Los Angeles, California, US – Phoeun You was just a child when he entered the United States in 1981, fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide with his family from their native Cambodia.
The family resettled in Long Beach, California, and You grew up in a neighbourhood where he says violence and discrimination were consistent parts of his childhood. He joined a gang, and a fight with a rival group landed him in prison on a murder conviction in 1996.
During the subsequent 26 years in prison, You started to mentor other incarcerated people, especially those from refugee communities who were coping with the legacies of violent dispossession. He earned a certificate in domestic violence counselling and was granted parole this year, hoping to use his new skills to help others in his community.
But upon his release, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) handed You over to the US federal immigration enforcement agency, ICE. While You was a lawful permanent resident of the US, his status as a non-citizen and conviction for a serious crime opened him up to potential deportation.
“It’s a double punishment,” You told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from an ICE detention centre one week before he was deported on August 16. “Instead of starting a new life and reuniting with my family I had to tell my parents, ‘Look, I’m not coming home.’ I felt helpless hearing their pain.”
‘Dual system of justice’
In 2020, California’s prison system handed over about 1,600 people to ICE after they had completed their prison sentences, according to the immigration rights group Asian Law Caucus (ALC). That figure does not include transfers conducted by local jails, which also transferred more than 1,600 people to ICE in 2019.
While such collaboration is common in the US, it is not mandatory, and a bill in California’s state legislature known as the VISION Act is now seeking to end the transfers in what activists hope will be a substantial step to end what they call the “prison-to-deportation pipeline”.
“It’s a very simple question: do we want to have a dual system of justice for citizens and non-citizens?” Wendy Carrillo, a legislator in the state assembly and the bill’s primary author, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “There is value in redemption. There is value in rehabilitation. A person shouldn’t be defined for their whole life by their lowest moment.”
California law enforcement groups have opposed the bill, saying last year that “there should be a point, in the most egregious cases, where we do not provide protections for dangerous persons from enforcement”.
Denise Hauser, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, defended the practice of deporting people who have completed their prison sentences. She told Al Jazeera in an email that the agency “continues to focus its limited resources on cases of greatest importance to national interest and public safety”.
But supporters of the bill argue that people who have paid their debt to society deserve a chance to be reunited with their communities, regardless of their immigration status.
Several formerly and currently incarcerated migrants who spoke with Al Jazeera emphasised what they see as a fundamental injustice at the core of the transfers: those who have completed their sentences should not be punished again through deportation.
Chanthon Bun, a Cambodian refugee who was freed from San Quentin state prison in July 2020 after more than two decades behind bars, said he was overcome with fear in the days leading up to his release.
“An ICE agent came to visit me before I was released and told me, ‘CDCR allows me to set the date to come pick you up.’ Up to the minute the prison van dropped me off, I was afraid ICE was going to show up and take me to a detention centre,” Bun told Al Jazeera.
Bun said he still is unsure why ICE did not pick him up. “We go through the same process as everyone else. The difference is that at the end, if you’re an immigrant, you might not get to be reunited with your family,” he said.
Bun and others also noted the connection between US violence overseas and their need to seek refuge in the country; the US carried out a covert bombing campaign of Cambodian territory before the Khmer Rouge seized control and carried out the genocide. “A lot of us came here because we didn’t have any choice,” said Bun.
”We were uprooted, and when you deport someone they’re uprooted again.”
That’s what happened to Sophea Phea, who was deported to her native Cambodia in 2011, several years after she had completed a brief prison sentence. Phea had come to the US as a young child and had few memories of the country.
“Adjusting to life there came with a lot of loneliness and depression,” she said. “I was alone and I didn’t know what to do. It loaded more trauma onto my family because they had escaped Cambodia. They associated it with violence, and they were afraid for me.”
A pardon from California Governor Gavin Newsom helped pave the way for her eventual return to the US in August after more than 10 years in Cambodia.
Shortly before his deportation, You expressed similar fears. “If I’m deported it’s basically a lifetime punishment. I can’t even read or write the language there,” he told Al Jazeera. “My family, my friends, my community, it’s all in America. It would all be gone.”
But as it stands, the California bill that would end these ICE transfers faces an uncertain path to the governor’s desk. The proposal was shelved last year at the end of the legislative session, and Carrillo told Al Jazeera that it is currently on the floor of the state Senate but has yet to be brought up for a vote.
If it were to pass, Newsom has not indicated whether he would sign it into law. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Sophea, who just came home after an 11yr deportation, shares why we urgently need the #VISIONAct:
"It will keep families together and lessen the damage that has already been done to them. Children will less likely be traumatized by the loss of their parents due to ICE transfers." https://t.co/yhKtxhYL7v
— Asian Law Caucus (@aaaj_alc) August 24, 2022
Newsom has issued pardons to some non-citizens, such as Phea, that allowed them to come back to the US or shielded them from deportation, but he also has declined to do so on numerous occasions.
ALC and other groups such as Survived and Punished and Asian Prisoners Support Committee spent months urging Newsom to issue a pardon for Gabriela Solano, a domestic abuse survivor who served several decades behind bars for a crime she did not directly participate in under threat of coercion from her partner. Newsom did not do so, and Solano was deported to Mexico in 2021, despite the fact that her parole board concluded she posed no threat to public safety.
In the absence of an immediate legislative solution to end ICE transfers, advocates have called on the governor to use his pardoning power to help protect those at risk of deportation – or who have already been removed from the country. “The pardon is Phoeun’s only chance to return to the US,” said So Young Lee, You’s lawyer. “We’re going to continue to keep pushing.”
“I served 26 years. I paid my debt. I want to return home to serve my community. I want to use my skills and experience to help anyone who needs guidance. I want to hug and kiss my parents and tell them I’m sorry for the pain I caused them,” said You. “It’s unjust for everybody involved.”