A 48-year-old reformed inmate who served 25 years in prison was deported by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to Cambodia on Tuesday.
Phoeun You, a former child refugee from Cambodia, was sent back to a country he is barely familiar with after failing to get a pardon from California Governor Gavin Newsom.
Such a pardon would have allowed him to stay in the U.S., where his family has stayed for decades since fleeing the Khmer Rouge when he was a 1-year-old child.
Having faced discrimination as a child, You joined a gang when he was 13 for protection while living in Long Beach. At age 20, he shot and killed a 17-year-old while retaliating against a gang attack on a young member of his family. He was convicted of first-degree murder by a jury trial and sentenced to 35 years to life.
After decades of serving his sentence, You said he had changed and was ready to be with his family and give back to the community.
While in prison, You became a founding member of the restorative justice program Restoring Our Original True Selves, served as a counselor with Bay Area Women Against Rape and mentored other detained refugees from Asia.
“He shouldn’t be deported because he had already served his time and being deported is basically another life sentence,” said community advocate Somdeng Danny Thongsy. “During my time at San Quentin, he actually mentored me a lot, and he was one of my facilitators in the trauma therapy class which helped me explore my trauma. And because of that, I was able to heal from that.”
You was deemed safe for early release by the San Quentin Prison parole board and pardoned in January. However, he was handed over to ICE agents upon his release.
For months, the Asian Prisoner Support Committee and other advocates have been urging Newsom to grant You a pardon and stop his deportation.
You’s eldest brother, James Bunyou, lamented how Newsom “chose not to” intervene on You’s behalf.
“He isn’t listening to our community outcry,” he was quoted as saying. “Our family would like to thank all of the friends that came out to support him and fight for Phoeun to stay.”
Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus’ immigrant rights lawyer So Young Lee, who represents You, said, “Phoeun should be home with his family, not deported to a country he escaped as a child.”
In response, Newsom’s office said in a statement: “Information regarding pardon applications is confidential and we’re not able to discuss individual cases. The Governor regards clemency as an important part of the criminal justice system and all applications receive a thorough and careful review.”
You’s supporters are still hopeful that Newsom could eventually pardon him, which would allow him to return to the U.S. and be with his family.
“I’m still right here with you,” You said upon his arrival in Cambodia. “It’s not over until it’s over and we’re going to keep going.”