When Phoeun You’s family left Cambodia as refugees, he was only one year old. After spending a number of years in a refugee camp in Thailand, You’s family was resettled in the US. At the age of 20, You was convicted of murder and incarcerated in San Quentin. During his incarceration, You became a certified crisis counselor, and established ROOTS (Restoring Our Original True Selves)—a restorative justice program for Asian American and Pacific Islander prisoners. After 26 years behind bars and a remarkable personal transformation, the California Board of Parole Hearings recommended You for release in August 2021. On his release date, You was handed over to ICE. Activists rallied to demand an urgent pardon from California Gov. Gavin Newsom which could have stopped You’s deportation, but to no avail. Calling in from Cambodia, Phoeun You joins Rattling the Bars to tell his story.
Studio/Post-Production: Cameron Granadino
Mansa Musa: Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa, co-host with Eddie Conway. To update you on Eddie Conway, Eddie Conway is getting better. Eddie Conway, hopefully, at some point in time, will make a cameo appearance at the program that he started and at the news network that he loves.
Today, we have an extraordinary set of circumstances that a lot of people from different countries are being subjected to for no other reason than they’re not naturalized citizens. But they’re given the opportunity to come to this country to seek a better life. And because they come to this country, oftentimes, because of the United States’ imperialist attitude towards the country they were from, results in the country becoming destabilized, and people are starting to immigrate to the United States. The United States opens up its doors to people and will readily welcome them with open arms. But then they get selective amnesia at times. We have a case of selective amnesia.
Today we have Phoeun You here. He’s basically a political prisoner. Phoeun, introduce yourself to the Rattling the Bars audience, and tell us a little bit about yourself before we go into the details of your situation.
Phoeun You: Thank you for having me. My name is Phoeun You. And after serving 26 years, I was deported to Cambodia, a country that I left when I was one year old. I’m here now, I’m trying to find my way back, and I’ll shed more light on how I got here and all that in a second. But thank you for allowing me this space.
Mansa Musa: Yeah. Okay. Let’s start right here. You came to this country when you were one year old from Cambodia. And for the benefit of our viewers that don’t know: Cambodia, Vietnam, that whole Asia Pacific was at one point going through a war. The United States was heavily involved in colonializing it and having an imperial disposition towards both these countries.
That ultimately led, in Cambodia’s case to constant regime change, that ultimately led to the Cameroons taking over. And under Pol Pot, the most atrocious behavior took place in terms of what later became known as the Killing Fields, where millions of Cambodian people, citizens, and people were killed. So your family came to the United States against that backdrop?
Phoeun You: Yes, that is the correct backdrop. Yeah. I might as well just jump in and start explaining how it all began.
Mansa Musa: Go ahead.
Phoeun You: America left Cambodia. After being at war with Vietnam and neighboring countries in ’75, they took off. They lost the war and left. When they left, that’s when chaos happened in neighboring countries like my country and other communist countries, where guerilla armies took over, overthrowing the government.
In my country, in Cambodia, the guerillas were the Khmer Rouge. They’re the ones who killed everybody to start a new life, a new civilian. They wanted to implement their own rules and regulations. They wanted to wipe out everybody who was educated. I mean, anybody they would deem as a threat to their new regime. They killed nearly 2 million people at the time. So we had to escape. After the war ended, they took over the country. My dad was a clinical doctor, so he was definitely deemed as a threat.
Mansa Musa: Right.
Phoeun You: If he stayed, they would’ve seen him as, hey, he’s intelligent. He can speak out against us. We’re going to have to kill him. And the kids that were left behind, they would’ve recruited us into their military. What they were trying to do is build an agrarian culture society, meaning to build a country where it is based on farm land. Just build a culture, feed your own community, grow the system like that. So what we had to do was, when they were coming to take over, we went to the neighboring country in Thailand to escape them. Because we don’t want to be killed. So I left at one year old, and we stayed in Thailand for close to four years before we made it to the United States.
Mansa Musa: In terms of the United States, were your parents given green cards? Or what were the terms of their coming to the country? Were they given some form of legitimization?
Phoeun You: Yeah. When America left the country, of course they were embarrassed because they lost the war. And when guerillas took over, they’re like, hey man, it’s just like what’s happening in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. It was like, man, you just left and didn’t help nothing. You just bounced.
After they lost the war, I assume, in my personal opinion, how can they redeem themselves? How could they help? They’re supposed to be over there trying to play big brother, but instead they ran. So they found ways for us who were escaping the war to get back to the United States. They gave us what’s called a permanent residence. When we came to the United States, that was what’s called, is having a green card. Allowing us to live permanently in the United States, but without having citizenship. We can apply for it eventually, but we’re basically legally given permission to stay in America, to escape war.
Mansa Musa: Then under the terms, were your family allowed to vote in elections? Were they allowed to participate in the so-called democratic process in the United States?
Phoeun You: No, they’re not allowed to do any of that until they turn into citizens.
Mansa Musa: To receive citizenship. Okay. So where did y’all relocate to in the United States?
Phoeun You: When we came, it was 1980. We ended up in Ogden, Utah. A Mormon family took us in. We stayed with them for, I don’t know, maybe less than a year, maybe a year or so to get on our feet. Then we continued to stay in Utah for maybe two to three more years. And then that was it.
I mean, things for my family, it’s like they wanted to feel closer to people who are like them. So we moved to California, Long Beach, California, where they saw a little bit more people who looked like them, and wanted to feel a little bit more connected to home as much as possible after leaving home. So we ended up in Long Beach, California.
Mansa Musa: All right. Talk a little bit about your growing up in that part of California and your childhood.
Phoeun You: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was like a culture shock. I left the country where I was born and I felt like that’s my livelihood, and then going to a refugee camp, and from a refugee camp went to America, which was Utah. It was majority whites, and we were the only Asian family there. After that, from Utah, we went to Long Beach, California. Now it’s more diverse and the environment looks different. Now I went from a nice, clean, mountainous scenery type of place to the neighborhood.
Mansa Musa: Yeah, right. Right. Looks [inaudible]
Phoeun You: I didn’t see whites too much anymore. I saw Hispanics now, Blacks now, a few Asians at the time. So it felt like, huh, this is another culture shock. So trying to fit in this new world, it was different. It was a straight adjustment. We lived in poverty. I mean, our household was 15 people in a three-bedroom house.
So my parents really struggled trying to make ends meet. We went to school and did the best we could. I didn’t know we were poor. It’s just that schools and kids in school made it known, though. Adjusting to life there was definitely different. There’s poverty, there’s gangs, there’s violence. The environment was just totally different.
Mansa Musa: Were your family given any assistance from the United States in terms of helping them relocate, or providing any type of social service such as housing, and any type of economic assistance?
Phoeun You: Yeah, I think we were on welfare. We received government checks, and that was how we survived. While my other brother and sister, while they were growing up, after graduating from school, they also worked to try to help financially. That’s how we made ends meet, from different family members chipping in here and there. Yeah, it was a struggle. It was a struggle.
Mansa Musa: So, fast forward to when you become a teenager and some of the problems that you had in terms of the community where you lived in. And how you had to defend yourself against a lot of the problems that were taking place in your community, or in that region.
Phoeun You: I mean, just like any other neighborhoods where people were there before you, they kind of stake claim, this is our neighborhood. So us being the very few that just landed last in their neighborhood, we started getting picked on a little bit when we were growing up.
And me, I gravitated towards friends who looked like me. We were just kids in school hanging out, because we can relate to one another’s struggle. But at the end of the day, we also came together because it was just safer as well. And protection from other kids, other races. There were Blacks that were there. There were Hispanics that were there that we got into it with. Because yeah, we’re not the biggest and the numbers are not there.
So eventually, our friends turned into cliques. Cliques eventually turned into gangs. So I ended up joining a gang about 13 years old because home just didn’t feel like home anymore. I was trying to fit in.
My parents struggled trying to provide, and they did the best they could. I mean, they love us, fed us, moved us, clothed us and all that, and put us to school. But at the same time, they were going through their own traumas. They couldn’t provide for me emotionally as a kid while I was growing up. I needed that emotional nourishment, but they were also going through trauma of their own from war. I didn’t know that. So me not feeling like I fit in at home was another layer for me turning to the streets as well.
Mansa Musa: Right. And it’s a known fact, though. It is a known fact that social conditions in this country create an environment where people have no other choice but to unite with their own ethnicity in order to survive. This is not uncommon, like when Hispanics migrated from Mexico to this country. You got what they call Little Vietnam up in Seattle. You got Little Cuba and Little Havana down in Miami. So the problem that you were confronted with, it’s not uncommon.
What is uncommon, I think, is the lack of attention this country gives to when they bring people in this country. The lack of attention they give to trying to create a safe environment for them.
All right, so fast forward. Talk about how you wind up in prison.
Phoeun You: I mean, after living a gang life and all that, it boils down to just living with my own personal struggles. Not knowing how to deal with my feelings, having low self-esteem, not feeling accepted anywhere. All those small pieces right there, it boils into almost anger and hate that I carried around. Combine that with my gang mentality and stuff like that. It was just bad. And I thought the streets were how to live to survive and all that, and to bring an identity for myself as well.
So fast forward. I left Long Beach because we were having a lot of issues at home. I mean, gangs shot up our house and my family started to feel unsafe. So they knew that when I was going to get back at these guys who shot up the house, they crossed a line. They’re not supposed to touch family. At least, in my mind, that was a no-no.
So when that happened, I left California, and eventually ended up coming back. And when I came back, I started trying to live my own life. Went to Las Vegas and got my own place, turned 18, had a girl, I had a job. I was trying to just be a man, start a new life, And eventually that failed.
My girl got pregnant, she had a miscarriage. I started struggling financially, started drinking a little bit, and eventually got evicted. That’s when I ended up coming back to California. When I came back, I was like, man, I already felt like a failure because I couldn’t protect my girl. I couldn’t be a man out there in the world and live a life and succeed. And to come back home, I didn’t want to face my parents. I didn’t want them to see me as a failure.
So all this is bubbling up inside. Then when I came back to California, my nephew was having some issues with people in school, with Hispanic kids. And he told me, hey man, I’m getting pushed around over there. And that triggered some stuff in me, because I went through the same issue when I was growing up.
I told him, hey, I could just go pick you up if you don’t feel safe. So I went to go pick him up one day from school, waited in the school parking lot for him to come home. He came with a friend, and we sat in the car briefly just to hang out a little bit.
And right when we were ready to leave, a car comes behind us and blocks our entrance from getting out. Hands were thrown up. When you say what’s up? in gang culture, it is a threat. So they got out of the car, about six, seven of those guys, and there were three of us. A melee happened, a fight, a riot in the parking lot happened.
Because we were outnumbered, I felt like we lost that fight. Left bruised and battered a little bit. Yeah, my pride was broken. I mean, here’s my opportunity to prove myself, to protect my nephew. At least save some face from what I was going through already. And instead, I allowed this to happen. I was humiliated and embarrassed that this happened. And some old wounds came back, because I grew up being pushed around myself, as an immigrant kid, being the few, being a smaller one.
After we got jumped, in my mind, I was like, man, we gotta get these dudes back. That was street code. We got to get them back. Dudes can’t just jump us. And the only way to redeem myself was to get them back. So what I wanted to do was redeem myself after we got jumped. I was like, we gotta get these guys, man. That’s just what I thought and what I believed at the time. If somebody messes with you, you get them back. That’s just the street code that I lived by.
And a couple days later, I got a gun and I said, man… Then I was also drinking and I was going through my own personal stuff that I haven’t figured out yet. I asked my nephew, do you know who these guys are, man? Because I’m ready to hit them and get them back.
We drove around and looked for these guys. And eventually we pulled up to a group of kids, and one of the guys looked like one of the guys from the fight. So I ended up telling my nephew who was driving to pull over, or pull the [crosstalk]
Mansa Musa: Well, you don’t have to go into a lot of detail, but –
Phoeun You: Right, right.
Mansa Musa: Ultimately –
Phoeun You: Ultimately, I did a drive-by shooting. One person got murdered and four got injured.
Mansa Musa: Eventually you were arrested for this?
Phoeun You: Yeah, eventually, I mean, eight days later I was like, man, this is getting hot. I went on the run and I was picked up eight days later in Las Vegas, and I got sent back to California to fight my case. Then I’ve been arrested since this happened in ’95, and I spent the next 26 years incarcerated.
Mansa Musa: Did you go to trial or did you plead guilty?
Phoeun You: I went to trial and lost. I was sentenced to 35 to life.
Mansa Musa: So how much time did you do prior to being deported?
Phoeun You: I did 25 and a half, then I did another six months in ICE. So it was a total of over 26 years, and then I got deported.
Mansa Musa: Then when you were found guilty, did your attorney or did anybody from Immigration, Nationalization, or ICE come and tell you that, upon the completion of your sentence, that you were going to be deported?
Phoeun You: No.
Mansa Musa: Were you made aware of that? Was you made aware of this at any time during the time that you were serving the sentence?
Phoeun You: No lawyers.
Mansa Musa: California citizen?
Phoeun You: Yeah, no lawyers had ever told me that I was facing deportation. I think it was someone from the Immigration Center who paid us a visit when I started my time and said, hey, you have a pending ICE hold. And that was it. No lawyer has told me that. A counselor from prison or somebody came and told me that.
Mansa Musa: What were some of the things that you accomplished while you were incarcerated?
Phoeun You: I did quite a bit of stuff. At first, when I started my time, it was tough. I was in a high-level security yard and there was no program happening. Then my mindset from the streets just followed, because there was no opportunity to work on yourself. I just wanted to hang out with the fellows, too. I still wanted a reputation. I was still young.
And it wasn’t until something happened to me, which was an unfortunate situation. I received a letter from home, and received the news that my sister was murdered. We were locked down, and I couldn’t run from these feelings. I was pissed, I was sad, I was confused. It was a hurt. Then I was angry. And all these feelings just came and hit me all at once. Like I said, I couldn’t run from it. And that was the first time I cried in years.
And after three, four days just me feeling all that pain, I started thinking about, damn, this must be how my mom is feeling. She’s right there in the thick of things while dealing with my sister’s murder. And then eventually I end up thinking about how the victim’s family must have also felt. My pain becomes a seed that was planted in me. To think about the other side and the harm I’ve caused in my own act of violence. So from that day forward.
Change didn’t come right away, but it was a seed that was planted. It’s like, you know what? This pain hurts. I don’t want to do this to anybody again. Even if I never see lifers go home, I still don’t want to go through that kind of pain.
So that began my journey of healing, almost. And then I got transferred to a prison where program was provided, and I started getting involved. First thing I did was go to school. That’s the most powerful thing that one can do, in my opinion, just to empower himself mentally. I graduated and got my AA degree. And I started investing my time in other programs, because it made me feel like the confidence that was lost at one point in time, that self-worth came back. I started investing my time in other programs.
One of the main programs that I love is VOEG, is the Victim Offender Education Group. It’s a program that helps myself understand the root causes of my violence. What led to that, how I got there, the pain that I caused, and what I intended to do afterwards, moving forward.
Mansa Musa: Let me ask you this here. In terms of like, okay, so we recognize your personal growth, and we recognize that in your journey, you come to this realization that you no longer want to be used as an instrument by the system to inflict harm and danger on other people. So this transition, from what I’m understanding, ultimately led you to be paroled, right?
Phoeun You: Yeah, this position and other programs. I was also a certified crisis counselor in domestic violence because of my personal story with my sister. I really wanted to do something about it, so I became a crisis counselor. That, amongst other stuff that I’ve done as well. I’ve co-founded a program called ROOTS. It’s a ethnic studies program geared towards the API community. Because at this time, for some reason there’s a big API boom in the prison system. There’s no –
Mansa Musa: What would API stand for?
Phoeun You: Asian Pacific Islander.
Mansa Musa: Okay.
Phoeun You: Yeah.
Mansa Musa: Great.
Phoeun You: There’s a need to help my community out, and I wanted to do that. So I helped create that program called ROOTS.
Mansa Musa: Let me ask you this here. Because now we are at the place where you were initially told when you first got locked up that you were going to, at some point in time, have a hearing before ICE. At that point, were you given any notification as to what ICE would be looking at to determine whether or not you would remain in this country? Or whether or not you would be sent out? When they first notified you, were you made aware of what they would be looking at upon you seeing them? Or were you only given that after you were released, after you were paroled and released to that jurisdiction?
Phoeun You: Once they told me that, they told me that when I first got locked up, first got arrested. And it didn’t dawn on me. All they said is, you have an ICE hold pending. What does that mean exactly, as a [crosstalk]. I was like, what does that mean? I don’t know the laws, I don’t know the logistics. Even the lingo didn’t sound right.
With that said, I haven’t heard anything after decades later, when I went through the parole board and this and that. Then they brought it up again and said, hey, you have an ICE hold pending. This means that it’s possible that if you get found suitable, you can be deported.
So I was found suitable and I’m waiting for the ICE people to come in and notify me, hey, this is the next step. Nothing happened. I waited for my time to clear, to walk out the gates. I’m full of joy and this and that. And two days later, two days before I walked out the gate, that’s when the ICE agent came and said, hey, your journey is not going to end yet. You’re not going to be free yet. We’re going to pick you up right when you leave here.
Mansa Musa: When they picked you up, did they ever tell you what was the reason for deporting you? Did they ever give you a reason why you were being deported?
Phoeun You: There is no reason. I mean, I was never given a reason. But after my own investigation, this is my personal thoughts on it: You’re not an American citizen. You broke the law. You’re deportable. Period. That’s how I took it, and that’s what’s happening.
Mansa Musa: All right. So tell people what they can do to try to help you get back into this country. Because we recognize that this is, one, arbitrary; two, this is inhumane; and three, you were never afforded the opportunity to represent yourself as to why you should remain in this country. Your case is not unusual in that the United States is using ICE arbitrarily to send people back to their country, or to a country they were born in but have no relationship with. Talk about what we can do to try to help you get back into this country, or what’s being done to try to help you get back into this country.
Phoeun You: Yeah. Thank you for that. I have a pardon pending right now. And I’m waiting on Governor Newsom to make a move. This is basically what it boils down to: the fabric of America is to build a strong family, so that way, the strong family becomes a strong community. That’s the core concept of what America is built on. But by separating a family member, that tears everything apart. That doesn’t make sense. That contradicts their values.
And what I’m asking for is the opportunity for me to prove that I can make changes in the community. I have skills that I want to give back. The community is hurting. They need some healing. I’ve walked that walk, I’ve talked the talk, so I’m ready to give back. I just want that second chance to prove myself. And I’m asking for support letters, to write to Governor Newsom on my behalf, and to reach out to my bit.ly. I mean, you can help out that way as well.
But at the end of the day, it’s like this. I really, really think that me being punished like this, sent away, deported, it’s a lifetime punishment. Because you sent me to a country that I don’t know. I no longer speak the language. Everything is an uphill climb. You’ve already told me that I’m fit to live in your society again. So I’m asking for you to give me a second chance. I know I can make a difference in the community if given that chance.
Mansa Musa: There you have it. The real news about Phoeun You, a political prisoner unlike anybody else, defending himself in a society where this country throws immigrants from other countries into a society to fend for themselves. And when they fend for themselves and defend themselves and wind up in some of the most arduous situations, they’re then punished again. He’s been punished, he’s been triply punished. First he served his sentence, and did some remarkable things while he was incarcerated, made some valuable contributions to his community while incarcerated, only to find that, upon his release, when he thought he was coming home, not given any notice that he would give a hearing as to defend himself. He wasn’t given this opportunity to defend himself. He was just deported back to Cambodia.
And now we are asking everyone, all the Rattling the Bars viewers, The Real News viewers, to write Governor Newsom. This information will be posted. And we ask that you support this man in trying to get him back into this country. Because his only crime is he wasn’t nationalized as a United States citizen. That’s his only crime. His crime is not the crime that he committed.
If he was nationalized as a United States citizen, he’d be walking the streets of California right now. But because he’s not nationalized – And more importantly, the reason why he was in this country is because this country waged an imperialist war in Asia that destabilized the country that he was born and raised in, or rather born in.
Thank you, You, for giving us this enlightening interview. And we definitely will be keeping in touch with you and following up on the progress that’s being made. And you can always reach out to us. Thank you very much.
Phoeun You: Yeah, thank you, Mansa, for giving me this opportunity to tell my story. And hopefully, this makes a difference maybe in future policy change. Maybe it will help me get back home. Thank you so much.
Mansa Musa: We’re looking forward to seeing you back home. And this is, in fact, your home.
There you have it: The Real News, Rattling the Bars. We ask our viewers and listeners to continue supporting The Real News and Rattling the Bars. You can go to our website on how you can make your contributions. We bring you the real news. No one is bringing you any news about the immigration policies that exist that got You sent out of this country. No one is really looking at ICE. No one is looking at immigration naturalization from the perspective that we’re offering. So we ask that you continue support, so you can continue to get the real news. Thank you very much.
Phoeun You: Thank you.