It should be a joyful day in Phoeun You’s life.
On January 5, 2022, after serving 25 years behind bars for a murder when he was 20, the Cambodian, now 47, was released on parole from San Quentin a decade ahead of schedule.
The Parole Board let him out 10 years earlier in recognition of his commitment to service, tutoring and rehabilitation.
His early release could have provided a door to a better future for a man who transformed his life behind bars after a series of huge setbacks that began shortly after his birth. Instead, he ticked the clock toward the end of his stay in the United States, a country he has lived in since he was a child.
Decision makers at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had the discretion to release you, but chose to work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and transferred you to the Mesa Verde ICE processing facility in Bakersfield, where you have remained ever since.
What happens next is uncertain, but the most likely outcome is his deportation from the United States to Cambodia, a country he does not remember. There is also a small chance that Governor Gavin Newsom might pardon you, after which you could begin legal proceedings to reopen your removal order and have your status as a lawful permanent resident restored.
Cambodians who have faced deportation told him that after travel documents are issued, deportation usually takes two weeks to a month. Your documentation has been completed.
“Time moves very quickly. It’s already passed the one-week mark,” he said in a July 17 interview. “My little window of hope is closing.”
You were born into the geopolitical turmoil of early 1975 when the American military presence in Southeast Asia was collapsing and just months before Khmer Rouge rebels took control of Cambodia. Four years later, when the genocidal regime was overthrown, You’s family fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, and later won the right to settle in the United States. largest Cambodian community in the world outside of Southeast Asia.
There, he grew up as one of 10 siblings battling trauma, keeping a roof over their heads and finding food. As an immigrant at school, he was bullied and started fighting. Partly seeking safety in numbers, he joined a gang when he was 13 and began drinking and using drugs. When he was 16, one of his brothers was hit by eight bullets in a gang shooting.
While You was picking up his nephew from school one day in March 1995, half a dozen gang members assaulted them both. You later explained that the incident triggered memories of his brother’s shooting, and the school beatings he suffered as a misplaced immigrant child. Afterwards, he and his nephew drove for hours in search of their attackers. After they were found, you opened fire on a crowd, killing a 17-year-old boy. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to at least 35 years in prison.
In 2003, his sister was killed by his partner in an act of domestic violence, which caused You to look more deeply at the damage he had caused and set him on a path of introspection. “That was my turning point. Because of her, I thought about my own actions,” he said.
“I’ve led a life, and that will haunt me until the day I die. But I want that chance to live an honorable life, if that makes sense… because it can’t.”
The search for an honorable life pushed him forward. He earned an associate’s degree, counseled fellow inmates, and trained for certification as a rape counselor with the ultimate goal of working in domestic violence prevention.
He became a prison reporter and coder with the San Quentin News, and co-founded the ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves) program, modeled after an ethnic studies curriculum, to teach inmates about their history and culture.
For Cambodians, this means coming to terms with the intergenerational trauma of President Richard Nixon’s secret—and illegal—bombings of Cambodia during the US war in Vietnam; the Khmer Rouge genocide that caused the death of almost one in four Cambodians in the late 1970s; and the displacement of millions more.
With a new compassion, he participated in an 18-month restorative justice process through the Education Group for Victims, an intensive program for incarcerated individuals who wish to delve into how their life experiences and decisions led them to prison and how their crimes affected their victim(s). Your experiences were chronicled in the documentary The Prison Within.
Advocates from the nonprofit Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee argue that if you were eligible for early release, then by definition you are not a threat to public safety and should not be deported after spending almost his entire life in the US
He faces a fate that many expelled Cambodians have suffered before him: being sent back to a country that is completely foreign to him. He has no memories of it, and a fragmentary knowledge of the Khmer language.
It is a place where many other Cambodians expelled from the US USA they struggled to find jobs, ending up in the underground economy at the risk of returning to crime and prison.
Advocates wonder how it helps California if someone like you, who has friends, family and colleagues here, is uprooted once again. Expulsion, for Ti, would sever his connection with his octogenarian parents who fled their homeland more than four decades ago.
You’s lawyer, So Young Lee of the Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, noted that You’s 80-year-old mother suffers from complications from diabetes, including vision problems and toe amputation, and uses a walker. Your 89-year-old father has Alzheimer’s.
“Given their advanced age and failing health,” Lee wrote, “they would not be able to visit Phoeun in Cambodia.”
Your request for clemency has been on Newsom’s desk since early April. But when the governor signed 17 pardons for Californians on July 1, You’s wasn’t among them. And so, his expulsion is approaching, but certain.
There is a cruel irony in Ti’s situation. The VISION Lawa bill being considered by the state Senate would prohibit the transfer of prisoners from the California Department of Corrections to ICE.
About 80% of Californians favor letting people go free after serving jail or prison “regardless of where a person was born,” according to a poll by the U.S. Immigration Policy Center.
All bills must pass the California State Senate before August 31, and the governor has until September 30 to sign them. Since You is unlikely to be affected by the bill if it passes – because he was released early due to good behavior – his supporters are calling on the governor to pardon him, which would remove the reason for his possible expulsion by the feds.
“It’s the only way,” says Chanthon Bun, a community advocate for Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. “Phoeun is a light in our community and deporting him would be a disservice to our community.”
“From a political perspective,” Bun says, “he’s been in prison for 25 years—California has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in his rehabilitation. I know he wants to give back; he wants to make up for the damage he’s done.”
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While in prison, he received several job and housing offers from community advocacy organizations he worked with.
If he is sent to Cambodia, he is likely to face a very different welcome.
“Most people in Cambodia will call him ‘an American,’ and they will look down on him because the Cambodian public knows that these people are coming back because of a crime,” Bun explained.
In addition to wanting to give back to society, You hopes to take care of his mother and father and, more immediately, deliver a message to them in person.
“The thought of never seeing my parents again … breaks my heart,” she said.
“All I want is to see them in person and tell them I love them, and thank me for giving me life and bringing me into this world. I want to say, “I’m sorry.” And I want to let them know that, despite how it turned out for me, I’m very proud to be their son.”
Bun remembers a photo project that the Asian Law Caucus put together; There was a touching picture of You’s parents holding up a photograph of their son that really got to him.
“It was sad to see,” Bun said, “because they shouldn’t have kept his picture. They should have grabbed him.”
San Quentin parolee at risk of deportation seeks Newsom’s pardon Source link San Quentin parolee at risk of deportation seeks Newsom’s pardon