Half asleep, he opened the door. There were a group of officials from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). One of them told him: “Come with us, we have enough papers to deport you to Vietnam.”
In shock, Jacob numbly followed their orders, bidding to goodbye to his wife Kaylynn Dang, who was crying her heart out.
Two years in Vietnam, the deported man is still struggling to get along with a life that he has had little idea about, to deal with his worsening depression, and returning to the U.S. remains his ultimate goal.
Jacob, 30, has a Vietnamese name – Dang Thanh Trung. He was 10 when he came to the U.S. from Vietnam with his Vietnamese father, half Vietnamese mother and an elder brother.
In 2008 Jacob was sent to prison as a minor on a offense he doesn’t want to dwell on.
He served his time, but was unexpectedly asked by ICE to return to jail for one more year while they decided if he “qualified” for deportation or not. Late 2011, the agency freed him, citing a lack of documents. However, Jacob had to drive more than 220 km (140 miles) from Grand Rapids to Detroit in Michigan every three or six months and meet with ICE officials for checking his status.
Jacob said he strictly abided by all the orders he was given, but never imagined “that day” would really come.
“I was so scared. I deeply regret what I did. But I served my time. Now, being apart from my wife and our six dogs is hurtful. I have left them in anxiety,” Jacob told VnExpress International .
In April 2019, the plane deporting Jacob landed in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). Luckily, he could call his aunt from Quy Nhon in Binh Dinh Province to pick him up. He has his paternal grandmother and relatives living in the south central coastal town.
Sitting alone in a private house built by his parents in Quy Nhon, Jacob is not able to figure out why his parents did not try to prevent his deportation, though they were on talking terms after a big fight.
He found it difficult to adjust to life in Vietnam. The weather was too hot, the food was strange, and Jacob did not know what to talk to his grandmother and cousins, because he had lived far away from them for a long time. He took refuge in talking on the phone to his wife of Spanish origin. They were friends for over 10 years before getting married in 2016.
Jacob and Kaylynn manage a private business that packaged over-the-counter medication. When the deportation happened, they decided to focus on getting him back to the U.S. So Jacob has not been looking for work in Vietnam and Kaylynn has been sending money to meet his living expenses.
Recalling the day Jacob was suddenly arrested by ICE officials, Kaylynn said she felt “her world was crumbling.”
With her husband away, Kaylynn has been trying to do things on her own, but this has been difficult because the couple had been doing things together since she was 18. She had to start learning how to drive because she hadn’t bothered to do so until Jacob was taken away.
“Doing things on my own is very hard, mentally,” he said
Kaylynn has also become used to staying in an “awake state” day and night so that her husband can contact her whenever he wants. Besides, she worries about Jacob’s health because he suffers from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and without medication he was receiving in the U.S., he struggles with everyday task. Jacob also suffers from chronic depression which can make getting out of bed unbearable some to most days.
Jacob and Kaylynn in their engagement party in Michigan, 2015. Photo courtesy of Jacob Dang.
In the first six months after Jacob’s deportation, they could not figure out a possible plan for his return to the U.S despite trying constantly. It was only in summer 2020 that they got an idea of what should and could be done.
A Canadian lawyer suggested that they file a petition asking that his status be reconsidered. They are looking into the possibility of him going to Canada, where it is “much closer to the U.S.” compared to Vietnam. Kaylynn could reach Canada from Michigan in two hours. In March 2021, Jacob and Kaylynn contacted a Southeast Asian nonprofit group in New Jersey for help but there is not much they can do.
So far, the legal process has not cost them much because there is major delay in the immigration system for both the U.S. and Canada for immigration cases like Jacob. However, since the attempt to get back “may take a couple of years,” Kaylynn expects to spend around $15,000.
In case things get more difficult, Kaylynn plans to sell their house in Michigan and go to Mexico and see if they can meet there.
“I’m willing to leave everything behind here and meet him in another country.”
The only thing she is worried about with such a move is she would have to live far away from her parents. While they are fully supportive of Jacob and Kaylynn, they are worried that she would struggle in a different place. She has never left the U.S.
For now, Jacob is waiting to see if a new bill called “New Way Forward Act” will be passed by President Biden’s administration. The act was introduced by a group of Democratic representatives led by Rep. Jesus Garcia of Illinois in December 2019.
If it is passed, the bill could overturn the draconian immigration law, allowing people like Jacob to return to the U.S with “100 percent” surety, he said.
Over nearly two years in Vietnam, Jacob has been trying “new” things. He is learning to cook some Vietnamese dishes, going out to exercise and visiting relatives’ houses to chat. However, he remains focused on his only goal.
“All I am trying to do is return to my wife in the U.S.”