After living over half of his life in San Quentin State Prison, Tith Ton might not see freedom after his release.
Ton, a Cambodian refugee who immigrated to America to escape genocide in 1981, might get deported by ICE to a country he barely knows following his release. A 1996 immigration enforcement law makes it possible for ICE to deport him if he’s convicted of certain crimes, despite the fact that Ton has permanent residency.
Ton was recommended for parole on July 19. Once an inmate recommended for parole, the governor has 150 days to deny or grant it. Ton’s 150 days went by without incident and ended on Dec. 16, which means Ton was granted parole. He should be released within the next week, possibly on Christmas Eve. Community advocates are calling upon Governor Gavin Newsom to stop his potential deportation by intervening and telling California’s prison system (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) to not hand Ton over to ICE. Newsom has stopped deportations for other Southeast Asian refugees before by pardoning them.
“We feel like we’ve been betrayed by the prison system,” Chan, Ton’s sister, says. “He’s done his time and he needs to come home like others.”
Ton has lived 22 years behind bars. Before that, he was born into a Khmer Rouge forced labor camp, where some of his siblings starved to death. The rest of his remaining family escaped to the United States where, according to Chan, they were offered no governmental support to recover from the trauma of running from genocide.
Chan believes Ton never had a chance. “We grew up in a very poor neighborhood,” Chan says. “Policing was really bad.” They grew up around violence. From the ages of 13 to 15, Ton witnessed it — he held his best friend as he bled to death in front of his house, according to his sister. Sometimes Ton had to dodge bullets himself.
Chan believes that the combination of regular violence and having little mental health support to recover from both ongoing and pre-existing trauma led him to joining a gang, which Ton hoped would protect him. But when he was 16, Ton killed a member from a rival gang. He pled guilty, was tried as an adult, and was sent to juvenile hall before going to state prison.
While in prison, he worked to turn his life around: He became a certified substance abuse counselor, got his GED, and graduated from an ethnic studies program called ROOTS. A Berkeley nonprofit, Options Recovery, has even offered him a job as a substance abuse counselor following his release.
But that progress may be futile if Ton is deported.
“We need to humanize folks in state prison and recognize all the work that Tith has done to transform his life,” says Sarah Lee, a community advocate for Asian Americans Advancing Justice who met Ton through ROOTS. “Just imagine what he would be able to contribute to his community if he was let out.”
Understanding Ton’s story requires understanding America’s role in the Cambodian genocide that wiped out a third of Cambodia’s population. In 2011, an ex-Khmer Rouge leader accused the United States of contributing to the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power by bombing Cambodia to cut off North Vietnamese troops during the Vietnam War. The bombings pushed many to join the Khmer Rouge.
“We are culpable because we are citizens of the United States, whose foreign policy, especially after the war, resulted in unfair treatment of young wartorn refugees,” Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, chair of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, says. Rabbi Gottlieb protested at San Francico’s US Immigration & Customs Enforcement office on behalf of Ton, and believes that Ton’s situation is an example of discrimination based on immigration status.
If Ton is deported upon release, it’s unclear what he’ll be able to do in Cambodia, where he has no more family.
“It’s going to be really rough. All his family is here in California, in Fresno. He barely speaks khmer,” Lee says. “Tith’s story is one out of many of those who have been transferred from state prison to ICE.”
If Governor Newsom doesn’t stop the decision, the effects will reach beyond Ton’s life as well.
“It will devastate my parents, my family, my nieces, nephews, neighbors, and community. This is a double standard,” Chan says. “He is not disposable. I hope that Governor Newsom has a heart to understand that it’s very hard for us, as a family, as a community.”
UPDATE, Dec. 24: Ton was released from prison on Monday and detained by ICE, according to the Sacramento Bee. He currently faces potential deportation.
Grace Li is a staff writer for SF Weekly. You can reach her at email@example.com.