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After Parole, ICE Deported This Refugee Back to a Country He Never Knew

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A man seen from behind stands on a balcony at sunset, looking out at a lush forest and mountain landscape.
Phoeun You looking out on the Cambodian countryside. (Courtesy of Phoeun You)

When Phoeun You landed in Phnom Penh in March 2022, he was surprised by how tall the buildings were. “I thought about Cambodia like, man, I’m gonna see cows on the road. Dirt roads and stuff like that.”

He was born there, but by the time he returned at almost 50 years old, he was effectively a foreigner.

You was an infant when his family fled the Cambodian genocide in 1976. Fifteen of them — siblings, parents, grandma, nieces and nephews — ended up in a refugee camp in Thailand. It was a harrowing but familiar path for the estimated 1 million Cambodians who escaped Pol Pot’s bloody dictatorship.

You spent the first five years of his life in the refugee camp in Thailand. It wasn’t until later in life that he realized how traumatic those early years were. Small things, like powdered milk, now transport him back there.

“That smell, that feel of chalk … it took me right back to the refugee camp,” he recently remembered.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the State Department contracted with religious agencies to help resettle the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving in the U.S. from Southeast Asia. After receiving his green card, Phoeun landed with a Mormon family in northern Utah.

His first memories in the U.S. were of eating tuna fish sandwiches and macaroni and cheese. Everything, including the enormous Wasatch Mountains, felt surreal.


“I remember the first time it snowed,” he said. “It scared the hell out of me. I was like, ‘Man, this is cold. Are we gonna freeze out here?’”

After life stabilized in Utah, You’s parents moved the family to Long Beach, California. Thanks to a student exchange program at Cal State Long Beach, the city’s Cambodian population had grown since the 1950s. By the time the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, Long Beach had the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia. In some ways, it felt like home.

However, the move to California also brought unwanted reminders of the country they left behind. Long Beach was a violent place in the 1980s, particularly for Southeast Asian refugees moving into historically Black and Latino neighborhoods. You was bullied at school, and when he was 13, he joined his older brother’s gang for protection. His life spiraled out of control from there.

In 1995, a gang beat up You and his nephew in a school parking lot. The next day, You fired a shotgun into a crowd of teenagers in retaliation. It killed one of the young men and injured four others. A year later, he was convicted of first-degree murder and given a 35-year-to-life sentence.

You’s first few years of adulthood began in California’s state prison system, and it was rough. He regularly witnessed fights and stabbings at Salinas Valley State Prison.

“You almost have to stop yourself from being human,” he recalls. “Every time you see blood, the human side of me makes me wanna care. Like, ‘Hey man, I know this is a prison, but are you OK?’ But I can’t do that.”

It wasn’t until You suffered his own loss that he reflected on his crime. The news came through a letter in the mail from an older sister.

“[It] said, ‘Hey, look, we have some news that your sister was murdered.’”

His sister had been shot in a parking lot by a jealous boyfriend, according to You. He felt anger but also a strange sense of clarity.

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“It dawned on me that this must be how the victim’s family felt when I took their son away from them,” he reflected.

After a dozen years in California maximum security prisons, You was transferred to San Quentin State Prison. He enrolled in rehabilitation programs, including the intensive Victim Offender Education Group. The early sessions helped him confront the magnitude of his crime and, for the first time, unpack the traumatic life events that led up to it.

Eventually, he started his own program for other Asian American and Pacific Islander inmates at San Quentin to talk about history, war, and how to enter back into society.

In 2021, after 25 years behind bars, You was up for parole. It was actually his second time presenting his case to the state’s board — the first time, he said, he completely froze up. This time, though, You was ready.

But when he first heard the news of his freedom through a Zoom meeting during the COVID-19 pandemic, You struggled to take it in.

“To finally hear those words just didn’t feel real,” he said.

He said that feeling joy didn’t feel right either. “It takes away from the crime I’ve committed.”

Unfortunately for You, things were about to become much more complicated.

Deported to Cambodia

A few days before he was set to be released, he got a visit from a federal official who informed him that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had placed a hold on him.

Although You became eligible for U.S. citizenship when he turned 18, his parents’ hectic home life — with 12 family members rotating in and out of a three-bedroom house — kept them from pursuing an application.

When You lost his green card status following the murder conviction, he was no longer a protected refugee. Rather, he was now illegally on U.S. soil.

Phoeun You takes a selfie in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Courtesy of Pheoun You)

The ICE hold meant that federal officials could try to deport him after his release from prison. Instead of walking out of San Quentin, a free man, You was transferred to an immigration detention center in central California where he could choose to appeal his case.

You said that was a difficult decision. If he fought his case, it would happen from a detention cell in central California — a process that could take years.

“You have to weigh it out like, does it matter when the law is already set in stone? Do you prolong your sentence and your stay if you know you’re gonna lose the case anyways?”

So You signed his own deportation papers.

When he stepped off the plane in Phnom Penh a few months later, he was accompanied by three ICE agents.

The entire experience left him shell-shocked. You didn’t have a job or speak Khmer and had no friends or professional contacts. And he had no proof he was a citizen of any country; documentation of his birth was destroyed during the genocide.

Luckily, You still had relatives in Cambodia. He spent the first few weeks of his new life in Southeast Asia, reconnecting with his aunt in the Cambodian countryside.

He hadn’t seen her in nearly 50 years, but she offered to sponsor his Cambodian citizenship application.

New life in Cambodia

You’s aunt hooked him up with a third-floor studio on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. After weeks of watching the neighborhood wake up from his balcony — food carts passing by, moms walking their kids to school — he started to feel more settled.

But other adjustments have come more slowly. Because of the language barrier, You spends a lot of time alone in his apartment. He uses a translator app on his phone to communicate at restaurants or the grocery store, but he’s hesitant to date or make new friends.

“I’m a social person,” he said. “I want to mingle. I want to connect on a deeper level, and I don’t have the words to do that. And it feels really awkward because I can’t express (myself) fully.”

Everywhere he looks, You is reminded that he’s far away from home. Billboards are in different languages. There are no sidewalks or street lamps, and the food stalls still amaze him.

People stare at him — which makes him uncomfortable.

“They look at me, and it’s like, OK: the tattoos, the shaved head … They’ll notice my accent is a little off. They get the hint like, ‘This guy’s not completely one of us.’”

Very quickly, You had to start looking for a job in a country where he didn’t speak the language.

But his last job was more than two decades ago, working at a casino in Las Vegas. With some experience teaching English as a second language to adults at San Quentin, You thought he might land a similar gig in Phnom Penh.

“I was applying for a good four months,” he said — pursuing around 20 different positions — but he kept getting turned down. “I was like, ‘Man, what is going on?’”

You wasn’t sure, but he had a sinking feeling that his criminal record in the U.S. followed him to Cambodia. He said most hiring managers didn’t know about his conviction right away, but when interviewers asked him what a working-aged man from the U.S. was doing in Phnom Penh, You felt like they were piecing things together.

You spent months worrying he’d never get back on his feet. But finally, he broke through. In October 2023, he landed a job teaching English at an international school in Phnom Penh.

He said the work is exhausting: He teaches five grade levels and isn’t paid much. But he said it’s helping him find purpose again.

Recently, he assigned his ninth-grade students to interview their parents. He said it’s sometimes difficult for Cambodians to communicate on a deeper level with their parents, so his goal is for them to get to know themselves better by learning about their family’s history.

“I think of my own past, growing up,” he said. “I didn’t know my parents enough.”

You laments the lack of love and connection he felt at home as a kid. Part of him feels like life might have been different otherwise.

He can’t change the past, but he said that teaching helps him reflect on his childhood and look forward to a future with a family of his own.

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