California man who became journalist, rape counselor at San Quentin deported to Cambodia

A refugee who spent 25 years at San Quentin Prison, where he became a journalist and a rape counselor while he was incarcerated, was deported to his homeland of Cambodia, over the pleas of activists who argued he had changed his life for the better and should remain in the United States since he served his full prison sentence. 

Phoeun You, 47, was taken by ICE agents to his native land on Wednesday. On Thursday, You called his attorney at the Asian Law Caucus to say he had arrived safely.Not much else is known about how he is faring.

"We are devastated and broken hearted," activist Kathy Kojimoto wrote in an email. "Thank you for all the love and support for Phoeun.  You helped him get through the last 6 months.  Knowing that he had tremendous community support made this time locked up bearable."

Activists and attorneys had lobbied unsuccessfully to get Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue You a pardon, which might have prevented his deportation. 

Despite California being a sanctuary state, the prison system is not exempt from cooperating with ICE. 

In addition, You was convicted of murder, which also makes his case exempt from sanctuary status.

A bill called the VISION Act, which would have made You eligible to return home before being deported to give him time to find a lawyer did not pass the Legislature last year. The bill remains eligible for a vote on the Senate floor this year. 

You spoke to KTVU in July from the Mesa Verde ICE Processing Facility in Bakersfield, saying that he had a lot of anxiety, as he hadn't been to Cambodia since he was a young boy. 

You is one of many refugees and undocumented immigrants who have experienced what advocates call "double punishment:" Direct transfer to ICE and eventual deportation immediately after finishing a prison sentence, even if they have permanent residency in the U.S.

In 2020, 1,615 immigrants or refugees in California’s prison system were transferred by ICE.

Even though You's fate seems sealed, his friends and activists want the public to know his full story and show that he is a changed man.

You became a journalist during his confinement in  San Quentin and wrote his own story. 

As he tells it, You was born in 1975, shortly before the Cambodian genocide and the take-over of the Khmer Rouge. 

When he was 4 years old, his family escaped and found a refugee camp in Thailand. 

He and his family resettled in Ogden, Utah. They lived there for about five years and then moved to Long Beach, Calif., to be closer to other Cambodian communities in 1985. 

He struggled as a kid. 

Like many Southeast Asian refugee youth around him, he was bullied at school. He was targeted by other kids, resulting in constant fighting and violence. For a sense of belonging and protection, he said he joined a gang at 13 years old. 

He also had nine other siblings and lived in a 15-person household and constantly faced housing and food insecurity. 

He said that his family was forced to move out from one home to another due to the high cost of living.  

You and his family also struggled with the trauma from surviving war and genocide with no culturally competent resources. He said he began abusing drugs and alcohol. 

When he turned 16, his brother was shot eight times in a gang shooting. That was an emotional turning point for him. 

He ended up moving to Las Vegas to live with his uncle.

At 18, he graduated from high school and started work as a game operator in a casino. 

In 1993, he moved back to California to reconnect with his family.

One day in 1995, You said he stood outside his nephew’s school waiting to pick him up. 

A car rushed towards him and about six gang members came out throwing punches.

You said this triggered memories of almost losing his brother to gang violence and his own experience of being bullied as a child. 

He and his nephew – both of whom were punched – searched for the rival gang members to confront them. 

After hours of driving, You said he opened fire into a crowd. He killed a 17-year-old in March 1995.

You was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 35 years to life. 

He was 20 years old.

In 2007, You was transferred to San Quentin State Prison, where he said he decided to channel his grief into his healing and growth. 

He worked as a layout designer and writer for San Quentin News and joined the Society of Professional Journalists.  

Being a journalist taught You to contextualize his experience while holding himself accountable to choices he’s made and their consequences. 

He and some peers became a founding member of ROOTS, or Restoring Our Original True Selves,, a self-help program that connects prisoners to their history and culture through education and restorative justice programs. 

He became an alumnus with the Last Mile, an entrepreneurship program that combines technology and business. He learned how to work with sheet metal. 

He became certified as a counselor by Bay Area Women Against Rape.

In 2015, You graduated with an AA degree from Patten University.

Last August, You qualified for a parole hearing because he was incarcerated at a young age, and was recommended for early release by the Board of Parole Hearings.

If he were an American citizen, he would have simply been released after his prison term.

Activists told KTVU that even though You is now in Cambodia, Newsom could still pardon him – something that they are pushing the governor to do.