Tam Phan came to the United States from Vietnam when he was six years old. He later became involved with a gang and spent 17 years in prison. He turned his life around and is now pursuing a master’s degree in urban policy and administration at Brooklyn College and is working at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that helps ex-convicts reenter society. But Tam Phan has been given a final deportation order, and his only recourse is a pardon from New York Gov. David Paterson. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re joined also here by a man who could be deported any day now. Tam Phan is a 35-year-old who was born in Vietnam and came to this country when he was six years old. Tam fell in with a gang when he was 17 and served the next 17 years in prison for his involvement in armed robberies. He was released this January and completed a number of academic degrees during his incarceration. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in urban policy and administration at Brooklyn College and is working at the Fortune Society, a nonprofit organization that helps ex-convicts reenter society.
AMY GOODMAN: Tam Phan has been given a final deportation order. His only recourse now is a pardon from Governor Paterson, who instituted a special clemency panel to recommend pardons for immigrants facing deportation because of old or minor criminal convictions. Tam Phan joins us here in New York.
Tam, welcome to Democracy Now! Tell us your story.
TAM PHAN: Thanks for having me, first of all.
So, my story starts off at the fall of Saigon. If you can just imagine a six-month pregnant woman trying to navigate the mass of people bombarding the embassy and the consulate gates, that would be my mother. And so, given the imagery, she had to go home. She couldn’t make it. Three months later, I was born under the thatched roof of a straw hut. And then it took six years for us to finally save enough money for my mom to pay smugglers to ferry us out of the country.
Once we got here, my dad had — who was airlifted out of the country during the fall of Saigon, had started his own family and left my mom to make her own way. She went to New York City. We survived off of public assistance. And everything went well. I did well academically in school. However, academics and the social sphere have different competencies, right? So, I wasn’t very — I didn’t do very good socially. And this happened all the way up until high school, when I fell into the gang. And immediately overnight, I became tough, I became accepted, I became protected. But there was a price for that. And the price was to participate in robberies to generate revenue for the gang. I wound up with a sixteen-and-two-thirds to 50-year sentence.
So, while I came — once I came into prison, I immediately realized that that wasn’t the way to go, I’m not a good criminal, I can’t do this. And I had to focus on just respecting other people so that they can respect me, which was what I had always wanted when I was a kid. So, I knew that I had to learn things, right? So I learned American sign language. I speak Spanish fluently. I have accumulated over 200 college credits, two associate’s degrees, a bachelor’s degree. I walked out of prison, I walked out of New York State Correctional, and walked into immigration detention. Because of my convictions, they ordered me deported.
And my situation is kind of weird. Because of my convictions, I was ordered deported. But because I went to prison when I was 17, I wasn’t eligible yet to take the citizenship exam. You have to be at least 18, right? And because my removal proceedings began after the passage of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, I wasn’t eligible for any judicial relief, except withholding under the Convention Against Torture, which has a really, really high bar. And that was the only type of relief that was available. I pursued it. I failed. We appealed it. That lost. So my order of deportation is final. And the only reason why I’m still here is because the federal government is waiting for Vietnam to issue documents for my travel. Once that happens, my master’s degree, my career with the Fortune Society, my work with Families for Freedom will all —
AMY GOODMAN: You’re getting a master’s degree at Brooklyn College right now?
TAM PHAN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: In?
TAM PHAN: Urban policy and administration.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And so, you would be deported back to Vietnam, which you left when you were six years old?
TAM PHAN: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And have you ever been back there during all that time?
TAM PHAN: I have not been back. I have not been back.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Do you speak Vietnamese?
TAM PHAN: I know 15 words in Vietnamese. And so, I have conversations with my mom, and I use the same — I use my favorite seven words a lot. And sometimes I have to use English words and then use my seven little words to try to define my English words for her. And it makes for a really funny conversation.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you spoken to Governor Paterson?
TAM PHAN: I have not spoken to Governor Paterson. Families for Freedom had helped me put an immigration pardon packet together. My attorney, pro bono_, Sophia Picard [_phon., is also helping me with it. And we’re just waiting for them to respond. There are thousands of applications in, so I’m one of many.
JUAN GONZALEZ: This is after the governor made this announcement that before he leaves office on December 31st, he’s going to entertain possibly hundreds of pardons, especially of immigrants like yourself who are permanent residents but who have been committed of crimes in the past and have served, cleaned up their lives, and are now contributing to the society.
TAM PHAN: Yeah. And the immigration pardon panel is so important to guys like me or folks like me, because it allows us to take our case back to the immigration authorities and say, "Hey, listen. New York State governor found it worthwhile to give this guy a chance by pardoning him for his crimes. Can you now see to it to perhaps reinstate his legal permanent residency, or allow him to apply for certain benefits?"
AMY GOODMAN: Tam, why do you want to stay in the United States?
TAM PHAN: It’s where I grew up. It’s home. It’s — I listen to hip-hop. It’s everything that makes me who I am, is rooted not only in the United States, but — and not only in New York State, but in New York City. So, I’m born and raised in — not born and raised, but it’s so cliché. But I was raised in Brooklyn. And everything I know is Brooklyn. I’ve lived in the same apartment forever.
AMY GOODMAN: Aarti Shahani, Tam was just saying that he had the help of Families for Freedom, which is the organization you founded before going off to graduate school. How typical is Tam Phan’s story?
AARTI SHAHANI: I think it’s — I mean, everyone is unique, right? But I think that it’s a pretty typical story that you have someone who’s a long-term resident, a long-term legal resident, that grabs a charge along the way and is now in this situation. I mean, I feel like that’s — that had been historically the experience of the people coming through the doors of Families for Freedom. And it continues to be.
That’s — you know, I feel like that’s part of the problem with the way that we talk now about the issue of who ought to and oughtn’t be deported. You know, it’s like no one can agree on the broken immigration system, so what can we agree on? And, you know, some people would like to say that, oh, we can at least agree that, quote-unquote, "criminal aliens" should be expelled wholesale; if you’re a criminal alien, you have no business in this country. And this came up a lot at the city council hearing, actually — not by all the council people, but a few. And I feel like, you know, what we’re hearing now is — and, you know, with you describing your situation, it’s exactly the case in point of, you know, people come here, things happen along the way. It’s an urban story, right? It’s not particular to immigrants.
It’s interesting to me, because I feel like, for example, CARICOM countries — I’ve been to Port-au-Prince before and after the earthquake, and I think both times CARICOM countries have expressed concern that people leave their countries, their island countries, as babies, get raised in New York, in Miami, whatnot, in the U.S., fall into gangs, drugs, guns along the way, and then the U.S. wants to ship them back after the experience of growing up in U.S. cities has broken them apart. And so, there’s also a question of, you know, who should be responsible when people stumble along the way. And, you know, just when I hear this situation, I feel like it’s the same question that a lot of receiving countries have, as well.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Tam Phan, I often hear horror stories about how folks who go to immigration hearings or before ICE officials are dealt with. What’s been the response of the agents that you’ve dealt with to your particular case?
TAM PHAN: There has been no response, really. When I went through immigration detention, I was — there’s deportation officers there who I approached and discussed my situation with them. And the only — their caseloads are humongous. So they would just say, "Just wait. Just wait." And I waited, and I waited.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we will certainly continue to cover your story. And —
AARTI SHAHANI: And, you know, if I could just —
AMY GOODMAN: We have just 30 seconds, Aarti. Go ahead.
AARTI SHAHANI: If I could just — I mean, just very quickly, I feel like the story, the study that I did, what these point to continually is that ICE and Homeland Security are toddler agencies. They were created in 2002. And there’s clearly no process for accountability towards the individual people that are identified for deportation and the communities that are asked to partner with them now. So I hope that what comes at the end of this is real scrutiny of the feds, of Homeland Security, and some sort of system of accountability, which doesn’t exist at all right now.
AMY GOODMAN: We will leave it there. Aarti Shahani with Justice Strategies, we’ll link to your reports you presented at the New York City Council, now a graduate student at the Harvard Kennedy School of Goverment, speaking to us from Boston. And Tam Phan, facing deportation to Vietnam. He left there when he was, well, younger than six, came to the United States when he was six years old, his mother surviving the war in Vietnam, pregnant with him, as she tried to flee Vietnam. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Tam Phan is getting his master’s degree at Brooklyn College and works at the Fortune Society.