Immigration process tears local family apart for more than 40 years

Ai Nguyen, a U.S. Special Forces agent and U.S Marine, has tired to bring his sisters legally into the country for 42 years. The family is stuck in limbo because of the current immigration process. (Photo from KATU's Catherine Van)

A local family is fighting to unite after the Vietnam war. They’ve been separated for more than 40 years because they’ve been stuck in the legal immigration process.

Pictures document some of the best moments in life. For Ai Nguyen, photos fill the gaps in his life. The last time he saw his oldest sister, An, and youngest sister, Ngoc, was in Vietnam in 1971, where they took their last family photo together. The two sisters are still in Vietnam.

Nowadays, Ai lives in his comfortable Aloha home with his wife, but it wasn't easy getting here.

For years, his father, Nhon Duc Nguyen, was imprisoned in Vietnam for working covert operations with the U.S government. He followed his father’s footsteps and He enlisted in the U.S Marines when he was 20. He learned at an early age the cost of war.

“I put American servicemen in the body bag,” he said. “I feel that I owe the United States and United States servicemen a great deal.”

30 years later, his father, mother and middle sister immigrated to the United States as refugees. His two other sisters, An and Ngoc weren’t legally eligible to join them because they were both married. Since then, the Nguyens have been trying to get the sisters to the United States.

Ai's mother, Loan Thi Tran, first sponsored her daughters in 2000, but died three years into the process. Their father took over, which added another decade to the wait before he passed away.

By law The sisters were pushed to the back of the line when their sponsor died.

“There's no way of knowing, you don't know how long you're actually waiting. Every time is a guesstimate,” said Kim Le, the Nguyen’s immigration attorney.

Now, Ai is filing for a third time, but by now, firled hundreds of pages of paper work and have lost 17 more years and tens of thousands of dollars with a long way to go.

“[U.S Citizenship and Immigration department] is just now calling numbers for applications filed in 2004.

Each time the Nguyens get an update, they're met with more paperwork and more disappointment.

The system is failing them.

It’s a narrative for millions of other families, who in most cases, can't afford to hire an immigration attorney.

“If a family like Ai's is doing everything they can to come legally, and there's no way for them to do it, it's no wonder why illegal immigration is ‘on the rise,’” said Le.

Even lawmakers can't cut through the red tape. Congresswoman, Suzanne Bonamicci says her office even tried to intervene, with no avail:

“Our immigration system is profoundly broken. The Nguyen siblings have been separated for 42 years, despite their father’s dedicated service to the U.S. government, for which he was imprisoned in Vietnam, and the military service of his son - first as an assistant to U.S. Special Forces and later as a U.S. Marine. Although my office attempted to help the Nguyens, ultimately we were unable to reunite them. In this family’s case, our immigration laws are blocking veterans and those who aided our troops overseas from reuniting with their loved ones. We need comprehensive immigration reform for many reasons, and the tragic story of the Nguyen family is just one heartbreaking example.”

Because of Ai’s American military background, he's not allowed to step foot in Vietnam, and the Vietnamese government prohibits his sisters from visiting him in the U.S.

Even if the sisters get approved, they will have to petition for their children to become U.S citizens and start that process all over again.

These days, most of the family conversations are through phone calls. KATU joined Ai in a rare video chat with Ngoc.

Each call he makes is a ping of false hope.

“That's why I avoid contact with them because I get emotion every time. And nothing I can do,” Nguyen said.

The family has lost 42 years together--their lives and dreams put on hold indefinitely.

“My dream that i want all my siblings, all 5, of my sisters and brother to at least have one picture,” Ai said.

All he can do is pray. Ai visits his father and mother’s graves every month to ask for answers. He says his father’s dying wish was to bring his sisters to the U.S.

For now, he has to wait on the system before he can get his final family picture.

“I need to do what he not be able to do,” he said. “We need help. We need help from anybody, we need miracle.”

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