Frances Madeson | Capital & Main
Phoeun You, a Cambodian-born parolee whose imminent expulsion from the United States became a cause for protest by Asian American and civil rights advocates, was deported Wednesday afternoon, according to Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, one of the groups advocating on his behalf.
You had become a prominent activist and prison journalist in San Quentin State Prison. After being granted parole, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released him in January to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which detained him and began deportation proceedings.
Capital & Main reported on You’s case in July as his supporters sought a pardon for his murder conviction from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
” There are no words to fully capture the cruelty of this moment. Phoeun should be home with his family, not deported to a country he escaped as a child. SO YOUNG LEE, IMMIGRANT RIGHTS ATTORNEY AT THE ASIAN LAW CAUCUS ”
Despite a determined defense and vigorous campaign spearheaded by advocates at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, efforts that included a rally attended by You’s aged and wheelchair-bound parents, and the unanimous passage of a resolution from the Oakland City Council urging Newsom to pardon him, what You had called his “small window of hope” was shuttered.
On Tuesday afternoon, without advance warning (which is standard practice, according to immigration rights advocates) You was removed from the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Center in Bakersfield.
He was able to get a message out to supporters that he was “being taken to an airport,” but for over 24 hours, his lawyer, family and friends did not know if he was being transferred to another ICE facility or if he had been dispatched to Southeast Asia, where he knows no one and does not speak the language.
Cambodians fled after President Richard Nixon’s secret — and illegal — bombings of Cambodia during the U.S. war in Vietnam; the Khmer Rouge genocide that caused the death of nearly one in four Cambodians in the late 1970s; and the displacement of millions more.
“There are no words to fully capture the cruelty of this moment. Phoeun should be home with his family, not deported to a country he escaped as a child,” said So Young Lee, who represents Phoeun and is an immigrant rights attorney at the Asian Law Caucus.
Amid the uncertainty, advocates continued to call Newsom’s office asking for an 11th hour act of mercy, not knowing that their colleague and friend was already en route.
A reporter from Capital & Main also called Newsom’s communications department on Wednesday morning and, later in the day, submitted a request form online, seeking information about the status of a pardon, but did not receive a reply.
Nonetheless, his supporters will fight for his return, saying in a news release issued by Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus: “Despite the deportation, Governor Newsom can still pardon Phoeun and reunite him with his family and community. Community members are also raising funds to support Phoeun in Cambodia, a country to which he has no ties.”
After Gov. Newsom signed 17 pardons on July 1, and You’s was not among them, he knew his chances were slim. But he wasn’t giving up because having paroled him to early release, Newsom knew how hard he had worked to be rehabilitated and that he was not a threat to public safety.
You also knew that the California state Senate will be deliberating upon AB 937, the VISION Act, which would prohibit CDCR from doing exactly what it did to him, and hoped that fact and the close timing of the possible end of the practice would sway the governor to act in some way to rescue him from the trauma of deportation, if only as a stopgap measure until the Legislature has its say.
You was likely met at the airport by staff from a nonprofit in Cambodia, who typically help people in his situation secure proper documentation and provide some transitional support, including housing, but only for about a month. Then he will be on his own. As part of his rehabilitation in the California prison system, You learned sheet metal work and automobile painting, skills he will lean on for employment if he gets the chance.
In a July 18 telephone interview with You when he was still in ICE custody, he reflected on his possible fate.
“It looks to me in all reality like the fight will continue, but without me,” he said. “But I will be there in spirit and through technology, but physically, it doesn’t look like I’m going to be there. I’m going to have to fight from overseas; the fight has to continue on my behalf.”
He spoke of the mental challenge of balancing positive thoughts while waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop.
“It is so tough. On the one hand, the window of hope, it’s still there, but it’s very small. On the other hand, I’m saying to myself this is happening, and it’s happening soon, and I have to prepare for it. But it’s the unknown, so how do I prepare for that? There’s all kind of stuff that’s running through my head, and I’m just trying to figure things out, and try to network on the other side. I’m trying to put myself at ease and be ready for as much as possible.”
He expressed gratitude for not being physically unwell or suffering bodily pain.
“I’m healthy, I’m really healthy, and part of me feels there could be a bigger picture out there for me in life; I want to choose to see it that way. Maybe I can’t see it right now, but maybe there will be something good there, and it’s going to work out.”
He was searching for a silver lining, and found one in the quotidian details of daily existence.
“Well, eating prison food for the past 26 years, the food is definitely going to be better,” he said with a little laugh. “There are things to look forward to: the first thing is just to breathe free air. I’m looking forward to being outside, and just smelling what freedom smells like. That’s one thing I am looking forward to.”