READ: Our new comic, Broken Stems, is a story about how California prisons tear apart families by voluntarily colluding with ICE.

Teacher and Advocate Sophea Phea Returns Home from Deportation After 11 Years

August 19, 2022 Perspective

As the VISION Act (AB 937) awaits a vote in by the California Senate this month and residents and elected officials are calling on Governor Newsom to champion the bill and to pardon community members like Phoeun You so that they can come home to their loved ones, we’re celebrating a special community victory: Sophea Phea, who was deported to Cambodia in 2011, came home this past week to her loved ones and community in Long Beach, California.

Sophea, wearing a pink blazer, smiles in a group photo with 9 of her close family members and friends.

Sophea returned home to Long Beach, CA, where she surprised her loved ones at a family gathering.

Sophea was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, where many Cambodians fled to escape the genocide and carpet bombing of their country in the 1970s. As refugees, she and her mother came to the U.S. when Sophea was a year and a half, and the family settled in Long Beach.

When she was 23, Sophea served a year in prison after being convicted of credit card fraud. After serving her time, California’s prison system transferred her to ICE. Nine months in ICE detention later, Sophea was released because Cambodia did not issue travel documents that would allow ICE to deport her. Yet, four years later, she was suddenly deported early one morning without any luggage or clothes. Like so many Southeast Asian refugees who are doubly punished by California’s prison system and ICE, Sophea had no connection to or familiarity with Cambodia.

In spite of all the injustices she’s faced, Sophea gradually created a life in Cambodia. She became a teacher, and started organizing with other people to help Southeast Asian refugees who were also deported and advocated for their right to return home to the U.S.

In 2020, after relentless legal and community advocacy, Sophea received a pardon from Governor Newsom, which opened the door to her homecoming. Just earlier this year, an immigration court finally restored Sophea’s status as a permanent resident. After almost 11 years in Cambodia, she reunited with her family and is settling back home.

Over the past few years, Asian Law Caucus attorneys and advocates have helped a small handful of Southeast Asian community members like Sophea come home after they were deported by ICE. While these are rare victories in a system designed to keep families apart, each homecoming underscores why California can and must pass the VISION Act and keep families together before anyone else has to endure what Sophea and her family have lived through.

We spoke to Sophea about her journey, her advocacy for others’ pardons and the VISION Act, what a right to return means to her, and what she is looking forward to now that she’s home.

ALC: Why are you sharing your story?

Sophea Phea:
I'm sharing my story to illustrate the effects of deportation on the Southeast Asian community, specifically of refugees who've grown up in America after our parents fled the Viet Nam War. It’s not justice if despite growing up and spending all of our lives in America, if we commit a crime, serve time for it, and pay our dues to society, we still get kicked out of the country that is our HOME.

What do you want people to know about ICE deportations, especially for Southeast Asian community members?

I want people to know that ICE deportations impact families harshly, separating them and causing much more trauma. For Southeast Asian community members, it feels like history repeating itself, being ripped from our homes and families to try to resettle in a foreign country– the same country where most of us are still trying to forget and overcome horrific war trauma.

Can you talk about your work with 1Love Cambodia and other organizations in the U.S. and in Cambodia?

At 1Love Cambodia, I played a part in raising awareness on deportations to the Cambodian government. I helped lobby to end the mistake of Cambodia’s agreement to accept deportations from the United States, and to spread the message that it isn’t humane to tear families apart. We also joined forces with other organizations to help campaign for the #Right2Return, which is a movement to have the right to return to the U.S. after deportation. Our advocacy has opened the doors to reuniting families, and in many ways has helped ease the resettlement for deportees in Cambodia.

What does it mean to you to advocate for other Southeast Asian community members and for an end to the double punishment of immigrants?

As immigrants, we carry enough torture and trauma from the past. I think it's important to convey the fact we were raised in America, and as humans, we make mistakes. If we have already served time for our missteps, how is it just to deport us to our parents' homeland that we do not know? Most of us have never seen the country our parents desperately escaped from. This double punishment is inhumane, and it happens solely because we didn’t have that piece of paper that says we’re U.S. citizens– even though we were basically adopted by America.

It’s very heartbreaking for our Southeast Asian community elders and children to experience this trauma of family separation over and over. Community members like Phoeun You and Chanthon Bun, and several others who’ve already served their time deserve a pardon and the right and freedom to be with their families.

What was the first thing you did upon returning home? What are you looking forward to doing now that you are back in the U.S.?

Of course, the first thing I did when I returned home was to see all my family members! I was overjoyed to be physically with all of them again, and they were also ecstatic to see me back home. I have a big family, so I am looking forward to participating in family functions again and reconnecting with all of them! I also look forward to pursuing my career in the education field and going back to school to get my degree.

Why is the VISION Act, which would end ICE transfers in CA, important to you?

The VISION Act is so important because it will keep families together and lessen the damage that has already been done to them. It will end double punishment of immigrants and will help our communities avoid more mental, physical, and emotional pain. Children will less likely be traumatized by the loss of their parent or parents due to ICE transfers, which often leads to deportation.

How can the community support you as you get settled back in the U.S.?

It means so much to have the emotional support of my community, and to share the story of our resilience. It has been a strain financially to resettle here in the U.S. and any monetary donations would help greatly. More importantly, understanding the background and the impacts of deportation is what I mainly ask for, and for an end to these displacements in our community.