It should have been a joyous day in the life of Phoeun You.
On Jan. 5, 2022, after serving 25 years behind bars for a murder when he was 20 years old, the Cambodia-born man, now 47, was paroled from San Quentin a decade ahead of schedule.
The Board of Parole let him out 10 years early in recognition of his commitment to service, mentorship and rehabilitation.
His early release could have provided a gateway to a better future for a man who transformed his life while behind bars after a series of enormous setbacks starting soon after his birth. Instead, it set a clock ticking toward the end of his time in the United States, a country in which he has lived since he was a young child.
Decision makers at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation had the discretion to release You, but they chose to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and transferred him to the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield, where he has remained since.
What happens next is uncertain, but the most likely outcome is his expulsion from the United States to Cambodia — a country he doesn’t remember. There is also a small chance that Gov. Gavin Newsom could pardon him, after which You could start a legal process to reopen his removal order and have his status as a legal permanent resident reinstated.
Cambodians who have faced deportation have told him that after travel documents are issued, deportation typically follows within two weeks to a month. You’s paperwork has been finalized. “Time is moving so quickly. It’s already passed the one-week mark,” You said in a July 17 interview. “My small window of hope is closing.”
You was born into geopolitical turmoil in early 1975 as the U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia was collapsing and just months before Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge rebels seized control of Cambodia. Four years later, as the genocidal regime was ousted, You’s family escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand, later gaining the right to settle in the U.S. In 1985, they moved to Long Beach, home to the world’s largest Cambodian community outside of Southeast Asia.
There, he grew up as one of 10 siblings struggling with trauma, keeping a roof over their heads and finding food. As an immigrant at school, he was bullied — and he took to fighting back. Partly in search of safety in numbers, You joined a gang when he was 13, and he began drinking and doing drugs. When he was 16, one of his brothers was struck by eight bullets in a gang shooting.
While You was picking up his nephew at school one day in March of 1995, a half-dozen gang members assaulted them both. You later explained that the event triggered memories of the shooting of his brother, and of the school beatings he endured as an out-of-place immigrant child. Afterward, he and his nephew drove around for hours in search of their attackers. After they found them, You opened fire on a crowd, killing a 17-year-old. He was convicted of first degree murder and given a prison sentence of at least 35 years.
In 2003, his sister was murdered by her partner in an act of domestic violence, which caused You to more deeply contemplate the harm he had caused and put him on a path of introspection. “That was my turning point. On account of her I thought about my own actions,” he said.
“I took a life, and that will haunt me until the day that I die. But I want that opportunity to live a life of honor, if this makes sense … because he can’t.”
The pursuit of an honorable life propelled him forward. You earned an Associate’s Degree, mentored fellow prisoners and trained for certification as a rape counselor with his ultimate goal being to work in domestic violence prevention.
He became a prison journalist and coder with the San Quentin News, and co-founded the ROOTS program (Restoring Our Original True Selves), which is modeled on an ethnic studies curriculum, to teach prisoners about their history and culture.
For Cambodians, this means coming to terms with the intergenerational trauma from 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.
With newfound compassion, You participated in an 18-month restorative justice process through the Victim Offender Education Group, an intensive program for incarcerated people who wish to delve into how their life experiences and decisions led them to prison and how their crimes have impacted their victim(s). You’s experiences were chronicled in the documentary The Prison Within.
Advocates at the nonprofit Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee argue that, if You was eligible for an early release, then he is by definition not a public safety threat — and he shouldn’t be deported after spending nearly his whole life in the U.S.
You faces a fate that many expelled Cambodians before him have endured — being sent back to a country that is entirely 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 U.S. have struggled to find jobs, ending up in the underground economy with its risk of a return 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 You, would break his connection to his octogenarian parents who fled their homeland more than four decades ago.
You’s attorney, So Young Lee of Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, noted that You’s 80-year-old mother suffers from complications from diabetes, including impaired vision and amputated toes, and she uses a walker. You’s 89-year-old father suffers from Alzheimer’s. “Given their advanced age and deteriorating health issues,” Lee wrote, “they would not be able to visit Phoeun in Cambodia.”
You’s clemency application has been on Newsom’s desk since early April. But when the governor signed 17 pardons for Californians on July 1, You’s was not among them. And so, his all-but-certain expulsion approaches.
“From a policy perspective, he’s been in prison for 25 years: California has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in his rehabilitation.”
There is a cruel irony to You’s predicament. The VISION Act, a bill under consideration by the State Senate, would prohibit the transfer of prisoners from California’s Department of Corrections to ICE.
Some 80% of Californians are in favor of setting people free after they serve their jail or prison time “regardless of what country a person was born in,” according to an U.S. Immigration Policy Center survey.
All bills must pass the California State Senate by Aug. 31, and the governor has until Sept. 30 to sign them into law. Since You is unlikely to be affected by the bill if it does pass — because he was freed early due to good behavior — his supporters are calling on the governor to pardon him, which would eliminate the reason for his likely expulsion by the feds.
“It’s the only way,” says Chanthon Bun, a community advocate with Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus. “Phoeun is a light in our community, and deporting him would be a harm to our community.”
“From a policy perspective,” says Bun, “he’s been in prison for 25 years: California has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in his rehabilitation. I know that he’s eager to give back; he wants to make up for the harm he caused.”
While in prison, You received multiple job and housing offers from community advocacy organizations with which he worked.
If he’s sent to Cambodia, he is likely to face a very different welcome. “Most folks in Cambodia will call him ‘an American,’ and they’ll look down upon him because the Cambodian public knows that these folks are coming back because of a crime,” Bun explained.
Aside from wanting to pay back society, You hopes to take care of his mother and father and, more immediately, to deliver a message to them in person. “The thought of never seeing my parents again … breaks my heart,” he said.
“All I want to do is see them in person and tell them I love them, and say thank you 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 I turned out, I am very proud to be their son.”
Bun recalls 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 be holding his photo. They should be holding him.”