Over a video call, Phoeun You showed me the nighttime view from his balcony: The soft glow of street lamps lit up a line of low-rise buildings and a snarl of electric cables. He was calling from Sen Sok, a fast-modernizing district in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. It was a beautiful sight; but I was distracted by the bittersweet tone of his voice. It had only been three months since the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported Phoeun You, 49, to Cambodia. He was granted parole from California’s San Quentin State Prison in August 2021. He’s free, but he can’t return to the only home he remembers.
Phoeun You, a former Cambodian child refugee, served more than 25 years for murder. In 1995, when Phoeun You was 20, he killed a 17-year-old while trying to shoot someone else in retaliation for hurting his family. Less than 24 hours before he was due to be paroled and reunited with his family, Phoeun You said, he was transferred by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to an ICE detention facility, where he spent several months in limbo before being deported without warning.
During his incarceration, he got an associate’s degree, became a certified crisis counselor, and was a reporter for the San Quentin News, an inmate-produced newspaper. It was there in 2014 that we met; I was a volunteer editor for the paper for two semesters while studying at the University of California, Berkeley.
Sitting at his desk in Phnom Penh, Phoeun You appeared the same as I’d remembered: a man of small-to-medium build with a shaved head, several tattoos, and a disarming smile that crinkled his eyes. After answering his questions about my life and journalism, I asked him how he was adjusting to Cambodia and freedom. He replied, “It was rough when I first landed. So many pieces [of life in the United States] are unfinished. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my family, and that was devastating. And even though I know I’m free, for the first month I didn’t leave the house. Even buying groceries was overwhelming. The world was strange to me: I don’t know the language, culture. I was shell-shocked.”
Phoeun You was 4 years old when he fled the Khmer Rouge in 1975 with his parents, grandmother, and nine siblings. He recalled his father, a village doctor, carrying him in a sling on his back as the family struggled for days on foot to reach the Thai border. His memories of their escape from Cambodia are murky, but there are snapshots: the smell of wildfire, lost children crying for their families, a man lying beside a tree with his mouth open, lifeless.
After reaching Thailand, the Yous spent a few years at a refugee camp before relocating to Utah in 1980 to live with a Mormon family who took them in as part of a church program. Roughly five years later, the family settled in Long Beach, Calif., after hearing that a growing Cambodian community was being established there. It was meant to be a fresh start. Long Beach was supposed to be a place for them to build a new life and heal alongside other Cambodians.
At the time, Phouen You and his family were among the nearly 158,000 Cambodians, mostly refugees, who resettled in the United States between 1975 and 1994. The number of refugees who fled Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos totaled 1.1 million, making it the largest mass refugee resettlement in US history.
But the country wasn’t prepared to receive them. Refugees from Southeast Asia were resettled “ad hoc” and “scattered across isolated areas in the US,” according to a report from the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), a US advocacy group founded in 1979 to respond to the refugee crisis.
Volunteer organizations tasked with helping the refugees weren’t given clear instructions on how to support them beyond greeting them upon arrival, matching families with sponsors—as was the case with Phoeun You’s family—or occasionally providing one-time cash assistance, according to SEARAC.
Left to fend for themselves, many families slipped into poverty. Among Cambodians like the Yous who arrived during or shortly after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, only 40 to 50 percent were able to secure blue-collar jobs. The rest, including Phoeun You’s family, relied on welfare and public assistance.
In the years that followed, the family lived paycheck to paycheck and changed houses with every rental increase—at least 10 times. Living with at least 15 family members at any given time in a three-to-four bedroom house, Phoeun You sometimes had to sleep on the living-room floor. Food and clothing was scarce. But beyond finances, the Yous found themselves culturally ill-equipped to navigate inner-city life in Long Beach, which had an ethnically diverse population and a growing crime rate.
During the first five years that the family lived there, the number of violent crimes jumped from over 4,000 to more than 9,000. Phoeun You remembers being scared by the constant sound of gunfire and sirens as he walked home from school. On the streets and at school, racism and discrimination were rampant.
Gang violence was also a growing menace. In 1986, the year Phoeun You turned 13, Long Beach reported its largest annual increase in crime in the past five years. By 1989, it was recording the biggest jump in serious crimes of any major Californian city, with police blaming the trend on an influx of gangs from Los Angeles. More than 30 percent of murders were related to drugs or gangs, which would grow to encompass 70 street groups, totaling about 11,500 members, according to the Los Angeles Times.
When he was 13, Phoeun You joined a gang that his brother was involved with. The gang gave him a sense of acceptance, safety, and belonging—all things he lacked and craved. He began cutting school, drinking, and experimenting with drugs.
When he was 16, a rival gang shot up his house two nights in a row, in retaliation for his brother’s shooting one of their members. No one was hurt, but a bullet that passed through the door nearly hit Phoeun You’s sister, who was pregnant at the time. A year later, his brother was hospitalized after the rival gang shot him eight times.
Reflecting on his childhood now, Phoeun You said it was only a matter of time until things went terribly wrong. That moment came on March 23, 1995, when he shot into a crowd of what he believed at the time to be gang members who had assaulted him and his teenage nephew the day before. Instead, he killed an innocent 17-year-old boy and injured four others. In 1996, a jury convicted Phoeun You, 20, of first-degree murder, and he received a prison sentence of 35 years to life.
Phoeun You’s incarceration came during a prison boom, resulting from the period’s “tough on crime” policies. During the 1990s, the population of Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in prison rose by 250 percent, according to a report by SEARAC and others. Between 1977 and 1997, arrests of AAPI youth catapulted by 726 percent, and Asian juveniles in California were twice as likely to be tried as adults as their white counterparts.
The US also underwent sweeping immigration reforms in 1996, with President Bill Clinton signing into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act—measures that dramatically broadened the range of people vulnerable to deportation. The reforms included a retroactive expansion of the types of crimes classified as “aggravated felonies”—a conviction that could lead to deportation—to include a variety of less-serious crimes with shorter prison sentences, and the removal of the right for noncitizens to appear before an immigration judge to challenge their deportation.
Since 1998, more than 17,000 Southeast Asians—many of whom, like Phoeun You, arrived as refugees and have green cards—have received final orders of deportation, according to SEARAC. But of these, some 15,000 Southeast Asians are still residing in the country, and ICE could deport them at any moment. About 80 percent of the orders given to Southeast Asians are based on old criminal convictions, which account for roughly 17 percent of all final orders of removal.
According to statistics collected by SEARAC, 3,106 Cambodians were given deportation orders and 1,067 deported between 1998 and 2020.
Despite being eligible for naturalization, most refugees had limited resources to pursue citizenship and were unaware that failing to do so could render them subject to deportation if they were convicted of a crime. By the time the rest of Phoeun You’s family applied for and gained citizenship, both he and his brother were already incarcerated. Under US law, those convicted of murder or an aggravated felony on or after November 29, 1990, are permanently barred from naturalization.
Deportees with aggravated felonies are also permanently banned from returning to the US, said So Young Lee, an immigrant rights attorney at the Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus who represents Phoeun You. While people with other aggravated felonies can apply for a waiver, those who have been convicted of murder do not have that option, she added.
While deportations were briefly halted in 2017 when the Cambodian government refused to issue travel documents for deportees, they resumed a few months later after the Trump administration responded by imposing visa sanctions on Cambodian foreign ministry officials. Cambodia has repeatedly urged the US to amend its 2002 repatriation agreement on “humanitarian” grounds, most recently at a meeting with President Joe Biden at the ASEAN Summit in November.
Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and migration studies at the University of San Francisco, told me that there are two ways to fight against a deportation order, but both have limited chances of success. One is to overturn or set aside the original conviction through the judicial system; the other is advocating for a pardon from a governor.
“I started doing immigration law in 1974 and represented many who had committed serious crimes. But back then, you could ask for a waiver [of deportation]. That’s what ought to be reinstated: a chance for a judge to assess the person’s situation and see if they deserve a chance,” Hing said. “I’ve always thought we’re [part of] a society that believes in rehabilitation. It’s a disappointment.”
Prison rehabilitation programs were the lifeline that saved Phoeun You, but it didn’t happen right away, he said. For the first seven years of his incarceration, he was trapped in a cycle of depression. Faced with a life sentence, he didn’t believe he could ever reunite with his family, and gave up on having a meaningful life. He would frequently pick fights with inmates and use drugs and alcohol as a means of escape.
But in 2003, everything changed. Phoeun You received the news that his sister had been killed—a jealous boyfriend had shot her and left her to die in a parking lot.
“I automatically went into shock. It was the first time I cried during my whole prison sentence,” Phoeun You said. “After soaking in that pain, I started reflecting on my parents and how they must be feeling. Then finally, I started thinking about the pain I might have caused my victim’s family. That was my first seed of empathy.”
The tragedy of his sister’s death became the catalyst for him to come to terms with the crime he had committed, and eventually embark on his journey of rehabilitation.
By the time we met in San Quentin, Phoeun You had cofounded ROOTS, or Restoring Our Original True Selves—a restorative justice program that helps AAPI inmates address intergenerational trauma. He was also writing personal essays reflecting on his crime for San Quentin News.
I remember sitting next to him on a Saturday afternoon, reading a story he wrote about a man in a car shooting a child on his way home from school. It ended with a vivid scene of the boy lying in a hospital bed, realizing that he was about to die. “I wrote that from the perspective of my victim,” I recall him casually saying, in between edits.
My first reaction was disbelief. It didn’t seem possible that the person sitting in front of me, whom I knew to be incredibly warm and compassionate, could have committed such a terrible crime. Looking back, I now credit the time we spent working together for helping me understand the extent to which people are capable of reform, if they’re given an opportunity and safe space to do so.
Unfortunately, it’s a belief that remains difficult to accept. Attempts to stop the practice of “double punishment” have stalled both federally and on the state level, including in California. Last September, a bill called the VISION Act, which would have blocked Californian jails and prisons from transferring noncitizens to immigration authorities, fell three votes short of passing in the state Senate. According to Mandy Diêc, SEARAC’s California deputy director, opposition from police chiefs played a “big role” in shifting support from the bill, which is now being redrafted to target people more narrowly.
The act could have prevented Phoeun You’s deportation; it could have given him a chance to reunite with his family and community upon release. “A few senators said they were on board until the day of—then they just didn’t step up. It was sad to see,” he said. “If it had passed, I would have been able to seek freedom or at least fought my case and said goodbye to my parents.”
Despite these setbacks, Kham Moua, national deputy director at SEARAC, said he has witnessed more political support for this issue since the end of the Trump administration. In recent years, SEARAC has supported the introduction of the New Way Forward Act, which would roll back harmful immigration policies, and the Southeast Asia Deportation Relief Act aiming to limit deportations from the community.
“I think the current administration has been sympathetic to this community. When you really think about it, it’s really us making sure that the refugees we brought in are able to stay with their families,” Moua told me.
Moua added that growing awareness of anti-Asian hate and a recent strengthening of Asian American identity has helped bring attention to the plight of Southeast Asians, which is often subsumed by other issues.
“Oftentimes we think about the US role in Vietnam, but there isn’t a strong understanding of how the US impacted the entire region, such as our role in the Cambodian genocide,” Moua said. Between 1965 and 1973, the US launched a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia that killed an estimated 50,000 to 150,000 people—creating conditions that historians say gave rise to the Khmer Rouge. “We tore a lot of these families apart, and we’re doing it again when we’re deporting them.”
In late February, I called Phoeun You again. He was standing on his balcony, but this time in the warm afternoon sun, where he often spends a few peaceful moments watching life unfold on the streets below. He’s still learning to adjust, he said, but he can now buy his groceries with ease and feels ready to face new challenges head-on.
He told me he hasn’t given up on returning home. He is campaigning for California Governor Gavin Newsom to grant him a pardon. There is some hope: Last year, deportee Sophea Phea, who spent 11 years in Cambodia, was able to return through a 2020 pardon she gained through years of community and legal advocacy efforts.
Even while abroad, he has continued to support Californian communities through speaking out about the prison-to-deportation pipeline and running workshops on restorative justice. He’s also training to become a certified teacher in hopes of using his skills to help Cambodian children, and participating in local service projects such as a walk to raise funds for cancer treatment.
Moving forward, he wants to focus on healing from his trauma and supporting his family. Since his arrival in Cambodia, he’s had the opportunity to visit some relatives and begin the process of unpacking the more painful aspects of his family’s past. Such conversations were never possible when he was growing up because his family was always struggling to simply survive, let alone reflect on their trauma, he said. “I want to give back. I want to make sure my family knows I’m sorry for the pain I’ve caused. It’s been a lot to hold for me, and for them. Now, everybody is climbing out of that darkness.”