Our Legal Victory to End Harms of Muslim Ban: Read the news

An Thanh Nguyen & Tin Nguyen: 'Freedom is to be there for my family when they need me.'

September 21, 2023 Perspective

In partnership with Survival Media Agency and ICE Out of CA coalition, the Home, Not Heartbreak photo series captures the stories of Californians who have been affected directly by the state’s prison-to-ICE pipeline. Immigrant and refugee Californians are organizing to make sure that broadly-supported, existing criminal justice reforms apply to everyone equally regardless of immigration status and that more Californians are able to come home and rebuild their lives. While these community members represent just a sample of the thousands of California families and residents harmed by unjust ICE transfers each year, their stories and leadership are inspiring people across the state to urge their legislators and Gov. Newsom to pass and sign the HOME Act (AB 1306) and reunite immigrant families.

“That’s the one thing I remember most about An,” remembers Tin Nguyen. “Back in the day was the fact that besides his own difficulty, he was able to ease all difficulty, put himself back and place all [others’] difficulty above his own struggle.”

An Thanh Nguyen
and Tin aren’t related, but their tight friendship has been forged over decades first as young people incarcerated in county jail, then reconnecting after being released from state prison, and through their journeys of transformation. In the past few years, even after the state prison system pushed both An and Tin into ICE detention, they’ve also grown into powerful, compassionate community leaders in Orange County and in statewide movements for immigrant and racial justice.

An and Tin pose for a photo in front of a large wooden altar laden with Buddhist figures, flowers, and incense. THey both wear button up shirts and look somber.

An Thanh Nguyen and Tin Nguyen at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, California. Tin talks about his friend’s “work, his compassion, his caring, and his love for his community.” (Apollo Victoria / Survival Media Agency)

At the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster, California, the two friends met over some pho. They reminisced and shared their dreams for the future, which hinge on their ability to stay in the community they love and call home.

Tin and An’s pasts share a lot in common, and the two are part of a wave of Vietnamese refugees who came to America after the U.S. ended its intervention in Vietnam. Their families eventually settled in southern California; Tin lived in Pomona, an hour away from An in Cypress.

For many refugees, adjusting to this new environment after fleeing from war and instability was not easy. Tin lived in fear of an abusive father, who was struggling to adapt to life in the U.S. and heal from his own severe trauma. An refers to his adolescent self as “young, naive, and immature” as he dealt with intergenerational trauma from the Vietnam War. An’s father fought alongside the U.S. military in Vietnam and was a prisoner of war for four years. Like other Southeast Asian youth, Tin and An experienced racial discrimination and bullying.

Seeking belonging, Tin and An were drawn to gangs. And those gangs led them down what Tin calls a “dark road” of drugs, crime, and violence. During a robbery, Tin made a terrible choice that took the life of an innocent man and he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Also as a young person, An committed robberies and was incarcerated for 20 years.

An and Tin sit at a table inside the food court at Asian Garden Mall in Orange County. They chat over bowls of pho.

An and Tin share a meal of pho. “If I have a chance to earn my pardon, I could stay here with the rest of my family. I could do a lot of things like volunteer, helping out my community,” says An. (Apollo Victoria / Survival Media Agency)

An says, “I did a lot of harmful things back then in my younger days. Right now, I want California to know the way I am today, not in the past.”

Tin also expresses his deep remorse. “I’m not the man I once was and I took responsibility for what I did,” he shares. “I know people say you’ve got to learn how to forgive yourself. I don’t think I ever could…I made a bad choice and I’m living with it, but it’s not who I am today and it’s not who my family is too.”

Tin and An met when they were incarcerated in county jail. Tin remembers finding comfort when An “decided [to] put aside his own difficulties and sing. We were fighting our case and it's just a lot of stress. But An has this beautiful voice and he would sing this Vietnamese song.” In prison, Tin joined the Paws for Life K9 Rescue rehabilitation program and started working with rescue dogs. The dogs he trained helped veterans with PTSD and other community members with disabilities. Today, both Tin and An volunteer with Paws For Life.

An explains that “when you see all the dogs, they are living just like us in there. They’re in a cage and nobody takes care of them. You have a good feeling after you’ve done something like that.”

Tin says that he always tells people that he didn’t just train his first rescue dog, “Vic trained me.” He went from considering himself “not a dog person” to falling in love with dogs ever since. Tin recently heard from a survivor of a mass shooting who gets help from a dog he trained. She was once too afraid to leave the house, but with support from her dog, she’s graduating college soon.

An and Tin stand in front of two large windows of the Asian Garden Mall building. One window has the U.S. flag hanging vertically and the South Vietnam flag hangs in the other.

“Beside my own achievement of getting my Master’s degree, I want to get my law degree and PhD. I want to create a space in southern California where the system-impacted, especially the Southeast Asian system-impacted community, will come together and mobilize,” says Tin Nguyen. (Apollo Victoria / Survival Media Agency)

In 2019, An completed his sentence, but the state prison worked with ICE to double punish him. With community and legal help, An was able to get out of ICE detention, but ICE detained him again - in defiance of a federal judge’s order. Finally, he was able to return home in 2020. His resolve to keep fighting against ICE abuses galvanized hundreds of people across the country to take action. But the threat of deportation remains.

An says, “I constantly feel like I don’t know how long I’m going to be here with my family. Both of my parents are mid-80 now. I don’t know how long they will live, and then what if one day they take me away from them?”

Tin received a commutation from Governor Brown and was deemed eligible for release by the Parole Board. After two decades in state prison and 10 months in ICE detention, Tin came home in 2020, three years ago this month.

Also living with a fear of deportation, Tin shares An’s fears. His mom is 83 years old. “Finally I came home and…I became the man she wants me to be. To be ripped away from her, it’s going to cripple her, it’s going to devastate her. So, that’s my worry.”

For Tin and An, a pardon from the governor can protect them from ICE’s deportation machine. Their families and community members up and down California have been calling, emailing, and sending letters to Governor Newsom supporting their pardon applications.

An wraps an arm across Tin's shoulder as they stand in front of four pillars with large numbers on top of them. Together, the numbers say, "1975" with half decorated with the stars and stripes of the U.S. flag and half decorated with the colors of the former South Vietnam flag.

An and Tin volunteer together at Paws For Life, helping veterans and other community members get support from trained rescue dogs. (Apollo Victoria / Survival Media Agency)

Meanwhile, Tin continues his work as an immigrant justice coordinator at VietRise, helping Orange County community members rebuild their lives after incarceration. As the HOME Act (AB 1306) moved through the California legislature this summer, Tin met with state Senators and Assemblymembers to share how the bill would allow immigrants who meet all the requirements for release under broadly-supported criminal justice reforms to return home, instead of cruelly transferred to ICE.

Tin and An also dream of “creat[ing] a space for our community members that are coming home.” In Little Saigon, they want to organize a community barbecue, giving people who are struggling with homelessness and poverty a chance to relax and be cared for by their neighbors.

For An and Tin, the freedom to be home is what brings them joy - and what drives their advocacy for a better future for all the people in their lives. Tin adds, “I think that’s one of my biggest accomplishments. It’s freedom to be with my family and be there for them.”

Take Action:

  1. Join the #Pardon4Tin campaign and send a message of support.
  2. #KeepAnHome and make your support known.
  3. Tell Governor Newsom to sign the HOME Act (AB 1306), which just passed the Senate with overwhelming support.

Photos by Apollo Victoria | Survival Media Agency