Faith communities in California are organizing with immigrants and their families to end immigration detention in California and deportations. In May, Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity and the Dignity Not Detention coalition embarked on a 1000-mile Pilgrimage for a Better Future from Yuba to Calexico, stopping at the seven California detention centers where thousands of immigrants are deprived of their freedom and held indefinitely and arbitrarily. Phoeun You is one of those immigrants.
Incarceration, which has long been used as a social tool to criminalize and remove Black, Brown, Indigenous, low-income, and people of color from their families and communities, is also used against immigrants. Immigration detention is the government practice of incarcerating human beings while they wait for a decision on their immigration case or potential deportation. Immigrants in detention can be undocumented or documented, including people whose immigration status is expired or is under review. It can include people seeking asylum and legal protection. It can include visa holders who arrive at an airport. It can include people who have lived here for years and decades, and who may have a US citizen spouse, children, or business. It can include refugees or people with a green card who have been granted the permanent right to live in the U.S. who because of a past conviction can be held in immigration detention and deported, even after they complete their time in jail and have rehabilitated or earned release.
The US government runs the largest immigration detention system in the world with 200 immigration prisons or jails. 80% of adults in immigration detention are held in private prison companies such as GEO, CoreCivic, and MTC who profit, and local governments who pad their budgets through lucrative federal contracts.
On the Pilgrimage, an interfaith ceremony was held at each detention center calling for the just closure of the detention center, the safe release of those on the inside, and the transformation of local communities and economies. We pray that we as a society can choose different societal solutions which promote healing, not harm. People navigating their immigration cases should be able to do so with their loved ones and at home, not behind bars in immigration detention.
Phoeun [poon] which means friend in Khmer) You was one of those we met detained in Bakersfield, California. At the age of four, Phoeun and his family fled war and genocide in Cambodia. When Phoeun was 11, his family came to the US as refugees, landing in an impoverished community in Long Beach where they experienced racism, violence, and gangs. Seeking protection and belonging, Phoeun turned to gangs as a teen and eventually took another person’s life in 1995 in response to an attack on a family member. At the age of 20, he entered prison, and over the next 26 years transformed his life. He received his Associate degree, worked for the San Quentin News, and co-founded ROOTS, an Asian/Pacific Islander ethnic studies program in prison. He worked with incarcerated individuals and survivors of crime in the Victims and Offender Education Group program. He mentored others who were also incarcerated through the process of accountability and healing.
Last November at the age of 47, he earned parole and expected to finally come home and be reunited with his parents and large extended family, all of whom live here in the United States. However, instead of being reunited with his family, California transferred him directly into immigration detention because he is a non-citizen. He now faced the double punishment of immigration detention and deportation after earning release. Only a pardon by the Governor of California or a change of heart by Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) could stop his deportation.
On August 9, 2022, I interviewed Phoeun from immigration detention by telephone. One week later on August 16th, 2022, Phoeun was taken from immigration detention and deported to Cambodia, a place he has not been to since he was 4 years old. He did not have a chance to see his 88 and 90 year old parents or say goodbye. We invite you to listen to the voice of Phoeun You and take action to help bring Phoeun home and stop the double punishment and deportation of thousands of others.
– Rev. Deborah Lee, Executive Director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity
Phoeun answers the question: Who are you? And shares his understanding of the roots of violence from his own experience. (5 min.)
Phoeun shares how he has come to understand the role of intergenerational trauma caused by war and displacement and how his greatest hope is to be able to leave detention to care for his 88-year-old mother here in the US. (5 min.)
Phoeun shares how his faith as a Buddhist helps him to cultivate compassion and forgiveness and deal with the uncertainty and potential loss he faces with the imminent threat of deportation. (5 min.)
Phoeun shares what is his most hopeful outcome: his hopes for a pardon so that he can reunite with his family and continue to make amends and a positive contribution to others. He talks about what if he is deported to Cambodia. (4 min.)
Sample script: “My name is ____ and I represent ____ (organization, or city/county where you live). I am calling urging you to sign the VISION Act to protect refugee and immigrant communities, stop people from being doubly punished, and permanently separated from their families. AB937 would protect refugee and immigrant community members, like Phoeun You, who have already been deemed eligible for release from being funneled by local jails and our state prison system into immigration detention.
Read about the VISION Act Faith letter from over 340 faith leaders.
A Prophet’s Blessing by Jan Richardson, based in Luke 4:14-21
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