Coalition urges Newsom to stop deportation of Cambodian refugees with criminal records

Family members, advocates and supporters gathered Friday at the state Capitol in Sacramento to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop the deportation of Cambodian refugees with criminal convictions living in California.

The coalition delivered a petition with 40,000 signatures to the governor’s office, asking for Newsom to pardon Saman Pho, who is being held by federal authorities, and to grant parole to Tith Ton, in an effort to prevent him from being transferred to immigration officials.

They are hopeful that the governor’s actions could prevent them and other Cambodians from being swept up in the Trump administration’s recent efforts to deport thousands of undocumented immigrants.

Gov. Newsom’s office told The Sacramento Bee that it could not comment on individual pardon applications though each request receives careful and individualized consideration.

Over the past two years, hundreds of Cambodian refugees with criminal convictions — often non-violent and decades-old — have been detained by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials. President Donald Trump’s order to ICE officials to ramp up sweeps gained further steam when Cambodia began accepting deportees from the United States, following decades of reluctance to issue necessary travel documents.

Around 700 refugees have already been deported back to Cambodia since 2002, advocates reported last year. Most don’t speak the native Khmer and don’t have a family connection to the country, having been brought to the United States as children. Very few have been able to make the case to return home to the United States.

Newsom pardoned three Cambodian refugees – Kang Hen and Hay Hov in May, and Thear Sam in October. Former Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned several others during his tenure.

Pho, an Oakland resident, was one of about an estimated 30 to 40 Cambodian refugees in the U.S. who were detailed by immigration officials in early October, according to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus, as part of the increased federal actions.

“Pardons are a recognition that people are capable of redemption and change,” said Pho’s attorney with the Asian Law Caucus, Anoop Prasad. “People are more than just the worst thing they’ve done, or a single moment of a mistake they made as a teenager.”

Pho’s story is not unlike the thousands of other Cambodian refugees who fled genocide during the violent Khmer Rouge regime for safety and a new life.

Pho was 6 when he first arrived to the United States in 1982. His family later moved to East Oakland, where they struggled to make ends meet, Prasad said. As a teenager, Pho, like many of his friends, got involved in gang activity.

When Pho was 19, he was convicted of attempted murder after firing a weapon during a fight. He served 12 years of his sentence, earning early release in 2006 after working to turn his life around. Prasad said.

“He’s not the same person he was at age 15,” Prasad said, adding that Pho is now a father of four. “He’s married, he’s a union member, living a law-abiding life.”

Over the last few weeks in ICE custody, Pho has been transferred to various detention facilities, Prasad said. Pho is currently “somewhere between Texas and Arizona,” and staying in touch has been difficult.

“It’s unimaginable to be deported to a country you can’t even remember,” Prasad said. “The idea that he’s never going to see his wife or children or Oakland again is hard to grasp, but it’s something that’s been weighing on him for years.”

Maribel Bautista, Pho’s wife, talks to him everyday. She said Pho has become fatigued and tired because of all the stress, but he is trying to stay strong.

“I feel horrible,” Bautista said. “The (Cambodian) community has to prepare for this (raid) that is happening every three to four months, and organizations have kept us informed and prepared for this unfortunate moment. We try our best to be prepared but we could never be prepared for the treatment and inhumane conditions in there.”

“I think my children are hopeful that their dad will return. And I think they are waiting for that moment,” she added.

Maribel Bautista, Saman Pho’s wife, thanks those present at the rally who help all the families fight the state prison system’s transferal of their family members over to ICE. Theodora Yu

Tith Ton is another one of the 11,000 Californians currently serving time in state prison, only to face the possibility of being put at risk of detention and deportation when they are released.

Born in a labor camp in Battambang, Cambodia, and granted refugee status in the United States in 1981, Ton was sentenced to life in prison after killing a rival gang member when he was 16 in 1997. While serving time in San Quentin, Tith became a licensed substance abuse counselor and mentored other prisoners.

After 22 years, Ton earned parole in his first hearing in July but remains in custody. According to Ton’s petition, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation plans to turn Ton over to ICE upon his release.

Jenna Patito, Ton’s younger sister, urged Newsom to intervene and release Ton to their family so they can heal and become whole again.

“I have dreamt of him coming home to us one day, so that we could have the chance to reconnect and to make up for the 20-plus years he has been gone that we’ve lost,” Patito said. He never had a chance to meet my husband and my two children.”

Tith Ton’s family members, including his parents and younger sister, participates in the rally to keep Tith home. Theodora Yu

Last month, Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 1282, which would have prohibited the corrections officials from allowing private security corporations to conduct unlawful immigration arrests of individuals already in state prison custody.

This contradicts California’s efforts to providing a sanctuary for those who are in the country illegally, advocates said.

The bill could “hinder and delay needed transfers between facilities for reasons such as medical care and court obligations,” Newsom wrote in the veto message.

But the bill merely codifies existing regulations including its exceptions for such scenarios, according to a Asian Law Caucus news release.

“If Gov. Newsom did not transfer people over to ICE, he wouldn’t have to pardon them and they get to be here with their families and our communities will be safer,” Tan said.

“We are going to continue getting community support for Saman,” Prasad said. “We really hope Governor Newsom will step in before this deportation flight leaves in a few weeks and grant pardon.”

“We are going to do it again, again and again, until ICE is no more,” Tan said.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks covers Sacramento County and the cities and suburbs beyond the capital. She’s previously worked at The New York Times and NPR, and is a former Bee intern. She graduated from UC Berkeley, where she was the managing editor of The Daily Californian.
Support my work with a digital subscription
Theodora Yu covers Asian American issues for The Sacramento Bee. She is a Hong Kong native and a Columbia Journalism School alumna with an interest in immigration and climate change issues.