These Incarcerated Organizers Won Their Freedom. Now They Face Deportation.

Considered one of Borey “Peejay” Ai’s earliest recollections is the sound of gunfire. “My mother would put us underneath the desk,” he recalled. Ai was too younger to know what was taking place, however he remembered being afraid like his mom. “As a result of I felt her concern, I felt concern too,” he mentioned.

Ai was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his mom fled Cambodia to flee the Khmer Rouge genocide. As a small little one, he would climb a hill to water a pepper plant he had been rising. From the vantage level, he would look throughout the border and see folks capturing at each other.

Practically 40 years later, after surviving the brutality of the U.S. jail system, Ai now faces the potential for deportation again to Cambodia, the place he has by no means set foot. And he’s not the one one.

Tens of thousands have finished their prison sentences solely to come across an extra penalty relevant solely to non-citizens — deportation. Some, like Ai, have by no means lived within the nation to which they’d be deported. Others, like Maria Legarda, face demise if they’re returned.

In California, Ai, Legarda and two different organizers with the Asian Prisoner Assist Committee, Chanthon Bun and Nghiep “Ke” Lam, have all been granted parole by a board identified for its excessive denial price, however they now face deportation. All 4 are actually hoping that Gov. Gavin Newsom will acknowledge their transformations and contributions to their communities, and permit them to remain within the U.S.

A man holds a sign reading "GOV. NEWSOM: PASS THE #VISIONACT; KEEP FAMILIES TOGETHER during an outdoor protest
Peejay Ai participates in a rally to cross the VISION Act, on June 21, 2022.

One of many State’s Youngest Juvenile Lifers

When Ai was 4 years previous, his household entered the U.S. as refugees with everlasting authorized standing. “Everybody advised me I used to be fortunate to go to the US,” he advised Truthout.

However the promised land didn’t maintain a lot promise, particularly in Stockton, California, the place many Cambodian refugees affected by trauma had been resettled in poor areas stricken by medicine, gangs and violence.

In school, Ai was incessantly bullied and attacked by different kids, who advised him to return to his personal nation. When he was in 1st grade, a gunman opened hearth on his elementary college of largely Cambodian and Vietnamese kids. Ai survived; his 7-year-old cousin and 4 different kids didn’t.

At 12, Ai turned to gangs for cover. Two years later, in 1996, Ai and three older gang members tried to rob a liquor retailer. The proprietor grabbed for Ai’s gun. It went off, killing her. Ai turned himself within the following yr.

Between 1995 and 2018, as politicians created fears of teenage “super-predators,” California allowed 14-year-olds to be tried as adults. In 1997, when he was simply 16, Ai was sentenced as an grownup to 25 years to life in jail, changing into one of many state’s youngest juvenile lifers.

In California’s youth jail, Ai taught himself to learn — one thing he had by no means discovered whereas in class. “I began to see the world in another way by way of the books I used to be studying,” he recalled. He was one credit score shy of his highschool diploma when he turned 18 and was transferred to an grownup jail. There, he acquired his GED.

He additionally related with different males who invited him to applications wherein he started brazenly speaking concerning the traumas he and his household had confronted. “I spotted I’d harmed so many individuals,” Ai recalled. “I walked away from the gang.”

He enrolled within the jail’s school program. He grew to become an authorized rape disaster counselor and took part in restorative justice applications. He additionally related with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC), an advocacy group that emerged from calls for for an ethnic research program at San Quentin. Now, he works with the group as a neighborhood advocate.

“I made a pledge to myself whereas I used to be in jail to make amends and provides again to my neighborhood,” he mentioned.

In 2016, Ai had his first parole listening to. The board sometimes denies extra candidates than it approves, particularly throughout preliminary hearings, however commissioners had been impressed together with his accomplishments and authorized his launch. Earlier than Ai may stroll by way of the jail gate, nonetheless, immigration officers handcuffed him and drove him to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention heart the place he spent the following 18 months. He was now underneath menace of deportation to Cambodia, as a consequence of U.S. immigration legal guidelines that enable non-citizens convicted of felonies to be deported.

Whereas in jail, Ai had utilized for a pardon, which, in California, would eliminate the conviction on which ICE bases its deportation order. Whereas parole officers recommended that then-Gov. Jerry Brown grant the pardon, the state Supreme Court docket blocked it.

ICE was unable to safe journey paperwork to deport Ai to Cambodia. He might need continued languishing in detention, however sustained organizing by APSC helped safe his launch, albeit with an ankle monitor, in 2018.

When Gavin Newsom grew to become governor of California, Ai utilized once more for a pardon, which parole officers once more are recommending. Now all Ai can do is wait and hope that this time, the court docket received’t block the governor from appearing.

A woman in a group of other protesters displays the green shirt that she currently wears, reading: "ALL PEOPLE ARE SACRED ACROSS BARS AND BORDERS"
Maria Legarda participates in an APSC pilgrimage to Angel Island on November 5, 2022.

“Freedom From a Demise Sentence”

Maria Legarda got here to the U.S. from the Philippines at age 20. Her youthful sister’s lengthy, and unsuccessful, wrestle with leukemia had left Legarda’s household saddled with debt and she or he hoped that her American wages would assist reduce the monetary pressure.

Away from her household, remoted, and nonetheless grieving her sister’s demise, Legarda started utilizing methamphetamine. She was raped by a person she met on-line and have become pregnant. Decided to have a wholesome child, she stopped utilizing meth.

Towards the top of her second trimester, Legarda’s mom advised her that, regardless of her remittances, her sister’s medical debt saved the household in perpetual poverty.

That very same evening, a pal supplied her meth. “I remembered how being excessive appeared to remove all my issues,” Legarda advised Truthout. She wasn’t interested by the being pregnant, or something. “There was no subsequent day,” she recalled.

However the methamphetamine induced her labor and the following morning, Legarda gave beginning alone in her lavatory. “He wasn’t shifting, he wasn’t crying,” she mentioned of her new child son. She lay him on a towel after which, in shock, started preparing for work as if she had not simply delivered a child. She referred to as a taxi. The driving force, noticing that she was bleeding within the again seat, introduced her to the hospital. There, she advised medical employees that she had given beginning, however the child had died. She was convicted of first-degree homicide and sentenced to 25 years to life. (She was later resentenced to fifteen years.)

Legarda was 25 when she arrived on the Central California Ladies’s Facility in 2004. “I got here to the U.S. to assist my household. How does me being in jail assist them?” Legarda remembered pondering. “I knew I needed to do one thing completely different.”

Older girls serving life in jail pushed Legarda to take an anger administration class. That three-day class opened the door for her to start exploring her household’s traumas — and her personal journey towards self-understanding.

“Going by way of these [prison] teams helped me perceive me and get to know who I’m,” Legarda recalled. For example, when requested her favourite shade, Legarda had no reply. “It’s a easy query, however I didn’t have a solution for it as a result of I didn’t know who I used to be.” She later discovered that she most well-liked grey.

She additionally grew to become concerned in different applications, together with tasks that instantly helped kids. “I needed to do one thing I may by no means do for my son,” she mentioned.

In 2019, she appeared earlier than the parole board, which authorized her launch. She was one among 75 girls (less than one-third of the 267 women applicants) to be granted parole that yr in California.

However upon her launch from jail, Legarda was instantly transferred to ICE detention, the place she spent 11 months. In 2020, as a result of her bronchial asthma positioned her at excessive threat for deadly or extreme COVID-19, ICE launched her with digital monitoring.

Legarda nonetheless faces deportation. Given the Philippines’ ongoing anti-drug marketing campaign, wherein police have killed thousands of people suspected of drug use, deportation brings the approaching threat of not solely arrest, however demise.

It doesn’t matter that Legarda has not used medicine for over 20 years. Beneath the present regime, Legarda defined, “there’s no ‘was a drug addict.’ You’ll at all times be [considered] a drug addict.”

Fearing for each her personal and her mother and father’ lives if she is deported and should stay with them, Legarda utilized for a pardon in September. Her software now goes to the parole board, which is able to resolve whether or not to suggest that the governor pardon her.

Whereas she waits, she works with APSC to attach others coming residence from jail or jail with providers and reentry wants, equivalent to housing. She tells them concerning the 14 years she spent in jail — and hopes her story encourages them not to surrender.

“A pardon would imply that I’d not need to stay in fixed concern of being deported in a rustic the place my life is liable to execution and I’d be capable of stay right here within the U.S. with out having to look over my shoulder for the remainder of my life,” she mentioned. “Getting a pardon would imply freedom from a demise sentence.”

A man stands on the back of a pickup truck filled with repaired bicycles
In his spare time, Nghiep Lam has repaired and donated 600+ bikes to neighborhood members.

“Nonetheless in That State of Limbo”

In 1993, Nghiep “Ke” Lam was 17 years previous when he fatally stabbed a rival gang member. He was sentenced to 27 years to life.

Two years later, in 1995, immigration officers visited him at San Quentin jail. That was when Lam discovered that he had not been born within the U.S., as he had at all times assumed, however had fled Vietnam together with his household when he was 2 years previous, spent two years in a Hong Kong detention heart and got here to California at age 4. His conviction, an aggravated felony, subjected him to a deportation order after his jail time period ended.

Like Ai, Lam was one among thousands of teenagers sentenced as adults. At San Quentin, he met dozens of different juvenile lifers. Their lack of life expertise counted towards them within the jail’s classification system. “In case you’ve by no means gotten your highschool diploma or GED, by no means performed navy service, all of those further factors are added to us,” Lam advised Truthout. These factors categorised them as greater safety dangers and youngsters had been usually despatched to extra restrictive prisons with fewer applications and extra violence. Later, the identical lack of experiences — and program participation — counted towards their possibilities of parole.

In 2003, Lam was transferred to San Quentin. He started interested by his first parole listening to. By then neuroscientists had concluded that the human mind, together with its capability for impulse management, was not totally developed till an individual’s mid-20s, and the U.S. Supreme Court docket would quickly prohibit mandatory life without parole sentences for those under the age of 18. However California parole board members nonetheless handled juvenile lifers as if that they had been full-grown adults once they dedicated their crimes.

Lam and different juvenile lifers had been decided to vary that. They met with attorneys from Human Rights Watch and later with state legislators. The outcomes had been two legal guidelines, SB 260 and SB 261, creating youth offender parole hearings for folks whose crimes occurred once they had been 23 or youthful, and directing the parole board to present “nice weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles.”

“It’s not a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card,” Lam defined. “You continue to need to be accountable and accountable for what you’ve performed.”

In 2015, Lam appeared at his personal youth offender parole listening to and was granted parole. However he was instantly transferred to ICE detention, the place he spent 5 months.

Seven years earlier, in 2008, the U.S. and Vietnam had reached an agreement limiting U.S. deportations of Vietnamese refugees who entered the U.S. before July 12, 1995. That prevented Lam’s detention, however left him a stranded deportee, in that neither nation presents a path to everlasting residency.

That hasn’t stopped him from beginning to construct an grownup life. “Jail is a time capsule,” he mentioned. “I got here residence with the mindset of a 17-year-old.” He needed to study not solely all of the know-how that he had missed, but in addition fundamentals like paying payments, discovering work and opening a checking account.

He now works with APSC, serving to steer others by way of the identical puzzling path of reentry and addressing intergenerational traumas. “There’s silence in our neighborhood, however we don’t have to stay unvoiced anymore,” Lam mentioned.

Shortly after his launch, he reconnected with a highschool acquaintance. They’re now engaged and Lam helps increase her 6-year-old daughter. Nonetheless, the specter of deportation haunts his future.

“My hesitation in getting married is my standing,” he mentioned. “I’m nonetheless in that state of limbo.”

Lam utilized for a pardon this previous summer season, which he mentioned would deliver a way of reduction not solely to him, however to his prolonged household, together with his mom, six siblings and 7 nephews and nieces. “They don’t have to fret that their son, fiancé, brother and uncle received’t be round,” he mentioned. “And it permits me to proceed the work that I do.”

A man smiles next to his very adorable baby
Chanthon Bun and his youngest son (age 1).

“Ought to I Keep Quiet?”

Shortly after his 18th birthday, Chanthon Bun participated in a theft. He was arrested and sentenced to 49 years and eight months in jail. The flat sentence meant that he had no probability to seem earlier than the parole board to plead for an earlier launch. To {the teenager}, being imprisoned almost 50 years was a lifetime.

“I gave up,” he advised Truthout. He not cared about penalties and, when he was 27, he was despatched to solitary confinement for 5 years.

Whereas in isolation, he discovered his beloved grandfather had died. Individuals in solitary are sometimes not allowed telephone calls, although exceptions are made when a member of the family dies. When he wrangled a name to his mom, she advised him, “Even to his final breath, he needed you to return residence.”

“I believed again to all his teachings,” Bun recalled. Bun’s grandfather had been a lifelong Buddhist and, earlier than beginning a household and fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, had been a monk. Within the refugee camp and within the U.S., he had raised Bun like a son. “What would he need his solely grandson to do?” Bun questioned.

When Bun was arrested, he left behind two sons — a 6-month-old and one but to be born. His grandfather’s demise pushed him to rethink his relationship with them. “Even when I die in jail, I shouldn’t quit on my youngsters,” he thought.

In solitary, missing entry to applications or books, he leaned into his grandfather’s teachings, taking over meditation and studying to calm his thoughts. When he was launched from solitary, he was decided to vary, however the maximum-security jail supplied few alternatives.

Shortly after he transferred to a jail with extra applications, he discovered that his older son deliberate to drop out of highschool. “Why ought to I graduate highschool once you didn’t?” {the teenager} requested.

That prompted Bun to get his GED.

Then he requested his older son about school. “I requested, ‘Are you going to school?’ and he requested me the identical query,” Bun recalled. Each father and son enrolled in school.

Nonetheless, Bun wasn’t interested by his personal future. “I used to be doing this all for my sons,” he mentioned. “As soon as they grew up and will deal with themselves, my life didn’t matter anymore.”

Then SB 260 handed, bringing hope for a future. Bun needed to wait till the board had held hearings for all juvenile lifers, however that gave him time to enroll in applications, together with one supplied by APSC that allowed him to discover the intergenerational trauma that his household had been by way of. He additionally discovered a number of trades, understanding that he wanted to show that he may land a job and assist himself after he went residence.

In February 2020, Bun appeared earlier than the parole board, which authorized his launch.

Then COVID hit San Quentin. “The entire place was sick,” Bun mentioned. “Individuals had been dying, the jail was on lockdown.”

Lower than two weeks earlier than his launch, an ICE agent got here to San Quentin to inform Bun that he could be transferred to ICE detention. Shortly after, Bun’s temperature soared, his physique was racked with chills and he was hallucinating.

“We heard tales that for those who acquired COVID, they wouldn’t allow you to go residence,” he recalled. Decided to not lose his launch date, Bun flushed his mouth with chilly water each morning earlier than the nurse took his temperature.

On July 1, Bun waited for ICE to select him up. Members of the Asian Prisoner Assist Committee gathered on the jail’s again gate, the place ICE often introduced folks out, to protest his detention.

Immigration brokers by no means confirmed up. As an alternative, jail employees drove him to the closest bus station, handing him a debit card which he had no concept how you can use. He had no technique to contact the APSC organizers nonetheless ready on the jail’s again entrance.

Lastly, he boarded a bus to San Francisco. He was feverish and hallucinating and, sooner or later, handed out. When he woke, he requested a passing development employee to name his legal professional. He did and defined the place Bun was, permitting APSC organizers to seek out him. They bundled him right into a automobile, lined with protecting plastic, and took him to get examined. Then, they discovered him a small home the place he may isolate.

“It was the neighborhood coming collectively to save lots of my life,” Bun recalled.

Bun now works with APSC advocating for immigrant rights, together with pushing for the VISION Act, which might cease prison-to-ICE transfers. (The act fell three votes shy of passing.) He nonetheless has an ICE warrant and may be detained at any time. Day-after-day, he faces the query: “Ought to I roll the cube and see in the event that they choose me up? Or ought to I resolve to remain quiet?”

Bun’s older sons are actually of their 20s and have kids of their very own. Bun now has a 1-year-old son, too — and the considered being torn from the toddler brings him to tears. A pardon would hold him together with his household — his three sons, his grandchildren, in addition to his mom and 4 youthful sisters.

Regardless of the dangers, Bun continues talking out, decided to vary the narratives round crime, security and second probabilities.

“We got here to this nation with a whole lot of trauma from genocide, then from residing in poverty, residing in a rustic that you just don’t perceive something about and residing with mother and father which can be traumatized,” he mentioned. “A variety of us had been incarcerated as kids. We went by way of a whole lot of life classes and we have now modified. We’re not youngsters no extra and we’re not the crimes that we’ve performed.”