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Uprooted: California bill tackles prison-deportation pipeline

LA, California, US Phoeun You was only a child when he entered america in 1981, fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide along with his family from their native Cambodia.

The household resettled in Long Beach, California, and you also was raised in a neighbourhood where he says violence and discrimination were consistent elements of his childhood. He joined a gang, and a fight with a rival group landed him in prison on a murder conviction in 1996.

Through the subsequent 26 years in prison, You began to mentor other incarcerated people, especially those from refugee communities who have been dealing with the legacies of violent dispossession. He earned a certificate in domestic violence counselling and was granted parole this season, hoping to utilize his new skills to greatly help others in his community.

But upon his release, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) handed You to the united states federal immigration enforcement agency, ICE. WHEN YOU was a lawful permanent resident of the united states, his status as a non-citizen and conviction for a significant crime opened him around potential deportation.

Its a double punishment, You told Al Jazeera in a phone interview from an ICE detention centre seven days before he was deported on August 16. Rather than starting a fresh life and reuniting with my children I had to inform my parents, Look, Im not coming home. I felt helpless hearing their pain.

Dual system of justice

In 2020, Californias prison system paid about 1,600 visitors to ICE once they had completed their prison sentences, based on the immigration rights group Asian Law Caucus (ALC). That figure will not include transfers conducted by local jails, which also transferred a lot more than 1,600 visitors to ICE in 2019.

While such collaboration is common in america, it isn’t mandatory, and a bill in Californias state legislature referred to as the VISION Act is currently wanting to end the transfers in what activists hope is a substantial step to get rid of what they call the prison-to-deportation pipeline.

Its a simple question: do you want to have a dual system of justice for citizens and non-citizens? Wendy Carrillo, a legislator in hawaii assembly and the bills primary author, told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. There’s value in redemption. There’s value in rehabilitation. An individual shouldnt be defined for his or her very existence by their lowest moment.

California police groups have opposed the bill, saying this past year that there must be a spot, in probably the most egregious cases, where we usually do not provide protections for dangerous persons from enforcement.

Denise Hauser, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees ICE, defended the practice of deporting individuals who have completed their prison sentences. She told Al Jazeera within an email that the agency continues to target its limited resources on cases of greatest importance to national interest and public safety.

An ICE badge
ICE has defended the deportations of individuals who completed prison sentences [File: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters]

But supporters of the bill argue that individuals who have paid their debt to society deserve an opportunity to be reunited making use of their communities, irrespective of their immigration status.

Several formerly and currently incarcerated migrants who spoke with Al Jazeera emphasised what they see as a simple injustice at the core of the transfers: anyone who has completed their sentences shouldn’t be punished again through deportation.

Chanthon Bun, a Cambodian refugee who was simply free of San Quentin state prison in July 2020 after a lot more than 2 decades behind bars, said he was overcome with fear in the times before his release.

An ICE agent found visit me before I premiered and explained, CDCR allows me to create the date ahead pick you up. Around when the prison van dropped me off, I was afraid ICE would arrive and take me to a detention centre, Bun told Al Jazeera.

Bun said he is still unsure why ICE didn’t pick him up. We feel the same process as everybody else. The difference is that by the end, if youre an immigrant, you will possibly not reach be reunited together with your family, he said.

Bun among others also noted the bond between US violence overseas and their have to seek refuge in the united kingdom; the US completed a covert bombing campaign of Cambodian territory prior to the Khmer Rouge seized control and completed the genocide. Most of us came here because we didnt have any choice, said Bun.

We were uprooted, so when you deport someone theyre uprooted again.

Lifetime punishment

Thats what happened to Sophea Phea, who was simply deported to her native Cambodia in 2011, many years after she had completed a short prison sentence. Phea had arrived at the united states as a kid and had few memories of the united states.

Adjusting alive there was included with plenty of loneliness and depression, she said. I was alone and I didnt know very well what to accomplish. It loaded more trauma onto my children since they had escaped Cambodia. They associated it with violence, plus they were afraid for me personally.

A pardon from California Governor Gavin Newsom helped pave just how on her behalf eventual go back to the united states in August after a lot more than 10 years in Cambodia.

Shortly before his deportation, You expressed similar fears. If Im deported its basically an eternity punishment. I cant even read or write the language there, he told Al Jazeera. My children, my friends, my community, its all in the us. It could all be gone.

But since it stands, the California bill that could end these ICE transfers faces an uncertain way to the governors desk. The proposal was shelved this past year by the end of the legislative session, and Carrillo told Al Jazeera that it’s currently on to the floor of hawaii Senate but has yet to be raised for a vote.

If it were to pass, Newsom have not indicated whether he’d sign it into law. The governors office didn’t immediately react to Al Jazeeras obtain comment.

Sophea, who just came home after an 11yr deportation, shares why we urgently need the #VISIONAct:

“It’ll keep families together and lessen the damage which has recently been done in their mind. Children will not as likely be traumatized by the increased loss of their parents because of ICE transfers.” https://t.co/yhKtxhYL7v

Asian Law Caucus (@aaaj_alc) August 24, 2022

Newsom has issued pardons for some non-citizens, such as for example Phea, that allowed them another to the united states or shielded them from deportation, but he also offers declined to take action on numerous occasions.

ALC along with other groups such as for example Survived and Punished and Asian Prisoners Support Committee spent months urging Newsom to issue a pardon for Gabriela Solano, a domestic abuse survivor who served several decades behind bars for a crime she didn’t directly take part in under risk of coercion from her partner. Newsom didn’t achieve this, and Solano was deported to Mexico in 2021, even though her parole board concluded she posed no threat to public safety.

In the lack of an instantaneous legislative treatment for end ICE transfers, advocates have called on the governor to utilize his pardoning capacity to help protect those at threat of deportation or who’ve already been taken off the united states. The pardon is Phoeuns only possiblity to return to the united states, said So Young Lee, Yous lawyer. Were likely to always keep pushing.

I served 26 years. I paid my debt. I wish to return home to serve my community. I would like to use my skills and experience to greatly help anyone who needs guidance. I would like to hug and kiss my parents and inform them Im sorry for the pain I caused them, said You. Its unjust for everyone involved.

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