he fits the bill perfectly for someone with strong family ties in the U.S.

THANH: But Dy spent six months in prison, technically waiting for the Vietnamese government to provide documents that would repatriate him to Vietnam.

THANH: They never did. So eventually, ICE let his wife come and take him home.

THANH: But that doesn’t mean he feels safe.

Dy: Before, I don't have to be afraid of my status. Before I don't have to be afraid that I'll be deported back to Vietnam, or whatnot.

Dy: But as of right now, you know, I have to think of that In every decision that I make, every plan that I plan for the future...I have to include that in... you know, what if they come by and pick me up and I'll never see my family again.

THANH: Now, when he has his check-ins with ICE, they ask him if he’s written to the Vietnamese Embassy...

Dy: ...saying that, "Yeah, we okay to go back, just give us the, you know, our travel documents. We are okay with it, we want to go back."

Dy: This is not something that I want to do. But I have to do in order for me to comply with the things that they ask. You know, so we were forced to write something that we don't... it's not truthfully what we want to write.

Thanh: But has Embassy ever responded to you?

Dy: No. The embassy has never responded to us. Um...

Thanh: Do you think anyone in Vietnam is actually reviewing your case?

Dy: To tell you the truth, no. But Trump Administration, he constantly putting pressure in, on Vietnamese government, so…

Dy: If they start to really review our case and issue our travel documents, you know. People will get, you know, picked up again and sent back home.

Thanh: If that happens to you, what are you going to do?

Dy: This is something that I… never want to think of, or my mind will shut down or will not allow me to think further when it comes to this, because when it's come’s to that point... this is it. For, for, for me. I know I have to go.

Part 4: Second Chance

SOUND: Sunday service music at Dy’s church

THANH: Dy gathers with his church twice a week. They’re basically part of his family, and without their support, it’s hard to imagine how he and his wife would get by.

Elizabeth, Dy’s friend: That one mistake should not define who they are.

Elizabeth, Dy’s friend: I think this world sometimes it's so technical that we follow the rules and regulation, but we don't really put that passion or compassion to be able to sit down and listen to someone's story...

THANH: Going through this process with Dy has changed how his congregation thinks about immigration enforcement.

Tai, Dy’s friend: ...seeing what happened to Dy, I feel like… you know, it could happen to anyone. And, you know, it's not a good thing. It's not a good thing separating from their family, from their kids. You know, it's just something that I wish it doesn't happen to anyone, you know, so...

THANH: They were already very forgiving of his past. But NOW they’re seeing what their community has in common with other immigrants who are being detained and deported.

Tai, Dy’s friend: ...yeah, so we see a lot of, not only Vietnamese people getting, getting taken away by ICE. We also see Latinos. We also see Laos. 

Tai, Dy’s friend: So I hope that the whole Community will work together and support each other, if you’re Lao, you’re Latino, you’re Asian, if you Vietnamese, it just... you know, hopefully they'll work together and just have this, you know change somehow.

THANH: Here’s the thing. Dy’s a model citizen, surrounded by people who know and love him. He’s the kinda guy my dad would want to protect from deportation.

MUSIC: Pensive tune begins

THANH: But there are lots of Dys, people who came to the U.S. without a lot of support, lived in low-income or high-crime neighborhoods, experienced racism and trauma from being displaced, and ended up making mistakes because of that.

THANH: Right now, the law treats them all the same and deports them all the same.

THANH: The question isn’t whether we’re throwing out the good refugees. The question is whether non-citizens deserve the same second chance that citizens get.

Phi: And so I struggle with the idea that I have to humanize my clients. Because they are humans.

THANH: That’s Phi again, the lawyer with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta.

Phi: And they don't have to be married, they don't have to have beautiful children, to be human beings. The fact that they committed crimes and the fact that they may have been put behind bars does not take away from their humanity.

Phi: And so that's a part that I think I really struggle with as an advocate. Because I know my job, part of my job, is to humanize people, but I also feel like it's my job to make space for those stories that are harder to swallow. And there are plenty of people that I know and friends with who have been involved in homicide, and who I think deserve freedom and justice just as much as my clients who — maybe all they have is a marijuana possession conviction. So that's a struggle for me.

THANH: Sometimes, I feel like we Vietnamese Americans present ourselves as exceptional.

THANH: And because of that, we turn against the members of our community who contradict that idea, of the upstanding refugee. Or even the upstanding ex-convict with a heart of gold.

THANH: We don’t like to face how much pain we all carry, that we’re all capable of going down the wrong path.

THANH: And the more I learn about these deportations, the more I feel like... the system KNOWS this. And takes advantage of it.

MUSIC: Pensive tune ends

Ad Break

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CATHY: Hey, it’s Cathy.

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CATHY: It’s a show that covers all things politics from a POC perspective. With co-hosts and award winning journalists, Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela.

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Part 5: No Longer Hiding

MUSIC: Slow, tense beat begins

Kris: If you're a U.S. citizen, you could do a heinous crime multiple times, and when you get out, you still have that chance of redemption. If you’re an immigrant and you committed a crime, you don't have that — you don't have that ability.

THANH: Kristopher Larsen was one of around 2,700 children who were airlifted out of Saigon in 1975, as part of a humanitarian but controversial evacuation called “Operation Babylift.”

THANH: Kris was adopted by a white American family. He adored his parents and siblings, had a pretty normal childhood.

THANH: His parents sent in his paperwork for citizenship. For technical reasons the paperwork wasn’t fully approved, but no one ever realized that was the case.

THANH: Getting lost in the system is not uncommon for adoptees and immigrants. There’s lots of tiny obstacles that get in the way of finishing the process that natural born citizens never have to think about. And Kris never ran into a situation where his citizenship was questioned.

THANH: For a long time, it looked like Kris was doing well, studying computer science and going to work in tech.

THANH: But on the inside, he suffered from a repressed trauma that eventually caught up with him. He couldn’t name this feeling or talk about it for years, which led to the very rough end of his marriage.

THANH: And a decision that would change his life forever.

MUSIC: Slow, tense beat ends

Kris: My ex had just disappeared with the kids, Like, disappeared disappeared. It kind of threw me for a whirlwind. I ended up... I ended up attempting suicide over it. One of the secrets that I kept from family and friends was, it wasn't the first time that I attempted suicide. I also attempted suicide when I was in, in high school, even in college.

Thanh: How were you feeling at the time when you made these attempts? Were you just... upset?

Kris: I would say loss. A huge feeling of loss, and of course with everything that I've dealt with in the past and that I've hidden, I didn't know how to deal with loss. Anytime that I had to deal with some type of loss, I would either run away from it, or I would do something drastic, like attempting suicide.

Kris: I went probably on an 8-month drinking spree, and in that eight months I was thinking about, okay, well, how can I really end this?

Kris: And that's when I came up with a plan for suicide again, but this time it wasn't just me doing the suicide. It was a suicide by cop. I would put myself in a position to where law enforcement would have to shoot me.

Thanh: How did that concept, or idea, of the suicide by cop… Where did that come from?

Kris: I don't know. I just I knew that I couldn't do it.

Kris: And so I ended up kidnapping a child.  It was about a 2-hour police chase, and I don't know why, but it was, it was like... I knew that at the end that more than likely, all of us would end up getting shot.

MUSIC: Uneasy tune begins

Kris: I'd been dodging spike strips most the night every time they them out. And so this time I just drove right over them, and I gave up.

THANH: Kris took a plea agreement, and got the maximum sentence.

Kris: The first three years of incarceration I was — I was a bit of an ass, because I didn't care what happened. Ten and a half years to me at that time was a life sentence.

Kris: So if you needed money collected, I'll go collect it for you. If you need me to go beat up this person. I'll go beat up the person. It was totally opposite of the character that I was.

Thanh: You adapted quickly.

Kris: Yeah.

Kris: Out of ten and a half years, three and a half of it was spent in solitary confinement, because I was always in trouble.

Kris: It wasn't till like but the fifth and sixth year that I started coming around realizing.. Hey. Now, there's problems.

THANH: Halfway through his term, Kris started recognizing inmates who had gotten out, only to come right back in.

MUSIC: Uneasy tune shifts into a more empowering key

THANH: He used to think, “Once a criminal, always a criminal.” But when he started to see the cycle of trauma and the lack of support for ex-convicts out in the world, he started helping inmates break the cycle and reintegrate into society.

THANH: He’s become an advocate because he doesn’t want the label of being a criminal to define people’s lives.

THANH: But at the same time, he struggles with how much power his record has over his life, and how little the average person understands what he’s going through.

THANH: Even his own family, who to this day don’t really get that Kris can be deported.

MUSIC ends

Kris: Oh my gosh. There was a Facebook post that… It had to deal with people that were incarcerated and were being deported, like, “Yeah, all those people that have committed crimes have to be deported.”

Kris: “There shouldn't be any leniency, blah blah blah this,” and I'm like, “What the Hell.”

Kris: So I contacted my sister. I was like, “So you think I should be deported? Is that what all you guys think?” I was like, “You guys are all pieces of shit.” So I was pissed. (laughs)

Kris: And they’re like, “What?” It's like, “No, no. You're not going to get deported. You're not a criminal.”

Kris: It's like wait a sec. I have a criminal conviction. You're saying that anybody with a criminal conviction... That includes me.

Kris: But, “No you're our little brother.” It doesn't doesn't work that way.

Kris: My sister ended up calling back and apologizing and wanting to see how I was looking at things, and... I think she gets it… so… I don’t know.

Thanh: It's almost — it's weird, because it's really sweet because they love you. And they believe that you're going to stay here. But you're trying to tell them that that's not a guarantee.

Kris: They probably wouldn't believe it, even if, after it happened, after I was in Vietnam, they’d probably think that I was on vacation.

Thanh: Do you believe there's a lot of people who think like they think?

Kris: Absolutely. Absolutely.

THANH: From what I can see, Kris has his life on a great track. He keeps his papers in order. He has great relationships with the community. He’s not only helping former inmates and refugees, he mentors and advocates for fellow adoptees.

THANH: Kris is technically protected from deportation by the MOU between the U.S. and Vietnam. But we’ve already seen the Trump administration ignore that protection, and the MOU itself can be changed in the future.

THANH: So without his official citizenship, Kris has to stay on guard.

THANH: And he can still be detained by ICE at any time.

Kris: I actually had an incident at my job site, where we have this, these secure doors, that you have to be brung into. And the two individuals that were at the door had on their, their slacks. And then they had on boots, and then they had on, like, these black thin windbreakers with the baseball cap.

Kris: And of course I'm thinking, wait a second. I'm the only immigrant that works here. Why are these guys here? And so my mind is like, how do I get out of this building?

Kris: Turns out they're the copier people. But just that figure, seeing people looking like that, coming in your direction… kind of freaks you out.

Kris: Some days, it's as if the deportation order’s not there, but then when things spark up on the news, all of a sudden the paranoia happens.

Kris: They had the roundup of the Vietnamese a couple of years ago, where they picked up 85 Vietnamese across the U.S. for deportation.

Kris: I'd happened to get called in for my check-in early that time, and I'm like, “Great.”

Thanh: And...  I mean does your heart start racing? Like do you, like, do you have to give instructions to your friends and your loved ones before you go...

Kris: I probably have a list of 50, at least 50 people that I have on messenger and text, that, "Hey. I'm getting ready to go in you don't hear me within two hours, then you need to contact this lawyer."

Thanh: Like, you didn't choose to come here, you didn't choose to be adopted… do you ever think about the lack of control over these crazy circumstances in your life? And how does that make you feel?

Kris: It kind of makes me feel angry, a little bit, because this is... citizenship should have been something that — especially when the U.S. Government takes refugees from countries — this is something that they should already have in place.

Kris: It's very frustrating right now, knowing that they're putting kids in these intern camps that they had for Japanese individuals, which is just crazy.

Thanh: Does it trigger something? A feeling in you, or like — what's your reaction when you hear about how these children are being treated?

Kris: It's hard for me to see myself that way because I had such a great adoption.

Kris: I kind of feel guilty. And I kind of feel ashamed. Because it's like, I had it, and I screwed everything up.

MUSIC: Plaintive tune begins

Thanh: If you didn't have to deal with this issue of citizenship. And everything had happened. You would still got through your trauma. You had still committed the crime that you committed. You had gone to prison. What would your life be like if you didn't have the citizenship issue hanging over your head?

Kris: I probably would be hiding things.

Kris: I probably wouldn't have been as honest with myself or with, with the public.

Thanh: This... this actually forced you to have to confront some hard truths.

Kris: Yeah. Yeah, definitely confront the truth, and to find out what some of the truths are.

MUSIC: Plaintive tune takes on an insistent drum beat

Thanh: Yeah, so you didn't you weren't part of a Vietnamese community. You don't speak the language. You've had more interactions in recent years than ever before. What are your thoughts about the Vietnamese Community any surprises?

Kris: So the Vietnamese Community now is kind of its kind of doing a turn over, because it's more or less, like, the second gen that's starting to rise up. And it’s the second gen, or the third gen, that are a little more progressive.

Kris: And so when you see advocacy work or something like that, you always see it's the 2nd and 3rd gens doing it. They might be pulling one of the 1st gen along with them, kicking and screaming, but you can definitely see a big change.

MUSIC: Plaintive tune fades out

Part 6: In Our Blood

THANH: Every time I spoke to someone who had been through detention, or knew someone who had been deported, I heard a painful story.

THANH: But I also heard a story of awakening. Of rising up to confront the things that terrify us. Of standing up for freedom.

SOUND: Rally attendees chant in unison, “Where is home? Home is here!”

THANH: I first heard Kris speak at a rally in Seattle, in January 2019.

THANH: Nikki Chau is one of the organizers who led that rally.

Nikki: Someone told me, like, they had never seen so many Asian faces at a rally before.

THANH: She came to Seattle as a child refugee in the early 90s.

THANH: While she kept politics at a distance for most of her life, over the past few years she’s become a tireless community organizer, especially when it comes to stopping deportations.

THANH: When I ask her what Vietnamese Americans should be doing today, she’s one of the voices offering a way to move forward.

Nikki: As a result of the rally, I think Asian Americans saw that we could do something like this — which I think it's great, because I'm all about activating more people. (laughs)

Thanh: And what happened? What did you learn?

Nikki: I learned that I... was already organizing before I organized. Which means I had already showed up for so many other movements and causes that when I was reaching out to build a coalition for this specific rally... Because I showed up for other people, they showed up for me.

Nikki: So I showed up for Black Lives Matter. I showed up for indigenous peoples. For Standing Rock. I showed up for Families Belong Together.

Nikki: And so because I had built these relationships, I was able to more confidently reach out, and asked you know, like, “Hey, I'm doing this. Could you help me?”

Nikki: I wasn't confident that I would be able to pull off a rally with only Vietnamese Americans…

Nikki: ...until I realized that this was going to be a multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition, essentially. That was when I felt more confident that I would be able to have a rally that would have enough of a crowd size to get the attention from major news outlets.

Thanh: Were you hoping that more Vietnamese people would show up?

Nikki: There are lots of challenges with organizing within the Vietnamese American communities. And I say “communities” because they’re not — we're not a monolith. There are lots of us, and we're pretty fragmented. There's a lot of generational divide, class divide, different relationship with the war, different relationship with Vietnam itself.

Thanh: I mean, what was the response when you asked Vietnamese people for help. I mean, I understand, because you’re so compassionate, and you're so empathetic, and you aren't — 

Thanh: You're going straight for, “This is why they didn't show up,” you know, but just be blunt with me, you know. What happened? Did we not show up?

Nikki: Quite frankly, a rally… It's not an inclusive method of direct action.

Nikki: And you know, our community also has a complicated relationship with authority and with police. So I wouldn't, I wouldn't look at my rally as the only gauge for Vietnamese American involvement.

Thanh: I know we're not a monolith. I know we can't we're not all gonna agree on the same things, but man, it really hurts.

Thanh: So... how do you think we reconcile with these differences fundamental differences in our community when it comes to an issue like whether one of our own a Vietnamese American, a fellow refugee should be sent back to a country with a horrible human rights record, that we, our families clearly fled?

Thanh: You know, how do you reconcile the differences that we feel in how we should treat these people?

Nikki: (sigh)

MUSIC: Warm tune begins

Nikki: You don't ask easy questions. (laughs)

THANH: I asked some form of this question to everyone I met. But Nikki presented a different way of looking at it. A way where I don’t have to feel torn between my community and my values.

Nikki: Coming at the question of unity from a different perspective. I think we overemphasize this idea of the war, and we overemphasize this idea of Vietnam beginning and ending with the war. But you know Vietnam is more than just a war. So I've been trying to broaden, "What is Vietnam?"

THANH: I’ve spent so much time wishing Vietnamese Americans could unite to protect our own. But our community just isn’t that simple.

THANH: And when I think about Nikki, and Kris, and Phi, and Dy speaking up, taking action. I see that we don’t have to push our elders to see the world in the same way that we do.

Nikki: But if we were to come to our elders and ask what do you have to teach us in terms of the crafts of Vietnam the skills that you have brought here, in... in cooking in... Can you tell us more about the poets that you like, or the music that you listen to, right?

Nikki: So if we have relationships with one another beyond this damn war... then I think a lot of organizing is relationship building.

MUSIC: Warm tune fades out

THANH: Nikki's parents may not agree with her progressive politics, but they make her work possible in other ways. Her dad gardens, her mom cooks these incredible meals with what he grows. It sounds obvious. But they’re family.

MUSIC: Warm tune returns with a march-like drumbeat behind it

THANH: I see my dad in the same way. I appreciate the resilience and the entrepreneurial spirit of Vietnamese people because of his example. I’m a storyteller because he taught me to speak up.

THANH: We can fight to keep Vietnamese Americans free precisely because we are the children of people who fought to bring us here.

THANH: And we can build a community that goes beyond the refugee story that we grew up with, that shares in the refugee stories that people are trying to tell us right now.

MUSIC: Warm tune ends

THANH: Nikki went to Vietnam recently, to help the people who have been deported, and are likely never coming back to America.

THANH: She met with two people. One of them had just arrived after being deported. The other had been there for a year and a half.

Nikki: ...and they said, “Well, I don't have any family. And you know, my mom doesn't even tell my neighbor that I'm deported because of the shame.”

Nikki: And the person who'd been deported longer said, “It's not your family… that's gonna support you.”

Nikki: “It's your community. You know? And your community is more than your family. It's not just blood family. It's the whole group of people that you've never met before, that will come together and support you.

Nikki: Sometimes you don't always see the impact of your work, you know? Sometimes you do these things and you're like, “Oh my God, what is it all for? It feels like I'm pushing against this giant boulder, or this giant mountain, and, and I don't know if it makes any difference.”

Nikki: And then to realize that… it's not just you pushing against the mountain, the community is pushing against, pushing against the mountain, and I think that's... really meaningful, when you know that, that I don't live just for myself, right? I live for others.

Nikki: So...

Nikki: Just keep showing up, I think, is kind of where I'm at right now. 

MUSIC: Uplifting tune begins

Nikki: Let's just keep showing up, even though sometimes I just want to hide under my, my blanket.

Nikki: I've been doing a lot of reaching into Vietnamese history. and we've been doing this for thousands of years. (laughs)

Thanh: Fighting?

Nikki: So (laughs) it's in our blood. It’s in our blood. We know how to do this.

Credits

CATHY: Next time, on Self Evident...

Ansley: I learned that my birth mother was Sikh. So I thought, “This is a place where she's probably been. This is a place where her feet have touched the ground. This is a place where she's eaten some of the food. This is a place that she's seen. And I am here.”

CATHY: I’ll speak with our listener community about how we learn where we come from. Whether that means stepping outside the classroom, trying to track down our birth families, or preserving a story that we can’t even read.

CATHY: Today’s episode was produced by Thanh Tan and James Boo.

CATHY: We were edited by Julia Shu and Cheryl Devall, and mixed by Timothy Lou Ly.

THANH: With production support from Austin Jenkins, Eilis O’Neill, Jamala Henderson, Kevin Rinker, and Merk Nguyen.

CATHY: Our theme music is by Dorian Love.

THANH: Thanks to Julia Preston and Willoughby Mariano for their advice on reporting this story.

CATHY: And a very special thank you to Joon Song, and the 1,004 crowdfund backers whose support made this episode possible.

THANH: Don’t forget to check out the show notes to learn more about our immigration laws, and how our government is choosing to enforce them. We’re also linking to stories about how immigration enforcement has affected Cambodian Americans, because today’s story is just one part of the bigger picture.

MUSIC: Uplifting tune ends

MUSIC: Self Evident theme music begins

CATHY: Please help us get the word out by recommending this episode to your friends, family members, and co-workers. You can also help by writing a review on Apple Podcasts.

CATHY: Self Evident is a Studiotobe Production. This season is presented by the Center for Asian American Media, with support from the Ford Foundation, and you! Our listeners.

CATHY: Our show was incubated at the Made in New York Media Center by IFP.

CATHY: We’re managed by James Boo and Talisa Chang. Our Senior Producer is Julia Shu. Our Executive Producer is Ken Ikeda.

CATHY: Our audience team is Blair Matsuura, Joy Sampoonachot, Justine Lee, and Kira Wisniewski.

CATHY: I’m Cathy Erway. Let’s talk soon! And till then, keep on sharing Asian America’s stories.

MUSIC: Self Evident theme music ends