When Khmer Rouge soldiers came to the village where Phoeun You and his family lived in Cambodia’s northwest, they fled on foot across the border to Thailand. At the time, You was just a toddler. In 1980, the family moved to the U.S. as refugees and were granted legal permanent resident status. Eventually, after relocating to Long Beach, California, You fell into gang life, and at 19, in 1995, he shot and killed a teenage boy. Over the years, You has felt deep remorse, has reformed himself, and has been able to mentor other men working through trauma. Still, after being granted parole after serving 26 years of a 35-to-life sentence, state prison officials handed him over to immigration agents, and he was deported back to Phnom Penh.
Joshua Sharpe’s piece for the San Francisco Chronicle about You’s life, deportation, and current transition to life in Cambodia is told with empathy and care. Sharpe’s narrative weaves You’s past and present, telling a nuanced story of a man “caught in the gap between America’s ideals and the limits of its compassion.”
After seven months in Cambodia, You felt more connected to his history. He was a citizen finally. He made a friend, another man who was deported from California due to a criminal conviction; they rode motorcycles in the countryside and felt flashes of something almost like freedom.
He loved America still, but wondered if politics were at play in Newsom’s decision to allow his parole while resisting a pardon. He said he’d heard that Newsom was moderating his stances as he weighed a presidential run.