ICE Grants Reprieve to Incarcerated Man in California Prison Who Feared Deportation to Cambodia

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Four siblings stand around a fifth sibling in blue holding hands
Vithea Yung, in blue, is visited by siblings on Jan. 18, 2017, at the California Health Care Facility in Stockton, shortly after the prison softball accident that paralyzed him. His siblings are, from left, Molleca Snun, Vaesnar Snun, Vincent Snun and Terry Honoré. (Courtesy of Vithea Yung)

When Vithea Yung was a teenager in Long Beach in the 1990s, he joined a gang. As a Cambodian refugee whose family was shattered by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, it gave him a sense of security. But at 16, pursued by members of a rival gang, he fired a gun and killed someone.

Yung was tried as an adult, convicted of murder and sent to prison with a sentence of 35 years to life. Now 25 years on, the California parole board has approved Yung’s release, based on the work he’s done to rehabilitate himself and help fellow incarcerated people.

Until late Friday, it seemed as if Yung faced the possibility of being released from prison only to be locked up again, this time by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Yung feared he’d be deported to Cambodia, a country his family fled when he was 3 years old.

And for Yung, the stakes were high. In 2017, he suffered a spinal cord injury during a prison softball game and since then has been paralyzed from the neck down, requiring round-the-clock care and assistance with the basic functions of daily living. He lives in a skilled nursing facility in the Los Angeles area that’s under contract with the state prison system.

But on Friday afternoon, an ICE spokesperson said that an immigration detainer, requesting California prison officials turn Yung over to ICE, had been dropped months earlier, on November 18.

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The spokesperson, who would not agree to be identified because he was not authorized to speak about the case, said ICE makes custody determinations on a case-by-case basis, “considering the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates.”

The news came as a surprise to Yung’s supporters, who had held a rally in Los Angeles Friday morning calling on California officials not to cooperate with ICE.

“We’re relieved it was dropped and he’s not going to be transferred to ICE and he’ll receive the care he needs after leaving prison,” said Anoop Prasad, Yung’s lawyer with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco. “But it’s such a nerve-racking process. It shouldn't require community outrage and rallies to get ICE to step in and do the basic, humane thing.”

Prasad said the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has a policy of notifying incarcerated people if an immigration detainer is dropped, but that didn’t happen here. Even in recent weeks, Yung’s CDCR counselor had told him the hold was still on file, Prasad said.

Through his sister, Yung said he won't feel confident that ICE isn't going to detain him until he sees it in writing.

Immigrants funneled from prison to ICE detention

The state prison system hands over hundreds of inmates to ICE each year. Between Jan. 1, 2020, and Nov. 30, 2021, the CDCR made 2,600 transfers to ICE, according to data obtained from the agency by the Asian Law Caucus.

And advocates say Yung’s case highlights an injustice: If he had been born in the U.S. or had become a naturalized U.S. citizen, then when he completed his sentence that would have settled his debt to society and he would go free. But as a lawful permanent resident, or “green card” holder, his felony record meant he could be deported.

Yung’s sister Terry Honoré said she was terrified at the thought that her quadriplegic brother could be sent to Cambodia to fend for himself.

“I just don't know how that would work,” she said. “It was really scary.”

Advocates also feared that Yung’s health could deteriorate in immigration detention, since ICE has been sued over inadequate care for people with disabilities.

“The level of medical neglect at baseline in ICE facilities is horrific,” said Prasad.

He added that given how seriously injured Yung is, there’s no plausible argument he could pose a danger to society.

The Asian Prisoner Support Committee and other advocacy groups are pushing for passage of the Vision Act, a bill in the state Senate that would block jail and prison officials from honoring ICE detainers for most inmates, like Yung, when they’re released.

Scores of people turned out for the Los Angeles rally Friday to push for that bill, AB 937, and support Yung.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has until April 12 to review Yung’s parole. Unless he moves to block it, Yung will be released from prison and paroled to the care of his family. But advocates want Newsom to go further and stop transfers from California prisons to ICE.

In a statement, CDCR press secretary Dana Simas said the prison system notifies ICE of anyone they’re holding who might be a foreign national. ICE then determines their immigration status and decides whether to put an immigration “hold” or detainer on the person.

“CDCR responds to detainers from all law enforcement agencies,” she said.

Simas did not respond to requests for comment about Yung’s case.

In 2020, another Cambodian refugee, Chanthon Bun, was released from San Quentin despite being told that ICE had a detainer for him. But neither ICE nor CDCR explained why he was not transferred to immigration detention.

Should rehabilitation affect deportation decisions?

Yung is proud of the work he did to become a better person in the two decades before his accident. He enrolled in prison support groups and restorative justice programs, pursued his high school diploma, became a teacher’s aide and joined sports teams.

“I tried to rehabilitate myself,” he said in a Zoom interview with KQED. “I took classes. I did everything that it took before I went to my parole board hearing. It shocked them a little bit because I did everything before they even asked me to do it.”

Yung’s efforts might have played a role in ICE’s decision to revoke the detainer, though the circumstances of that decision remain unclear.

Last September, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas issued guidelines allowing ICE to use discretion about whom to prioritize for detention and deportation. Mayorkas said ICE should focus on people who pose a “current threat” to national security, border security or public safety.

But on Tuesday, a federal judge in Ohio partially blocked that guidance. U.S. District Court Judge Michael Newman, a Trump appointee, ruled the agency can’t ignore people whose criminal convictions subject them to mandatory detention.

Permanent residency isn't 'real permanence'

Before Yung’s family fled Cambodia’s killing fields, two older siblings died of starvation and both of his parents were locked up by the Khmer Rouge. When his mother got out, she and the children made their way to a refugee camp and eventually to California.

Honoré said her parents didn’t understand that even though they became permanent residents, real permanence depended on becoming naturalized U.S. citizens.

“No one ever explained that to us,” she said. “We came here with the understanding that we escaped the war and we are American. Our card says that we are legal residents, you know, permanent residents.”

Now she’s become a supporter of the Vision Act, hoping others don’t have to go through her brother’s experience.

Prasad said thousands of people — fully 10% of the state prison population — also are subject to ICE detainers, and few will get the attention Yung’s case has received.

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“As long as California is relying on ICE to act with decency and compassion, we have a problem, because ICE has a proven track record across administrations of acting with cruelty,” he said. “We need a systemic solution.”