Today, Representatives Pramila Jayapal (WA-7) and Adam Smith (WA-9) introduced the “Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act,” legislation that would repeal mandatory, arbitrary, and indefinite detention, phase out private detention facilities, require the establishment of detention standards and improve oversight, and establish program alternatives to costly detention.
Since 1998, over 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans have been issued final orders of removal, but due to the unique relationship between the U.S. and Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, many are detained for prolonged periods of time as the U.S. government tries to deport them. While Cambodia accepts a limited number of deportees per year, Laos does not have a formal policy accepting deportees, and Vietnam only accepts individuals who entered the U.S. after 1995, protecting a majority of those who fled the country as refugees.
Photo: Nam Nguyen and his family
One individual who endured prolonged detention as a result of this policy is Nam Nguyen. Nam was only 8 years old when he fled Vietnam by boat and spent several years in refugee camps before he was sponsored to live in the United States. He entered the country as an unaccompanied child, seeking asylum with no parents to care for him. After spending several years being transferred from one group home to the next, Nam settled and grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Southern California where he struggled to adjust without strong role models or guardians in his life.
When Nam was 17 years old, someone he did not know got into a verbal argument at a pool hall where he and his friends were hanging out. A number of shots were fired. Although nobody was hurt, Nam and eleven other people were pulled over and charged for assault with a firearm. Nam was advised to plead guilty, without understanding that a guilty plea could later result in deportation. He served his time and was placed on probation. In 1996 at the age of 20, just two months before his probation expired, Nam violated his probation and served 16 months of an additional two-year prison term for drug possession. In 1997, Nam was paroled, but he was immediately detained by Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). The detention was indefinite – four years later a Supreme Court decision mandated his release.
“I still remember vividly the terrible conditions that we were subjected to under ICE detention,” said Nam Nguyen. “We were abused, harassed, and targeted by both fellow detainees and ICE correctional officers for being ‘indefinite lifers.’ We were transferred multiple times, subjected to racial slurs, and denied basic hygiene needs and food. We were forced to sleep in concrete holding cells with no blankets. And worst of all, we had no way to complain or file grievances for fear of retribution. Looking back, I am so remorseful for all I have done, and I take full responsibility for my past actions. But none of us deserved that treatment. I am grateful for champions like Reps. Jayapal and Smith for recognizing that detainees deserve dignity and rights, too.”
Years later, Nam turned his life around by disconnecting himself completely from past friends and influences that could have led him back to prison. He started a family and dedicated himself to his Christian faith. Nam became a pastor and started his own ministry called Loi Song Tin Lanh (A Christian Lifestyle) with over 11,000 online followers. Nam also supports his U.S. citizen wife and two children by managing a large retail store that serves the Vietnamese community. In 2017, Nam became a graduate of SEARAC’s Leadership and Advocacy Training
program where his story of detention and transformation inspired others to stand in support of reforming unjust detention and deportation policies.
“Nam’s story and many others like it are all too common but also silenced in the Southeast Asian American community,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of SEARAC. “Many young children who came to the country as refugees have had to grow up with no support, no mentors, and in many cases, no family members to depend on, leading many youth directly into the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. Instead of finding solutions that target the root causes of these challenges, our country’s current detention policies only further strip young people and their communities of dignity and humanity. We applaud the efforts of Reps. Jayapal and Smith in introducing legislation that addresses the issue of mandatory detention and seeks to create humane detention standards.”