Last week, I got news that the Biden administration will deport me.
I am currently sitting in an ICE Detention Center in Bakersfield, defeated. And it feels like the end of life as I know it.
Last year, after serving 26 years and earning my release from San Quentin State Prison, I was hopeful I would finally go home. Instead of being reunited with my family and community after paying my debt to society, however, California transferred me directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention.
I came to the U.S. as a refugee and as a child; I was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge genocide. When I was 4 years old, my family and I fled war and took refuge in Thailand before relocating to America.
We settled in Long Beach in Southern California and that was where I was raised. Adjusting to life there was difficult. My family suffered from the trauma of war and life in Long Beach often didn’t make things easier. I witnessed and experienced poverty, racism, violence and gangs. I had difficulties finding my place in society, so in my teens I, too, turned to gang life. In 1995, I took an innocent person’s life.
I have been incarcerated for the majority of my life. I entered prison at 21. Today, I am 48.
Prison, however, is where I began to turn my life around.
In 2003, I learned that my sister was murdered by her boyfriend. Amid the pain and sorrow, a seed of transformation was planted. A true understanding of the pain and harm that I had caused to so many people began to register. Sorrow and remorse became my guiding lights.
From that point on, I sought any opportunity to better myself and give back to society. And I began in earnest to account for my actions and the pain I have caused — to the victims, the broader community and my family.
While at San Quentin State Prison, I received my associate degree and I became a certified crisis counselor sponsored by Bay Area Women Against Rape. I worked for the San Quentin News and co-founded ROOTS, an Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic studies program. I worked with incarcerated individuals and survivors of crime in the Victims and Offender Education Group program, which allowed me to mentor incarcerated people through the process of accountability and healing.
Throughout my incarceration, I sat in healing circles to discuss rehabilitation, accountability, re-entry and ways to reduce recidivism. I met with public leaders such as George Gascon, now the district attorney of Los Angeles County, and former California Assembly member and now attorney general, Rob Bonta. I gained a greater commitment to serve my community once released. In honor of my sister, I hope to one day devote my life in service to women dealing with domestic violence.
In recent years, California has recognized that people who committed crimes as youth, such as me, were not fully developed cognitively. Laws like SB261, enacted in 2015, now recognize that we have the capacity to mature and rehabilitate. As a result of this law, which expanded youth offender parole hearings, I was found suitable for early release based on my growth and rehabilitation.
Yet instead of freedom on the day of my release, I was shackled by ICE and have been detained ever since.
More than 2,600 immigrants like me experienced this kind of “double-punishment” in the past two years. This harms families, our state and our country. Why do we invest in criminal justice reforms for youth offenders who rehabilitate and then sabotage those efforts by deporting them?
To be sure, some may argue that it is in the nation’s interests to deport people like me who have had a serious conviction in the past. But I served my time, and I have already been deemed not a concern to public safety by Gov. Gavin Newsom, who supported my parole.
Through my experiences, I have something to offer that can help heal our society troubled by violence. I have facilitated trauma healing work with those who committed crimes, and with victims and survivors of crime, which could help prevent others from going down the path I did.
California is a sanctuary state that prides itself on being a welcoming environment to immigrants. Yet sadly, there are thousands like myself who have been handed over to ICE after serving their time — transferred from one cage to another.
That’s why I support passage of AB937 from Assembly Member Wendy Carillo, D-Boyle Heights (Los Angeles County), which would prevent this double punishment of immigrants and refugees, and give people like me a chance to reintegrate into society after completing their sentences.
I may be deported to Cambodia in two weeks — a country I have never truly known. My last hope to stop my deportation is a pardon from Gov. Newsom.
But if that pardon doesn’t come, I still hope that our state will transform its policies and pass AB937. Give people like me the chance to live up to our potential and contribute to the greater good.
Phoeun You is a trained facilitator in trauma healing work with survivors of crime and offenders.
Attribution: This article was first printed in San Francisco Chronicle July 25, 2022