Achieving the American Dream is the goal for many: Get a stable job, have a house in a nice neighborhood, raise a family and hopefully, the cycle continues.
Phước Thắng, a 40-year-old San Jose native, is on his way to the dream. He’s a cable wirer, a husband and father of two daughters, ages 5 and 3.
But a conviction from two decades ago may end Thắng’s American Dream.
Thắng is one of thousands of Vietnamese immigrants in the U.S. who have a final deportation order, most of whom received their orders while in custody. The possibility of being sent back to Vietnam was minimal until President Donald Trump’s administration reinterpreted a 2008 agreement with Vietnam, expanding the population of potential deportees to those who immigrated before 1995.
“I went by years not really worried about it,” Thắng said. “No president has really forced the issue except Trump.”
Three years have passed since the administration’s announcement, but the fear hangs over Thắng’s head every day. It can be set off by something as simple as opening his inbox and reading an article.
“I’m on edge,” Thắng said. “It could be at this moment, I’m just kind of living with it. But then if I hear something on the news or if I hear about ICE raids, I’m on edge all week.”
‘Growing up with the wrong crowd’
Thắng’s story of immigration is a familiar one: Born in an Indonesian refugee camp, his parents and three siblings settled in Kentucky in the 1980s with their sponsor family. They moved to San Jose soon after, following news of a large Vietnamese community and limitless opportunity in Silicon Valley.
Thắng said his parents worked six days a week, and eventually, his oldest sister did the same. Thắng, the youngest, and his two brothers, were independent from the start.
“When we were younger, we’d play sports out on the streets, baseball, football,” Thắng said. “Other times we just go out and just do dumb kid things, you know, get into trouble.”
Thắng was using drugs by the age of 17.
“It’s all just growing up with the wrong crowd,” he said. “I look back and half of us had no father figure in our lives.”
Thắng was 21 when he was arrested on drug-related offenses and sentenced to 32 months in jail. A few months before his release, Thắng was informed by immigration officials that he was not a U.S. citizen. With freedom so close, he was moved from San Quentin to jail in Eloy, Arizona, to wait for a judge to consider his case.
Having a family changed everything
His abrupt move to Arizona was a “stressful” and “depressing” experience, Thắng said. Mulling over the possibility of deportation to a country he had never seen or stepped foot in made it worse.
But fellow inmates told him to accept the deportation order: The state of affairs between the U.S. and Vietnam in the aftermath of the Vietnam War meant that Thắng could not be sent to Vietnam and would be released from custody within a few months. Appealing the deportation order meant longer case proceedings and a longer jail stay, Thắng said.
“On my sixth month from immigration custody, they just popped in one day and said, ‘Alright, we’re gonna let you go home,’” he said.
What followed was years of struggling to be seen as more than an ex-convict. Thắng bounced from job to job throughout his late 20s, working at his stepdad’s food truck and doing “back-breaking” construction work. Even the thought of deportation no longer fazed him.
“If I go back, I go back,” Thắng recalled thinking. “I’ll survive.”
Then, in 2009, Thắng met his wife, Kat Macaya, through a mutual friend. They welcomed their first child, Mia, in 2014, got married, and had their second child, Audrina. Thắng said having a family changed everything.
“Now I have my wife and kids. With them, it’s hard to see myself back there and them not there,” he said.
A bogged down legal system
The deportee is never the only one impacted. Fear swept into Macaya’s life in 2017 as she read social media posts with the words “Trump” and “deportation.”
“It’s always in the back of your head,” Macaya said. “You can’t really be at peace.”
She and Thắng sought help from nonprofits and embarked on the long process of finding a lawyer. As time went on and the media storms abated, it seemed as if their story no longer mattered, Macaya said.
“It should be discussed more because it’s still going on,” Macaya said. “It should be a big deal until it gets fixed because it’s not fair how people are getting punished twice.
“(For) people like my husband, it’s like a life sentence,” Macaya added.
Deportation proceedings, according to Pangea Legal Services immigration lawyer Pete Weiss, are long, complex and expensive. Pangea is a San Jose-based nonprofit that works with immigrants facing deportation.
“You can get in deportation proceedings in a number of ways and even people who have green cards can lose that green card,” he said. “The only folks who cannot be deported are citizens.”
There is a huge need for resources, Weiss said, as many of those in danger of deportation cannot find affordable help.
“There’s not enough immigration attorneys, period, whether private or nonprofit,” Weiss said. “It’s going to cost you at least $10,000 to pursue your case with a private attorney. A lot of people cannot afford that. … Even for people who have money, they may not even be able to find a private attorney who has space.”
However, it’s crucial to go through the process, Weiss said.
“You have absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying to get a consultation with an attorney,” he said. “And if they live in Santa Clara County, they should call the public defender to see if they qualify for services.”
‘Just keep fighting’
Despite the constant fear of deportation, Thắng refuses to stay in the shadows. According to VietUnity South Bay member Tuan ĐinhJanelle, Thắng’s activism is impressive in light of the Vietnamese community’s reluctance to accept its formerly incarcerated members.
“For a lot of Vietnamese-American history in the last 40 years, it’s been really dominated by one set of voices, which is often conservative,” ĐinhJanelle said. “There’s a generational gap as well.”
VietUnity seeks to fill the gap of progressive voices through extensive community organizing, ĐinhJanelle said. Each of the organization’s numerous chapters works on different issues, he said, and VietUnity South Bay’s focus is deportation.
Thắng is the perfect example of the change that VietUnity strives for, ĐinhJanelle said.
“Thắng has led multiple meetings. He has co-chaired and facilitated meetings with elected officials at the state level, at the federal level,” ĐinhJanelle said. “He is probably the most active Vietnamese person in deportation defense efforts in Santa Clara County, in terms of educating the community, in terms of giving strength to other people who are in the same situation as him.”
VietUnity has provided a safe and supportive community, Thắng said. Members have even accompanied him to his annual check-ins with the San Francisco ICE office.
“Before, it was just me doing all this alone,” Thắng said. “And then after I met my wife, it was me and her. And then I met (ĐinhJanelle) and the rest of VietUnity, and ever since then, I’m not doing this on my own anymore.”
For now, Thắng plans to live his American Dream by raising his girls, working hard and educating his community.
“I probably just have to live with it and just keep fighting,” he said.
Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.