Although there is a large and vast discussion throughout the United States around immigration, a subset of the immigrant population has been virtually ignored: the juvenile offender who is tried as an adult and faces deportation for those criminal convictions, often times many years later, after his or her release from the prison system.
It happened to me.
I was brought to the United States as a child of a refugee. My family fled Cambodia for their lives by trekking across a militarized jungle border and heading into Thailand where I would be born, after they spent two years in emergency refugee camps.
In 1981, I was carried off a plane into LAX and into the U.S. I was 61 days old.
A couple of years later, my parents divorced and my mother abandoned me. I was raised by a single father until I was 16. My father died of cancer at the end of my junior year in high school. I was left to grieve alone. At a time when I needed more support than ever, none was to be had.
I wound up gravitating to my peers on the streets. This ultimately led to my arrest at the age of 17. Tried as an adult, I was convicted on three counts of armed robbery. I was sent to prison with 23 years and eight months looming over my head.
After SB260 was passed in California—the result of a trifecta of juvenile offender cases heard in the U.S.Supreme Court—it was recognized that juveniles should not be treated the same way as adults, and that they should not be subjected to mandatory penalties.
That opened the way for me to appear before the parole board, where I was one of the few in that category who met the criteria for release.
For most, liberation brings freedom.
But not for me.
On my release from prison in July 2015, I was put into a cage inside a van, shackled, chained, and hauled off to immigration detention. Two months later, I was ordered deported by an immigration judge.
I was not provided an attorney. The law does not guarantee representation in this type of court. It is not a federal court nor is it a criminal court. It is an administrative court where judges can be fired—and so they are tough.
All those constitutionally supported rules that said I should be treated differently did not apply. Second chances? None. Even though I had legal status as a permanent resident, the nation’s immigration laws offered no mechanism to ask any judge to keep my papers.
After being ordered deported, I was finally released temporarily in March 2016 while I awaited a “travel document” (passport). Four months later, after a passport was issued, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) took me back into detention a second time, for a flight to Cambodia. But I had learned a few things during my years inside about U.S. legal procedure.
I filed a Petition for Review of the decision and a motion to stay my deportation in order to stop my scheduled flight to Cambodia-a country I have never been in. While that appeal was in process, I was sent to a private for-profit immigration prison in Louisiana until my deportation case was thankfully reopened.
That opened the door for me to return to California.
At my first court, I requested a bond hearing and one was set for three weeks later. The community came to support me on that day and I was granted bond. Then the community really came together and paid it, so I can be here to fight another day.
But if I am to stay in the States, I must receive a pardon from the governor. That is the only window I have. Soon, my time to see another judge will come and I do not know what will unfold on that day.
In the ten months since my release on bond, I consistently volunteer in the community, just like when I came home the first time in March 2016—when I gave my time at a non-profit to keep children connected with their incarcerated parent(s).
I have fed the homeless and I am part of a local church where I volunteer regularly. I am now an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition (in California) working to protect our youth of today and tomorrow. I am also no longer on parole after earning an early discharge.
I believe I’ve done some good after paying the price for the crimes I committed. But immigration law does not see it that way. It only sees the poor choices I made as a juvenile. It only sees the 17-year old that made those choices.
It only sees the “bad hombre.”
I’m not that person anymore. But will the justice system in the only country I have ever really known recognize that?
Phal Sok lives today in Los Angeles. He is awaiting another hearing, scheduled in February 2018. He wrote this essay as a project for a community writing group in Los Angeles led by The Beat Within, a San Francisco prison writing workshop, and the Youth Justice Coalition. He welcomes readers’ comments.