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Hope Is Contagious

By Asian Prisoner Support Committee
Illustrations by Natalie Bui

 

In early Spring 2018, members of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC) went to visit their friend Borey “Peejay” Ai1, a Cambodian (Khmer) person detained at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) immigration jail in northern California. During the visit, it was clear that ICE had worn Peejay down: he was skinnier, his eyes bloodshot and droopy, his voice soft and muffled behind the visiting room glass. Peejay had been denied bond and had just lost his Convention Against Torture (CAT)2 case. All signs pointed to his imminent deportation.

It was in these moments that we began to search for hope on behalf of Peejay—and we found it in the hopeful struggles of the community around us: in Ny Nourn3, a survivor of domestic violence who fought ICE in a landmark case; in Khmer families in the Bay Area, who created a movement to free their loved ones; in Anoop Prasad4, a fearless immigration attorney and advocate; and in Peejay himself, who continues to fight against all odds. While most of APSC’s direct experience comes from organizing struggles in California, we were also inspired by Khmer anti-deportation organizing efforts in other states, like those of Many Uch5 in Washington and Jenny Srey6, Montha Chum7, and the campaign #ReleaseMN8 in Minnesota. Learning more about these freedom stories reinvigorated us to continue fighting for Peejay’s freedom and countless other Cambodian Americans who would be detained in subsequent ICE raids.

When you talk to someone who has been down for decades and still has fight in them, you do not get to give up. So I fight alongside you and hope alongside you—even when it seems impossible. I carry your hope inside of me out of those prison walls. What you may not realize is that your hope is contagious.
— Anoop Prasad
 

As deportations rise for Southeast Asian Americans, we want to show how families, organizers, and formerly incarcerated individuals have successfully fought for their freedom--and show that others can fight and win, too. The following stories highlight individuals who have survived, persisted, and resisted the many fronts of state-sponsored violence. They are stories of deep pain, stories of triumph, and most importantly, stories of hope. By sharing these stories with you, we hope that you find inspiration to fight for your freedom and the freedom of your loved ones.

Because when one person’s hope results in their freedom, hope becomes contagious.

 
 
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Limbo

 

After serving a state prison sentence, many immigrants and refugees face a kind of double jeopardy. They are directly transferred from prison to immigration jail, where they stay incarcerated for an unpredictable amount of time. It could be months or even years. Some people have been imprisoned in ICE for over 10 years while fighting their deportation cases.

It’s one of the toughest things you can do when you call your Mom and she asks when you’re getting out and you say you don’t know. Because in the state [prison] time, when they ask, you have a specific date whatever it may be. But when you are doing immigration time, it’s, ‘What do you mean you don’t know when you’re gonna get out?’ There’s this kind of limbo state. I didn’t really know what was going on, but I kept fighting and fighting.
— Many Uch
 

Many, like many Cambodian refugees, resettled in one of Washington’s poorest neighborhood. In order to survive resettlement in the United States, Many turned to crime. Many partook in a robbery by being the driver in a getaway car. He spent three years in prison. Immediately after his release Many was transferred over to ICE, where he pondered on whether or not he would ever be able to be released. Many’s case took years to fight. He was eventually released and since his release from ICE in 200X, he has been advocating and supporting other people in similar situations to his – fighting their deportation. In 2010, Many was granted a pardon by Washington State Governor Chris Gregoire. In 2019, Many’s deportation order was finally lifted by ICE.

 
 
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Kites

 

Peejay and Ny were both survivors of the Khmer Rouge genocide and former “lifers” who were directly transferred to ICE at the same time. After hearing about Ny’s story through Anoop (who provided legal representation and advice for both of them), Peejay began to write to her, hoping to build another line of support to sustain them both.

Sending and receiving “kites” connects prisoners with the outside world, or even to another prison or jail. A handwritten letter means that someone is thinking about you.

When she was going to her hearing, I wrote to her and wished her luck and sent out energy and prayer out for her. It was so joyful for me. She won, and it was so inspiring to me. It brings so much hope to know that we all fought for this; we’re not alone.
— Borey “Peejay” Ai
 
 
 
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Return

Leaving a prison or immigration jail can be bittersweet—freedom comes at the cost of leaving behind dear friends and loved ones, some of whom may remain incarcerated, and others deported to foreign countries far away. Ny Nourn, a former lifer and domestic violence survivor who won her deportation case, has continued to fight for other detainees after she was released.

Two Minnesotans, Jenny Srey and Montha Chum, had their husband and brother picked up by ICE for old criminal convictions. For people like Jenny Srey and Montha Chum, fighting for their loved ones resulted in the formation of the #ReleaseMN8—a campaign to release eight Cambodians picked up by ICE. They organized families in Minnesota and won the release of three people.

Out of the MN8, five got deported. One of the reasons why I’m doing this is because I want to figure out a way to get the five back home.
— Jenny Srey, MN8
 

Jenny Srey, Montha Chum, and Ny Nourn continue to fight for impacted folks who remain behind bars. They exemplify how women—those who have loved ones in ICE detention, and those who have endured the violence of the incarceration and deportation systems—are the ones who lead the charge in the anti-deportation movement.

In my lifetime, I want to see folks having that right to return, and coming back to the U.S. to reunite with their families. That’s like a dream.
— Montha Chum, MN8
 
Believe that your freedom is possible, that you are worthy of a second chance.
— Ny Nourn
 
 
 
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Hope Is Contagious

 

On March 13th, four Oakland Khmer community members were arrested by ICE in front of their loved ones. The Khmer elders felt the familiar pain of separation, a deep and scarred wound that went back to generations of war, genocide, and forced migration. They watched the younger generations, now cut by a similar pain of family separation. Our Bay Area Khmer community began to organize, mobilize, and protest against deportations in an unprecedented way; but the fight to keep our families together is not new. Time and time again, our community has drawn strength from the love of our families in the face of war, displacement, or ICE detention. They chose to follow hope.

I am moved because our community stood by these families. They chanted, shouted and sang. We had to all force ourselves out of silence and practice to be activists. On March 13, we bridged the gap between the generations, melting the hearts of those who did not understand our struggles.
— Elijah Chhum
 
Cambodian refugees have always lived in fear. The community coming together felt like Cambodians were rising from death and coming to life. This was a rebirth for me. It brought back the strength that I felt I had lost over the years.
— Kanley, the spouse of a detainee
 
 
 
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Birds

 

“Bah Yung Pra Chang, Ung Niek Chanegh!” Families, friends, attorneys, and community members rallied at politicians’ offices, City Halls, and community centers. They were fighting to prevent the worst-case scenario—ICE deporting their family members to a country from which they had escaped as refugees many years ago. With uncertainty and fear thick in the air, families knew they had to protect each other, love each other, and fight for each other. This sparked the rally chant families shouted at countless actions, “Bah Yung Pra Chang, Ung Niek Chanegh. When we fight, we win!” This chant traveled from a family event at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI) office, to the San Francisco ICE facility, to the Governor’s office in Sacramento, and to Oakland and San Francisco City Council meetings. In response to the pressure, Governor Newsom issued two pardons, and two other Khmer detainees won post-conviction relief. When all four Bay Area Khmer detainees were freed and made safe from deportations, the community reunited and chanted one more time, “Bah Yung Pra Chang, Ung Niek Chanegh. When we fight, we win!”

It was beautiful to witness the Cambodian community come together—youth side-by-side with the elders, crying out in Khmer: ‘When we fight, we win!’ Some of the first-hand accounts shared at the rally were probably shocking to the non-Cambodian allies present, but to our community, those stories were sadly all too familiar. Painful stories of trauma begetting trauma. That’s why it’s so important to come together to try to end that cycle, to fight against these injustices, and to heal our community.
— Dara Ly
 
 

 

Community Photos

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FOOTNotes

1. Peejay was only 4 when his family fled the Khmer Rouge genocide and came to California. After committing a crime at age 14, Peejay was tried as an adult and sentenced for life. Peejay had been locked up for 19 years in state prison when he earned his parole, only to be directly transferred to ICE.

2. Convention Against Torture (CAT) is a United Nations human rights treaty that requires countries to take necessary measures to prevent torture against any person in their jurisdiction and forbids governments to transport people to countries where they may experience torture. The United States Federal Government, specifically, The Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have the authority to prevent deportation of an individual if they believe that that person will be tortured.

3. A Cambodian American refugee, domestic violence and sexual assault survivor, Ny Nourn was incarcerated for a crime she was coerced to commit by an abusive partner. Following her release from the Central California Women’s Facility, Ny’s freedom was again in question when she was immediately transferred and detained at an ICE facility. It was only through extensive rallying and organizing by the community that Ny was released.

4. Anoop, a Senior Staff Attorney at Advancing Justice, is a community member who has played a big role in these proceedings. He focuses on cases that cover the intersections of immigration and mass incarceration, representing low-income Asian Pacific Islander immigrants in deportation proceedings including individuals like Ny and Peejay.

5. Many Uch was born during the Khmer Rouge Genocide and came to the US as a refugee. Lacking a support system and suffering from the effects of trauma, Many turned to gangs for community, which led to his involvement in a robbery and imprisonment for 3 years. Due to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act of 1996, which made the deportation of immigrants with criminal convictions more likely, Many was immediately transferred to the Immigration and Naturalization Service to be deported to Cambodia upon his release from prison in 1997. Because Cambodia was not accepting any deportees, Many was stuck indefinitely in immigration detention. He, along with many others participated in a legal challenge to indefinite detention, which finally allowed his temporary release. In 2001, the Court ruled that no one could be kept longer than six months without reasonable possibility of being deported. Following decades of advocacy, community building, and organizing, Many officially received a pardon in 2007, leading ICE to terminate his deportation case in May 2019. Many was featured in the PBS documentary film, Sentenced Home.

6. Her husband Ched Nin detained by ICE and under threat of deportation, Jenny Srey mobilized and organized the Cambodian refugee community in Minnesota. She showed again and again the power of grassroots organizing; upon her husbands detention by ICE, she was able to collect 53 letters of support to keep Ched home, and when this wasn’t enough, she went on to form Release MN8, a non-profit created to fight for the 8 Cambodians ICE detained in St. Paul. Her persistent advocacy eventually allowed her a hearing with federal immigration judge, a rare occurrence, where finally, after months of fighting, her husband was granted a release. Jenny continues to fight deportations today, creating hope in her community by fighting what was thought an impossible case.

7. Brief bio for Montha Chum