San Francisco, California
"I'm just asking for a second chance to prove myself, to stay in this country."
“I was born in Vietnam, I don’t remember much,” says Phuoc Vong, who goes by Gary. Sitting in the cafeteria of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee office in Oakland’s Chinatown, he retells his journey.
His father was a soldier who fought alongside American troops during the Vietnam war. After the war, Gary’s father fled government persecution, leaving behind Gary’s mother and his siblings but taking Gary. The pair landed in a refugee camp in Hong Kong until they found a sponsor to bring them to the United States.
When Gary arrived at 12 years old, he quickly found that overcoming the language barrier was no easy task. “School was fun, I met people like myself who just came to the United States—we had something in common,” says Gary, noting that Art and P.E. were his favorite subjects because he didn’t have to talk in those classes.
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As a teen living in San Jose, California in the 1980s, he searched for community and found it in gangs. Gary says, “Coming to America, I felt like I was out of place… I didn’t belong in the ‘good kid’ group, but the gang embraced me.”
During his senior year, as he was applying for college, he was involved in a melee. He stabbed a teenaged rival gang member, who subsequently died of his injuries. “That was my first encounter with law enforcement,” says Gary.
Gary says he didn’t know how serious the situation was until a friend called him that night, urging him to pack his stuff and get out of town. He went on the run, hiding in Illinois. While working at a factory there, Gary was captured by a U.S. Marshall and extradited to California to face charges.
Gary had learned enough English to socialize, but legal terminology made it difficult for him to understand what was happening in court. Gary received a manslaughter charge, as well as an additional gang enhancement charge, and was sentenced to 28 years in state prison.
When he entered San Quentin, he says, he was surprised to find traces of familiarity. “The strange part is, I felt at home,” says Gary. “Because of when I was in the refugee camp, that’s all I’d see: barbed wire, you know?” In prison he saw much of the same.
He didn’t stay in one place for long. He was shipped from San Quentin to Salinas Valley, where he was on a Level 4 yard because he was young and in a gang. From there he was transferred to New Corcoran, then Old Corcoran, Solano, Pleasant Valley, and eventually back to San Quentin.
While in Salinas Valley, he was punished after guards found a weapon near where Gary was standing. “I spent almost a year in solitary confinement, in Tehachapi SHU,” says Gary, explaining that solitude brought about major life changes. “I was able to kick my drug habit... It was like a blessing in disguise.”
After being released from solitary confinement, Gary had to readjust to prison life. He eventually developed a fruitful connection with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, a group he still works with to this day.
An arguably more important connection is the one he forged with God. “In 2010, I hit rock bottom,” says Gary. “I cried out to God… ‘Help me.’ And he did, he showed up in a mighty way.”
Gary, who wasn’t raised in a particularly religious household, says God found him when he needed faith most. “Through church and through God,” says Gary, “I came to realize that I needed to change.”
Gary went to the parole board just once. Although it was nearly two decades after his first court experience, the language of the law was still hard for him to understand. But he did his best to prepare, taking advice from members of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, combining them with the lessons learned in classes and the church. It paid off. When he was granted parole, he was overcome with joy. “It was one hell of a blessing,” says Gary.
But that high was soon met with the grounding experience of coming face-to-face with the family that his crime impacted. “I felt very heartbroken,” says Gary. “I saw the hurt … they were pouring out their heart to me, and I felt very remorseful for what I'd done.”
“I was released on Feb. 28, 2018,” says Gary. While he was on his way out of San Quentin’s gates, an officer told him that immigration might pick him up. Gary was in denial. “My expectation was to be free that day, but it didn’t come to pass,” says the man who lived through multiple crowded prisons and an international refugee camp. “I had to go to another prison, again.”
Gary was forced to hand over his green card. As a felon, he could no longer become a U.S. citizen.
He spent five months in the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Gary describes it as a small county jail, where the food wasn’t good and everything was more expensive than in prison. He says most of the people in the ICE detention center are Latino, but Asians make up a noticeable portion of the population.
Gary believes the reason Asians in ICE custody aren’t widely discussed is because of the “model minority” myth—the idea that Asians can easily assimilate into American culture. He also believes this impacts how Asians are treated within the prison system.
“Because we’re Asian, they expect us to go to school and make good money,” says Gary. “But when they look at us and see us gangbanging… they look at us differently, they want to make an example out of us.”
After being released from ICE custody in July of 2018, Gary says, he became a “Stranded Deportee.” His birth country of Vietnam won’t recognize his citizenship, and America won’t grant him a green card. He’s in permanent limbo.
While America has a treaty with Vietnam which states that people seeking refuge who came to America prior to 1995 will never be deported, that doesn’t change the fact that Gary, who came to the United States in 1994, is a convicted felon.
To get his green card back, Gary has to get his felony reduced to a misdemeanor. Although unlikely to happen, Gary still plans on pursuing this change. “I’m just asking for a second chance to prove myself, to stay in this country,” says Gary, whose entire family is now in the States.
Without citizenship or a green card, Gary is having a hard time finding stable employment. He’s been working at a homeless shelter, juggling odd jobs in the gig economy and has lived with someone he met through mutual friends.
The most recent months have brought about significant changes: Gary’s father passed away, and Gary got married and had a child.
Since being released, he’s also become a member of the 19th Avenue Baptist Church in San Francisco. Gary met the church’s pastor, Tom Pham, while in San Quentin.
“In our church we have a lot of lifers who are on parole there,” says Gary, explaining how this creates a sense of connection and community. “A lot of lifers don’t have family, so it helps to come together; it helps us to grow.”
Fifty & Fifty