Wearing a gray suit and baby blue tie, Vinh Tan Nguyen held both the Vietnam and U.S. flags in his left hand Tuesday morning as he explained why U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals judges should not deport a pro-democracy activist back to communist Vietnam.
Some 100 supporters — about 60 of whom arrived in a white tour bus from Orange County — paced the front of Richard H. Chambers Courthouse in Pasadena. Some demonstrators wore fatigues and berets. Others held U.S. and Vietnam flags and a few others supported banners that said, “No human rights in Vietnam. Do not deport Vinh Nguyen to communist country.”
A former South Vietnam general, two elderly pilots and a naval officer walked or rode wheelchairs with the political activist group.
Tim Nguyen, Vinh Nguyen’s 87-year-old mother, flew from Seattle to support her son, a Baldwin Park resident. She sat in a wheelchair as she kept warm with a scarf resembling the Vietnamese flag.
“If he goes back to Vietnam, they will capture him and kill him,” she said in Vietnamese as she held onto a small American flag.
Since 1995 Vinh Nguyen, 58, has been a member of Government of Free Vietnam, an anti-communist political organization with headquarters in Garden Grove. Its goal is to dismantle the Vietnamese government and to establish a democracy.
Although Nguyen once had a Green Card, the Assistant U.S. Attorney Lyle Jentzer argued Nguyen’s most recent felony charge warrants a 2009 decision to deport Nguyen.
In addition to being found guilty of spousal abuse and for packing explosives in the Philippines, Nguyen’s most recent offense of using his brother’s passport to go to Manila is a felony. He served about six years for this offense.
This immigration case is nuanced — had the abuse case involved Nguyen’s wife, and not his girlfriend, Nguyen could have been found guilty of moral turpitude and shipped to a home he left in 1983.
Jentzer claimed Nguyen’s use of a false passport constituted an act of terrorism. Thus, he said, Nguyen doesn’t belong in the U.S.
Nguyen said he had urgent business in the Philippines, so he didn’t have time to go to the Filipino embassy and request a visa. American citizens can travel there without a visa, so he borrowed his brother’s passport. He also created a bank account under his brother’s name and served about five years in a Filipino prison under his sibling’s name for making the explosive.
Attorney Gary Silbiger said Nguyen’s previous lawyer was inadequate and the immigration judge didn’t inform Nguyen that his lawyer’s strategy would limit Nguyen’s ability to ask for political asylum.
“We wouldn’t want to send a person back to his country to be tortured simply because he’s inadmissible in the U.S.,” Silbiger said.
Nguyen has lived an American lifestyle for about three decades. Before he arrived on American soil, Nguyen said he worked about 10 hours every day in a labor camp near Nha Trang or Central Vietnam. He cut trees to build furniture for three years until he was released in 1982. In 1983, he slipped into a boat with about 43 others and went to the Philippines, where he lived in a refugee camp until he arrived in the U.S.
“I left Vietnam in a boat because I didn’t accept Vietnam,” he said in Vietnamese. “When I came to America, I was free. I thought about my people in Vietnam. They don’t have freedom of speech or religion. They have nothing. In 2001, I went to the Philippines to be closer to my people and to be a voice of encouragement for the people who want to rebel against the communist regime.”
Nguyen worked in the landscape business for a while and now owns a construction company that has less than a dozen employees. He said he has more than 50 family members in America, and most of them are American citizens. His wife and 24-year-old daughter also live in the U.S.
“Even now in my country, a lot of people in my country ask for speech and freedom,” Nguyen said. “The communist regime puts them in jail for five to seven years. If I go back to Vietnam, that’s the end of my life.”
While Jentzer said Government of Free Vietnam members have been jailed in Vietnam — some were even tortured — he said there is no evidence that the Vietnam government wants to extradite and punish Nguyen.
“He’s done nothing in Vietnam,” Jentzer told three judges. “He hasn’t been back in about 13 years. Vietnam has evinced no evidence that the government wants to torture him to extract evidence of his work.”
Circuit Judges Harry Pregerson, Kim Wardlaw and Richard Tallman said they needed some time to look through a pile of files that are as thick as a dictionary. They also will wait for Silbiger to send briefs to them before they decide whether they will grant relief to Nguyen, send the case back to the Board of Immigration Appeals or allow Nguyen to be deported.