By Momii Palapaz, Poor Magazine/Homefulness Poverty Scholar
“Please support the pardon of Phoeun You.” This plea from Jun Hamamoto made my heart sink. “I have known Phoeun since 2010”, writes Jun, “when he joined the San Quentin Prison Buddhist sangha, where I am a core group member. I have witnessed his personal growth, healing, transformation and determination to make substantial positive changes in his life.”
In January 2022, Phoeun was given an early release after completing 25 years. He was immediately picked up by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). While this is a violation of civil liberties, California Department of Corrections regularly corroborates with ICE, and has proven to play a malicious role in racial profiling and actively suppporting ICE in deportations.
“I am not an American on paper, but I feel like an American,” lamented Phoeun You.
Although he never pursued changing his refugee status to become a citizen, he says, “now it matters. I want to return to the community and make amends. There is a strong possibility I will get deported.” It was the last thing on his mind while doing time. Mr. You is presently in the Mesa Verde ICE detention center in Bakersfield, California.
Phoeun and his family escaped Cambodia's Khmer Rouge “killing fields” in the 1980’s. He was 4 years old when his parents and 9 siblings ended up in Ogden, Utah. The “people I lived with were white. It was strange.” He had never seen so many white people. 5 years later, connecting with the other Cambodian immigrants, his family eventually made it to Long Beach, California.
From the time he and his family were violently forced to leave their homeland, Phoeun and his siblings have endured decades of trauma. Being new arrivals to the USA, Phoeun felt the animosity from neighbors. He had never seen Black or Brown people until this move. “I don’t think they like us”, he said, remembering that he and his brothers would have to defend themselves fighting “on the way home from school”. The attacks escalated over a period of years. After being bullied and beaten by young gang members in the Black and Brown community of Long Beach, Phoeun knew only one way to respond and that way promptly put him on the fast track of the US Prison industrial complex.
In 1995, Mr. You was convicted at 20 years old and sentenced to 35 years. Phoeun spent over 25 years in state prisons and was due for an early release given his positive record while doing his time.
In 2007, he was transferred to San Quentin State Prison. Phoeun developed journalism, writing production on staff with the prisoner published San Quentin News, mentor and counselor with the program Victim Offender Education Group, and a counselor with Bay Area Women Against Rape. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Phoeun has a degree from Patten University. He is a founding member of Restoring Our Original True Selves, which connects to ancestors and restorative justice. Nevertheless, despite campaigns to urge Governor Newsom to let him be free, the State of California Prison system turned him over to ICE.
Jun is gathering support and donations for Phoeun. In the latest update on his detention, some of the Cambodian immigrants deported by ICE are connected with an American Zen Buddhist nun who has lived in Phnom Penh since 1996. She finds housing, jobs and is the link to deported immigrants from the USA.
As a teenager, I, along with millions around the world, witnessed the viciousness of imperialism and colonization on the people of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and other countries of southeast Asia. Babies and children were kidnapped by US government agencies exiting the chaos and transported by plane to the US. Families were broken and separated, killed, and left in the rubble of their slaughtered land.
When he entered prison, “I looked around…I see men, large men. I felt like a little boy amongst men.” Phoeun had armed himself with a tattoo that represented the killing fields. “Number 1 for history, number 2, the identity piece that Asian Pacific Islanders will see. It serves me as a protection piece and potentially a threat..They won’t mess with me”.
If it wasn’t for the invasion of Indonesia and the plundering of the land by the US government, millions of southeast Asians would determine their own destiny. The involuntary removal of thousands have resulted today in continued tragedy and racial discrimination and trauma. Whether Phoeun had “papers” or not, ICE and the US Prison system are blocking all options for him to return to his family in southern California.
Jun has kept in touch with Phoeun often in the past year. Jun is also an active member of Tsuru For Solidarity that was formed in response to the imprisonment of migrant children and families. As a Japanese American led organization, Tsuru is bringing the past traumas of Japanese Americans incarcerated in US concentration camps during WWII into the present day. Tsuru for Solidarity is connecting the white supremacist players of USA history to the violent removal of families of immigrants today.
While Phoeun has “been quite distraught… he is lifted up by the amazing support he is getting from all of you. He didn't know so many people cared about him. Phoeun said, whatever happens, he feels loved and supported.”
I think of a past co-worker, Che, who is also Cambodian and had similar experiences growing up here. Like Phoeun, Che, as a child, had to fight to stay alive in the midst of war, travel a world away and defend himself and family from racism, bullies and violent encounters. In 2011, Che was arrested for a nonviolent crime and immediately sent to a Texas detention, then deported to Cambodia.
Most importantly, please support Phoeun and send a message to California Governor Newsom. Your donations are especially appreciated, as Phoeun needs to keep in touch with loved ones and supporters. The POOR MAGAZINE FAMILY welcomes Poverty Scholar Phoeun You. His life is steeped in history, knowledge, and has radically evolved to serve the people.
Phoeun is still in imminent danger of being deported to Cambodia!
Please continue call and email Governor Newsom. details here:
GOVERNOR NEWSOM, PARDON PHOEUN YOU NOW!!!
Thank you for the following resources:
Read more about Phoeun You and the Cambodian community in POOR MAGAZINE.
Cambodian to Cali-deportation
San Quentin News, published by inmates
The Prison Within, a documentary on Restorative justice in the prison system
The Last Mile, Tech and Business program preparing inmates for the working world
William Drummond, American Journalist
Ear Hustle podcast, San Quentin