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'Double Punishment': Thousands of Southeast Asian Refugees Face Deportation After Decades-Old Convictions

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A photo portrait of three middle-aged Southeast Asian men in T-shirts standing on a sidewalk.
Chanthon Bun (left), Borey “Peejay” Ai (center) and Nghiep “Ke” Lam (right) pose for a portrait outside the Asian Prisoner Support Committee offices in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. The three men are part of the APSC Four, a group of formerly incarcerated Southeast Asian refugees who now face deportation to countries they know nothing about who are asking Gov. Gavin Newsom for pardons. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

On Jan. 17, 1989, Borey Ai’s life was dramatically altered.

That’s the day a 24-year-old man, armed with an AK-47, strode onto the playground at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. A white supremacist, Patrick Purdy, blamed minorities for his failings in life.

Purdy singled out the Southeast Asians who were his neighbors, deciding to shoot the Cambodian and Vietnamese children enjoying recess. He fired 105 rounds in three minutes, killing five children. Before killing himself, Purdy, who was dressed in combat gear, also wounded 32 other people, including more students and teachers.

All the victims killed were Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants.

One was Ai’s cousin.

“That changed my life,” said Ai, who was 8 and on the playground at the time of the shooting. “That was the message — you’re not wanted here. Someone is trying to kill you.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, thousands of Cambodian refugees were resettled in Stockton. According to the report on the massacre, released by the state attorney general in October 1989, one in six residents in the city of about 250,000 was a Southeast Asian immigrant.

Borey “Peejay” Ai, 41, outside the Asian Prisoner Support Committee offices in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. Ai, who was formerly incarcerated, was born in Cambodia and is now at risk of being deported back there. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

In the United States, Southeast Asian refugees found living conditions similar to what they had left behind. Plagued with lingering trauma, they were forced to live in deteriorating buildings and work low-paying jobs while dodging constant attacks. Many children were so young they could barely read or write in their native language, let alone speak and write English.

Gangs became an outlet for some Southeast Asian youth struggling to adjust. Two of the most prominent Asian gangs in the 1980s, Asian Boyz and Tiny Rascal Gang, were created by Cambodians living in Long Beach as a means of protection. Young Southeast Asians, like Ai, found themselves committing crimes for a gang. Also, like Ai, many were caught and sentenced to long prison sentences. Their releases often came with deportation orders.

In August, the Southeast Asian Deportation Relief Act of 2023 was introduced in Congress. The legislation aims to end deportations of Southeast Asian American refugees and provide protections for the more than 15,000 people with final orders of removal. The legislation also seeks to establish a path to return to the U.S. for refugees who have already been deported to Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

To advocate for the right to stay in the U.S., four employees of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, an organization supporting formerly incarcerated Asians and Pacific Islanders, formed the APSC Four. Ai is joined by Chanthon Bun, Nghiep Lam and Maria Legarda. Because of the nature of their felonies, each group member had been stripped of their legal permanent resident status and issued removal orders. The group advocates for Gov. Gavin Newsom to grant them pardons to remain in the only country they’ve ever called home.

Three group members met KQED reporters in the lobby of the organization’s downtown Oakland headquarters one October morning. Inside the former massage parlor, the men, who met while incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, sat in plastic chairs and exchanged weathered smiles and inside jokes.

Ai’s family fled the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communist regime that committed a genocidal purge from 1975-1978. About 2 million people were killed, nearly a quarter of the Cambodian population.

Hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were forced to flee. Ai was born in Thailand under the shadow of the walls that enclosed a refugee camp. As a child in the camp, he would climb a nearby hill to harvest chilies as sounds of gunfire echoed.

More than 1.2 million Southeast Asian refugees settled in the U.S. after the Vietnam War.

Growing up in the U.S., Ai said he was consumed by fear and anger. He changed his routes to school to avoid racial harassment and getting beaten up. His father, in the throes of drug addiction, would disappear for months at a time, Ai told KQED. After the 1989 mass shooting incident, he began to isolate himself. By the time he was 12, a neighborhood gang had become his family.

Two years later, Ai and his friends attempted to rob a convenience store in San José. During the robbery, the store owner tried to grab Ai’s gun. When he yanked it away from her, the gun fired and the bullet went through her neck. Ai ran.

Months later, he turned himself in. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. He was 15 when he was sentenced, becoming one of the state’s youngest “lifers.” After serving 19 years, Ai was granted parole. But he wasn’t released. Instead, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers picked him up.

A photo portrait of a middle-aged Southeast Asian man wearing a blue T-shirt and baseball cap, and sitting outside in front of a storefront.
Nghiep “Ke” Lam poses for a portrait on his motorcycle outside the Asian Prisoner Support Committee offices in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. Lam, a Vietnamese immigrant, was incarcerated as a teenager and has been at risk for deportation since his release. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Ai, now 41, wears an ankle monitor, and the low battery beep reminds him that his current life is in jeopardy.

“As a young person growing up in prison, no one was there for me,” Ai said. “As I got into counseling, I fell in love with it because it’s also healing for me to be able to help someone else.”

A surge of Southeast Asians resettled in the U.S. as refugees after 1975, and today, more than 3 million people of Southeast Asian descent live here, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, or SEARAC, a national civil rights organization serving people of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese descent. Since 1998, 17,000 have received final orders of removal for prior convictions and 2,000 have been deported.

Of the formerly incarcerated Southeast Asians that have been deported, less than 10 have been able to return to the United States, said Quyên Đinh, the executive director of SEARAC. Southeast Asians are at least three times more likely to be deported based on an old criminal conviction compared to other immigrants, according to the group.

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Đinh said refugees were often resettled into historically low-income communities without support or resources. This led them to join gangs and participate in crime, placing them in what she referred to as “the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline.”

“The model minority myth is at the root of why the APSC Four and some individuals are in this position in the first place because they weren’t seen and they weren’t heard in the school system when they should have had the resources to be supported and to thrive and heal as refugees and as children of refugees,” Đinh said.

Lam, of the APSC Four, was born in Vietnam, but his family fled after the Vietnam War. He said they were stranded in the South China Sea for six months before being rescued by fishermen. They were taken to a refugee camp in Hong Kong, where they stayed for two years before immigrating to the U.S.

Lam said he lived with the weight of feeling unwanted in his neighborhood. The family eventually put bars on their home, creating, according to Lam, a “mini prison inside our own apartment.” While living in Richmond as a teen, Lam found security with the Asian gang at his school. He was drawn to their stories.

“They were just like me — refugees. And so they dealt with discrimination, being bullied,” said Lam, 47. “We’re the same, even though we’re different Asian nationalities.”

Lam stopped playing sports and started getting into petty theft.

“It led from just hanging out, chilling, to getting into gang fights,” said Lam, who began to dress in the gang’s blue colors.

On Sept. 30, 1983, Lam said his mother paged him to come home. On the way, he saw rival gang members.

“‘Let’s go beat them up,’” he recalled saying to his friends. “We parked the car, got out of the car — there were three of us.”

They chased the gang members. When they caught up, Lam repeatedly stabbed one in the back. After the attack, the group drove back to a friend’s house.

The detail that still haunts Lam was the silence — nobody said a word in the car or at the house. The next day, he was arrested for murder. He later learned his friends had gone to the police and identified him. Lam spent the next 23 years in prisons across the state.

A photo portrait of a middle-aged Southeast Asian man wearing a white T-shirt and standing outside against a wall.
Chanthon Bun stands for a portrait outside the Asian Prisoner Support Committee offices in Oakland on Monday, Oct. 16, 2023. Bun, a Cambodian refugee, is at risk of being deported due to being incarcerated in his youth. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Bun, 44, was born in Cambodia, but grew up in a refugee camp in Thailand until churches sponsored his family to come to the U.S. After originally settling in Fort Worth, Texas, the family moved to Los Angeles to live in a Cambodian community.

To avoid constant bullying at school, he and his cousins started traveling in a pack. It wasn’t long before the pack morphed into a gang.

“By the age of 17, I was a lookout in a robbery. Nobody was harmed. And we were arrested right away. And I was sentenced to 49 years,” said Bun, who at the time was already a father of one and had another on the way. “Receiving all that time, I really gave up on life. I really didn’t care for my life.”

Phoeun You knows the hardship of being deported. He never called Cambodia home, but that’s where he has lived since his removal from the U.S. last year. His immigrant story is similar to that of the APSC Four, people he referred to as friends in a video interview with KQED.

Before his first birthday, You’s family left the country seeking a life untainted by violence. But it followed them to the U.S., where You coped with alcohol and found security in gangs. When he was 20 and moving away from gang life, You and his nephew were jumped by gang members in Long Beach. He got a gun two days later.

“We went around looking for these guys. We saw a group that I thought looked like one of the guys,” You said. “My nephew drove. I was in the passenger seat with a shotgun. I took the gun out and fired six rounds. I murdered one person and injured four.”

Less than a day before he was released from prison after serving 25 years, You was transferred to an ICE detention center. He stayed there for several months. One day, without warning, he was shackled and put on a flight. He was not allowed to call his family, friends or the advocates pushing for his release.

Almost 24 hours later, You landed in Cambodia, where the heat stuck to his skin. ICE, which didn’t respond to requests for comment, turned him over to the Cambodian government.

“I’m just shocked, looking around. I’m in a new world, a world I don’t know, a language I don’t speak,” You recalled when asked about his immediate thoughts upon arrival. “I couldn’t eat the food, because my stomach couldn’t take it down. I couldn’t sleep the first week. The place I had had metal bunks, which reminded me of a jail cell, a prison cell.”

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You said he became depressed. The only family he had in Cambodia were distant cousins and uncles he’d never met. Before he was deported, You said he had planned to live in Oakland after his release. He had jobs lined up in mental health and restorative justice work. You also wanted to counsel domestic violence survivors to honor his sister, who an abusive boyfriend killed during his incarceration.

You, who is teaching English, has not hugged his parents in decades, and due to their old age, they are unable to visit him in Cambodia. He’s not giving up on his fight to return home.

The APSC Four now focuses on mentorship and reentry services for at-risk youth, providing the support they didn’t have when they first arrived in America. Lam is a reentry navigator, helping with housing, education enrollment and job assistance. Legarda is a reentry consultant focused on women’s rights and overcoming the trauma of incarceration.

Bun is a reentry coordinator and speaks publicly about the impact of incarceration and deportation. He doesn’t want to be forcibly removed, because he wants to spend time with his adult children and grandchildren and his 2-year-old son. The anxiety of deportation is constant.

“Family visits would be over the phone,” he said. “The only time I’d probably get to see my son grow up is through FaceTime or phone calls, so it’s like serving a life sentence I can never come back from.”

Ai fears being deported to Cambodia, a country he’s never stepped foot in.

“From my knowledge, people view us as rejects, criminals who just got deported to the country. They don’t trust us. We’re ostracized by our own community,” he said. “To me, it’s double punishment.”

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