by Chris Nelson
It was serendipity that I visited the man I did at the Yuba County Jail Monday in Marysville.
I got there four minutes too late to see the man I had planned to meet; the second name I had was a man who had been transferred elsewhere and the third candidate wasn’t available for a visit until later in the day. All three of those men had Latino surnames. The man I did get to visit was from Vietnam.
He was a pleasant, middle-aged man with glasses. I could barely hear him through the phone line — another prisoner had to help us get connected because we could not negotiate use of the phone. We were there, facing each other for an hour conversation in one of 13 designated seats in the basement of the Yuba County Jail, looking at each other through dirty glass along with a room full of women and kids — mostly Latinas — there to visit other men.
Our visit, for me, was poignant, powerful and sad.
His family fled Vietnam when he was 2 years old and he grew up in L.A. with his family. He does not know the Vietnamese language and fears being sent to Vietnam since he doesn’t know anyone and can’t fathom what he might do. I could see the anxiety in his face when he talked about that possibility. The Trump administration definitely wants to deport him, but Vietnam doesn’t want him so he sees some hope in that. (NPR recently reported that this administration wants to deport thousands of Vietnamese immigrants.)
He did not tell me the crime he committed at age 16 which landed him in jail for all these many years, but he did seem remorseful about what he had done. He certainly didn’t try to minimize it. He has had a long time to move through and away from who that troubled teenager was. Now his dream is to get a rescue dog at a shelter, get some chickens and plant some fruit trees. He talked longingly about getting his hands in the dirt.
Next week he will be sent to San Francisco and will go on probation there. He will stay in a transitional living house with rules and a curfew. He has a Social Security number but has lost his residence status. He doesn’t know how that will affect his ability to find work, but he really wants to work.
This man, who I really liked immediately, is full of hope that he can start his life anew, that he can do good and live a simple life, much like his grandparents did before the “American War.”
I only hope he can stay to at least have a chance to try. He said many he knew as a young man “didn’t make it” or were deported. I don’t want to see his life wasted; I sensed I was speaking to a good person.
If you wish to visit a detainee in the Yuba County Jail, where between 160 and 200 adults are on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) holds, contact the group Faithful Friends, a member organization of the national Freedom for Immigrants. Faithful Friends runs a visitation program to provide human contact for immigrant detainees who can go years without a visit; these are not political visits. Reach Faithful Friends by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Chris Nelson is a local activist who notes that she is approaching the fifth anniversary of the death of her partner, Michael Pike, from an Agent Orange-related cancer because of his military service in the war.