Quy Ngoc Tran says he is an American citizen, but he has no way of proving it to the INS.
Quy Ngoc Tran says he is an American citizen, but he has no way of proving it to the INS.
Mark Graham

Proof of citizenship

On July 19, three carloads of armed officers from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service arrived at the small Fort Worth house that 23-year-old Quy Ngoc Tran and his family share with their cousin, Ann.

In front of his wife and two young sons, officers arrested Tran and put him in a Dallas County jail, where he remained for the next two and a half months. In early November he will have a hearing to determine whether he will be deported back to Laos, the war-torn country he left almost 20 years ago when it fell under communist control.

Quy Ngoc Tran's transgressions: He has a criminal conviction in his past and no proof of citizenship.

Tran is the latest victim of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996, which Congress passed to remove non-citizen criminals from our midst. But by expanding the category of crimes eligible for deportation and making the law retroactive, it has incarcerated and deported thousands of people who had successfully paid for their crimes, many of which were non-violent.

Such is the case of Tran, a 23-year-old manicurist who was arrested for stealing two cars when he was 18. He pleaded guilty and received five years of deferred adjudication, which means that if he successfully completes his probation, his record will be wiped clean. He had a year and a half to go on his probation when the INS arrested him. Even if he had completed probation and no longer had a conviction on his record, the 1996 immigration law now makes deferred-adjudication cases deportable offenses.

Tran's case is complicated by the fact that he believes he is a citizen but can't prove it. Tran says that his father was naturalized in 1984 when Tran was nine and declared him as a dependent, which would automatically make him a citizen. Those application papers, however, are buried in the INS archives. Even if Tran can get his hands on them, which can take months, he would still have to prove that his father had legal custody of him when he applied for naturalization -- since U.S. citizenship is derived through the mother. Although Tran says his mother has had no contact with him or his father since he was an infant, papers proving his parents were legally separated do not exist.

The most incredible aspect to this case is that if the INS decides Tran should be sent back to Laos, it won't deport him anyway. Laos is one of a number of countries that refuses to accept deportees from the United States, because the two countries do not have diplomatic relations. But Tran has to go through the expensive and terrifying judicial process that could still require him to spend more time in jail.

Tran was born in Laos to a Vietnamese father and mother, who never married. He was an infant when Laos fell to the communists. His mother, a French citizen, was captured by the police, and she eventually made her way back to France. When Tran was a year old, his father made the treacherous escape across the Thailand border, where he remained in a refugee camp for more than a year before making safe passage to America. Tran's grandparents and his 14-year-old cousin Ann then escaped with Tran, coming to America after they, too, spent a year in a Thailand refugee camp.

A Michigan newspaper covered the moving reunion of 3-year-old Tran with his father, Goong V., who was working in a small Michigan town where a family had helped sponsor his resettlement.

In the mid-1980s, Tran's father and nephews went through the lengthy process to become U.S. citizens. Because Tran was a minor and his father was his custodial parent, he automatically was eligible for citizenship when his father declared him as a dependent on his citizenship application. To get Tran his own citizenship papers, however, the family needed to take an additional step. Tran's cousin, Ann, remembers filling out the additional paperwork that would secure Tran's citizenship status. Ann and Tran both say that they didn't know they were supposed to get documentation back from the INS and that nothing was forthcoming. For that reason, Tran was -- and still is -- listed as a lawful permanent resident -- a status that makes him vulnerable to deportation.

At the time Tran and his father simply believed they were both citizens and didn't give it much more thought. Besides, they had more pressing issues to deal with. In the late 1980s, Tran's father moved his family to Fort Worth, where he got a job with General Dynamics. Tran fell in with an Asian gang and got in trouble with the law.

When he was 18, Tran stole two cars on the same night -- and got caught. He says an immigration official at the jail asked him whether he was a citizen, and he said yes. The officer obviously believed him, because even in the early 1990s, two crimes involving moral turpitude such as the ones Tran had committed would have made a lawful permanent resident eligible for deportation.

Tran pleaded guilty to his crimes and received five years deferred adjudication. According to his cousin Ann, it was the wake-up call he needed. "Ever since then, he has successfully turned his life around."

For the last three years, Tran has been working as a manicurist in a nail salon in DeSoto. And he has been dutifully reporting to his probation officer. Four years ago, he settled down with Lisa Xiong, an American citizen of Laotian descent. Although they were never legally married, they have a 3-year-old son and a baby boy, born at the beginning of July.

Tran believed he had put his troubles behind him -- until July 20, when the INS came knocking at his door. "They flashed their guns and scared our 3-year-old to death," says Xiong. "He's now afraid of the police."

Although Tran was promised a hearing in three to 10 days, he did not appear before a judge for two and a half months. The cost of hiring a lawyer and the lack of income for those months have put a great strain on the family. And so has the uncertainty of Tran's future.

Tran tried to convince the judge that he was in fact a citizen. But the judge wanted proof that his parents were legally separated when his father became naturalized. "My parents were never married," he says. "How can I prove they were legally separated? It's impossible."

Tran says his original sponsors -- a Michigan doctor and a reverend -- are willing to fly down and testify that Tran came to the country legally and that his mother never came over. But he has no idea whether that will suffice.

According to his attorney, Kenneth Wincorn, in certain deferred-adjudication cases involving crimes of moral turpitude, the judge has the discretion to consider the person's character and order a cancellation of removal, which would allow the person to stay in this country. In that regard, he may be luckier than some. There are immigrants who were found guilty of felonies and received suspended (not deferred) sentences of more than a year. These cases are now considered aggravated felonies, and those convicted of them are deportable. They are not, however, eligible for cancellation of removal, even though they did not spend a day in prison. In fact, they cannot even get out on bond while awaiting the disposition of their cases, which can last as long as a year.

Although the judge in Tran's case refused to set a bond, the INS decided to release him anyway. The agency may have been swayed by a letter written on Tran's behalf by U.S. Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), who is working on legislation that would make the 1996 law more equitable. Tran's lawyer, however, says that in the long run, such help can be a mixed blessing. "When a politician sticks his fingers in a case, it doesn't always resolve favorably," says Wincorn. "The judge and the INS can get pissed off.

"I feel sorry for [Tran]," Wincorn adds. "It is because of these ridiculous, draconian laws that this is happening. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996 decimated the rights of permanent residents. It's a nightmare."

Fernando Dubove, a local lawyer specializing in immigration, agrees. "How can you pass a law and make it retroactive? How can you say to someone, 'I know we told you this wouldn't affect you, but now all bets are off''? That doesn't pass the smell test. How could the Congress, especially Republicans, who believe in smaller government, make a law that increased bureaucracy and handed all this power over to the INS?"

If the judge orders Tran deported, the INS will hold him for at least 90 days. If he doesn't appeal the decision, he will then have a hearing to determine whether he is a continuing danger to society. If a hearing officer decides that he is, he will sit in jail forever -- or until circumstances in Laos change and they begin accepting deportees. If it's decided that Tran is not a danger, he will be released, and he will have a deportation order hanging over his head indefinitely. If Laos suddenly begins accepting deportees, he will have to go back to a country he cannot even remember.

"I'm scared to go on with my life," Tran says. "I work and work and save money for my family, and now I don't know if I have a future in this country. I don't have bitter feelings for this country, but I do believe some of their laws need to be changed."


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