A former child refugee from Cambodia who served 25 years in prison is now at risk of being deported back to a country he is barely familiar with.
Despite being deemed safe for early release by the San Quentin Prison parole board, 47-year-old Phoeun You was handed over to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in January after being pardoned.
Activists argue that You, whose family fled the Cambodian genocide, no longer poses a threat to society based on the parole board’s decision.
You was just a year old when his family fled Cambodia and eventually settled in Southern California.
Speaking from an ICE detention facility in Bakersfield, You shared that he joined a gang when he was 13 while living in Long Beach for protection. 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.
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While You has acknowledged the seriousness of the crime he committed as a young man, he said he has changed and is now ready to be with his family and give back to the community after decades of serving his sentence.
“My parole officer approaches me and said, ‘Hey look, you have an ICE hold,” You was quoted as saying. “That’s when I knew it was the end of my freedom. I knew there was another round of fight to do.”
While in prison, You earned his associate of arts degree from Patten University and went on to become a journalist for the San Quentin News as well as a counselor and mentor to other inmates.
He also helped found the self-help program ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves) with his peers. The initiative helps prisoners get better connected with their history and culture through education and other programs.
“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.”
“I’ve known him for 10 years. I first met him at the San Quentin Prison Buddhist group, and I’ve seen firsthand his transformation and how much he helped others,” Prison Art Project’s art teacher Jun Hamamoto said.
However, being an immigrant and convicted of a violent crime means his efforts to change for the better likely won’t prevent him from being deported.
“All I’m thinking about is ‘Wow, this is real. I’m not going to get to say goodbye to friends. I’m not going to get the chance to give back to my community. I’m not going to get to say goodbye to my parents in person,’” said You.