There’s a conversation Phoeun You wants to have with his parents face-to-face. If he’s deported to Cambodia, he won’t ever get the chance.
“I wanted to say to my parents, my mom and dad, is one, thank you for giving me life,” You said. “And two, I’m deeply sorry for putting you through this suffering because when I was incarcerated I felt like you guys also did time with me. That’s something I really want to get off my chest.”
You, who is now 48 years old, was sentenced to 35 years to life when he was 20 years old. After 25 years behind bars, he was granted early release—only to be immediately detained by ICE. He’s now at California’s Golden State Annex, awaiting deportation to a country he hasn’t been to since he fled the Cambodian genocide as a young child.
You is one of thousands of refugees and immigrants who have experienced what advocates call “double punishment”: direct transfer to ICE and eventual deportation immediately after finishing a prison sentence, even if they have permanent residency in the U.S.
You’s friends and family were hoping California’s VISION Act would pass in 2021 before his transfer, but it didn’t. The bill, introduced by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo, would close the main pipeline for ICE transfers by preventing local law enforcement from assisting ICE. In September 2021, the bill was close to passing, but advocates said several police groups lobbied against it, and some state senators balked as a result. It remains on the state’s Senate floor, and lawmakers have until the end of the legislative session in August 2022 to pass it.
If the act passes, people like You will have a chance to build the kind of life he hopes to build in the U.S. one day—in the unlikely case that he’s released.
“I just want to have a family and start my life over,” You said. “I want to travel, I want to go fishing, hiking, mountain climbing—anything that’s outdoors … If I could sit and have coffee with a friend and just talk about life, that’s meaningful for me. Because I don’t get that.”
The prison-to-deportation pipeline
When You came to America, he experienced poverty, anti-Asian discrimination, and violence. He joined a gang at age 13. Seven years later, he was convicted of first-degree murder after opening fire into a crowd and killing someone while seeking retaliation for a rival gang’s attack on his nephew.
In prison, You went through rehabilitative programs and worked as a journalist. He helped start ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves), an ethnic studies program for incarcerated APIs. He’s a certified counselor through Bay Area Women Against Rape—domestic violence is an issue which hits home for You, whose sister was killed by her boyfriend. If he’s released, You hopes to continue his community work.
“I feel like that would give me some purpose if I could give back like that,” You said. “And just the ability to talk to folks and hopefully uplift their days also would be meaningful for me.”
You’s background is similar to many clients at San Francisco’s Public Defender’s Office, said Angela Chan, who leads the office’s effort to confront state violence. Chan said Southeast Asian refugees were often settled into overpoliced and under-resourced low-income neighborhoods in California and came of age amid the rise in mass incarceration in the 1980s.
In 2020, 1,615 immigrants or refugees in California’s prison system were transferred by ICE. In the U.S., Southeast Asians are three-to-four times more likely to face deportation for past convictions compared to other immigrant communities. ICE transfers also disproportionately impact Latinx and African communities—Latinx people are the largest population of deportees. Once deported, many face lifetime bans from returning to the United States.
ICE transfers are a national issue—but it’s more significant in California, which has the largest immigrant population in the country and where prison population growth outpaced all other states in the 1980s.
The hopelessness of ICE transfers
While the VISION Act would not prevent ICE from going after formerly incarcerated individuals, Chan said it’s more difficult for individuals to fight an immigration case after a direct ICE transfer.
“When these clients are transferred out of state to usually privately run ICE facilities, it’s extremely difficult for family members to have contact with the detained individual, and that’s especially heartbreaking, and I think it’s by design,” Chan said. “It’s to make it so that individuals feel hopeless and so they don’t fight their immigration case.”
Under California law, the state prison system is required to notify people if ICE plans to detain them—but Chan said clients often aren’t told until right before their pending release.
In Carlos Muñoz’s case, the parole board told him he didn’t have an ICE hold—but two days before his release, ICE told him to await detention. Muñoz was convicted when he was 17 years old for a murder he says he didn’t commit, spent 30 years in prison, and was granted early release partly because the only evidence he was guilty was recanted.
Muñoz said his family were “practically begging” him to stop fighting his immigration case so they could be with him—even though past gang ties meant his life would be at risk if he was deported to Mexico.
“You either fight the system, or you end up in TJ,” said Muñoz, referring to Tijuana, Mexico. “Many people just don’t want to continue fighting anymore.”
Luis Alberto Yboy Flores knows what it’s like to fight the system. Flores, a formerly incarcerated firefighter, served five years and eight months for assault with a semiautomatic, a charge levied at Flores by his partner, who later recanted her statement. As a firefighter, people called Flores and his team “angels in orange.” A fire captain offered him a job upon release—but he couldn’t take it because ICE detained him.
“I lost the chance to continue what I fell in love with,” Flores said.
Flores went on two hunger strikes while in detention due to unsafe conditions at Yuba County Jail, where Flores was detained—Flores said he was in his cell for 23 hours a day. He was eventually released after the ACLU of Southern California filed a class-action lawsuit, but he still faces deportation by ICE and is seeking a pardon from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“When you come out … you are no longer a hero,” said Flores, who spent two years and four months in ICE detention. “You are no longer an angel. You are no longer that person that was helping the community. You are no longer that. You are now a detainee. You are an immigrant, you are a menace, you become what the court says you are. You are no longer that person that saved lives.”
If the VISION Act passes
For Ny Nourn, passing the VISION Act would be a small step toward restorative justice.
Nourn, whose family fled the Cambodian genocide, was sentenced to life without parole after her abusive boyfriend shot and killed her boss. Nourn said she was forced to drive her abuser to her boss’ house after she admitted to her boyfriend that she had slept with him. She was charged with aiding and abetting a murder. After 16 years of incarceration, she was transferred to ICE and only released after Newsom pardoned her.
Nourn is now the co-director of Asian Prisoner Support Committee, which is fighting for the VISION Act. Nourn says the VISION Act is a step towards dismantling incarceration, which is her end goal.
“People are not throwaways. Everyone has the ability to heal, to learn, to grow,” Nourn said. “We have to understand a person [as] more than what their conviction is.”
Chanthon Bun’s story provides a glimpse into what would happen if the VISION Act passes. Bun, who was incarcerated and sentenced to nearly 50 years for being the lookout for an armed robbery where no one was hurt, wasn’t transferred to ICE after he was granted early release after 23 years behind bars—although he was told he would be.
“I think if I was detained by ICE, I would have died in their custody,” said Bun, who is immunocompromised and caught COVID-19 while in prison.
Bun is now a community advocate with Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, another organization championing the VISION Act. He finds joy in his family, whose most recent member is his 5-month-old son. He also keeps in contact with You, who played a major role in Bun’s rehabilitation.
“It hurts me to see Phoeun call me and him asking me how I’m doing,” Bun said. “When he could have been here with me.”