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Vithea Yung & His Family: ‘There’s hope in trying to reunite with your family.’

July 26, 2022 Perspective

In partnership with Survival Media Agency, the Home, Not Heartbreak photo series, captures the stories of Californians organizing to end the state’s prison-to-ICE pipeline that cruelly separates thousands of families. While these community members represent just a small example of the thousands of California families and residents harmed by ICE transfers each year, their stories and leadership are inspiring people across the state to urge their legislators and Gov. Newsom to pass and sign the VISION Act (AB 937) and reunite immigrant families and communities.

“What keeps me going honestly, is believing that love can help you overcome anything. It’s hard to express love at times, or even define it. But I believe that love is a verb, so you show it,” says Terry Honoré, who spoke with us just days after her brother, Vithea Yung, returned to the care of his family instead of being turned over to ICE after he was released from state prison.

Vithea is surrounded by smiling family and community welcoming him home.

Family members and advocates celebrate the homecoming of Vithea Yung, a disabled Cambodian refugee. Vithea's family endured decades of trauma from war, resettlement and poverty. (Hannah Benet | Survival Media Agency)

Vithea’s homecoming this past April marked a rare community victory. Public records show that between January 2020 and November 2021, California’s prison system transferred 2,600 people who have served their sentence or been granted release to ICE for detention and deportation.

That’s why Terry, the rest of Vithea’s family, and dozens of other community members rallied together this spring. In downtown Los Angeles, they called on their senators and Governor Newsom to protect Vithea from deportation and pass the VISION Act (AB 937) to save other California immigrants and refugees from the inhumanity of ICE transfers.

In front of the large crowd in late March, Terry shared her family’s story and what it would mean to be reunited after generations of trauma going all the way back to the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Her daughter held a homemade sign that read “Free My Uncle.”

Vithea's toddler niece sits on the shoulder of a family member and holds up a sign that reads "free my uncle"

On Friday, March 25, 2022, people gathered for an immigrants rights rally at the steps of the Board of Supervisors Building to show support for the VISION Act so that Vithea Yung, and people like him, can return home and not be subjected to double punishment. Hannah Benet | Survival Media Agency

During a time of war and genocide in Cambodia, Vithea and his family witnessed their mother be arrested and detained by the Khmer Rouge. Two of his siblings died from starvation. Eventually, Vithea and his family made their way to Long Beach as refugees, hoping for a safer life. But after decades of disinvestment by politicians, their neighborhood was struggling with poverty and gang violence. Like Phoeun You and so many other Southeast Asian refugee youth, Vithea could only find one way to protect himself – joining a gang. When he was 16, Vithea was convicted as an adult for the shooting of a rival gang member.

While incarcerated, Vithea worked on his transformation. He earned his GED, took self-help classes, participated in restorative justice programs, and mentored others in their own journeys of accountability and healing. In 2016, while playing softball on prison grounds, Vithea was seriously injured. He believes that insufficient healthcare in the facility meant he was never able to heal and recover. Today, Vithea’s arms and legs are permanently paralyzed.

Vithea has a tearful reunion with his family member.

Vithea's family endured decades of trauma from war, resettlement and poverty. They are finally able to start healing upon Vithea's return. (Hannah Benet | Survival Media Agency)

Recognizing Vithea’s commitment to rehabilitation and years of service and mentorship, the California parole board recommended his release in April 2022. Yet, until nearly the last moment, Terry and her family were bracing for ICE to come and detain Vithea. Instead, supported by years of grassroots advocacy, they were able to welcome him into their care. Outside a rehabilitation center in Downey on a sunny afternoon in April, Vithea was able to finally hug Terry, his mom, his niece, and other members of the family. LAist was on site to capture the reunion, including when Vithea’s “2-year-old niece Rhéma, whom he’s only seen once in person through a prison partition, pecked him on the cheek.”

Vithea sits in a stretcher and is greeted by his sister and young niece.

Vithea was reunited with his family, including his sister and young niece, upon his welcome home on April 14. (Hannah Benet | Survival Media Agency)

Terry remembers that leading up to that moment “everything was up in the air. There was the possibility of Vithea coming out, so we were working to figure out how to get him situated, but we were not even sure if he was going to get out. So, it was just like, ‘Okay, how do I even look forward to the next minute?’”

Now, even as Terry works to plan her brother’s long-term treatment and find accessible housing, she’s also fighting for his pardon, offering some protection from the persistent threat of ICE until California passes the VISION Act.

Terry says, “Having family support means everything. So even if you make a certain decision and it doesn’t work out, you know that you have the unconditional love. It means the world. It’s not just based on contingency, it’s just absolute love. That’s what tied us this past 25 years. It just made us stronger…My hope for the future is to have a family reunion, and for my family to be all under one roof. My sister left the house when she was 12. I left the house when I was 13 and then again at 15…It would just fill my heart to see in reality. All eight siblings, my parents, and the relatives and close friends that can join us. That will be beautiful.”

ACTION: Call Gov. Newsom and urge him to pass the VISION Act and put an end to ICE transfers once and for all.

7 of Vithea's family members stand together and hold his photo in his remembrance.

Vithea's family continues to fight for his pardon, offering some protection from the persistent threat of ICE until California passes the VISION Act. (Hannah Benet | Survival Media Agency)

Vithea’s family and organizers at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee are raising funds for Vithea’s long-term care. If you are able to contribute to Vithea’s freedom fund, please reach out to info@asianprisonersupport.org.