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Cambodian Man’s Rare Journey To Freedom Held Up As Goal For Other Immigrants In Prison

An Asian man in a stretcher smiles as a two-year-old girl is lifted up by her mother to greet him.
Vithea Yung held his two-year-old niece for the first time upon his release from state prison.
( Josie Huang
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On the day of Vithea Yung’s release from prison, tearful friends and family showered him with hugs, flowers and frosted red velvet cupcakes. His 2-year-old niece Rhéma, whom he’s only seen once in person through a prison partition, pecked him on the cheek.

“This is the first time,” marveled Yung, who has been incarcerated since he was 16. He is now 43. “I haven't hugged or given her a kiss since she was born.”

Neither Yung nor his loved ones could have dared imagine Thursday’s reunion just months ago. Like many other Cambodian refugees who arrived in the 1980’s, his parents didn’t fully understand naturalization or its protections, and Yung entered prison without citizenship. Yung feared that the state’s corrections department would transfer him upon release to immigration authorities, as it has with tens of thousands of other non-citizens before him.

His family saw deportation to Cambodia as a death sentence because Yung has been paralyzed for the last several years, the result of a spinal cord injury during a prison softball game that has left him unable to walk or feed himself. They wondered how he could survive in a country he hasn't seen since he was a toddler.

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An Asian man wearing a top bun is sitting in a stretcher as another man kisses him and a long-haired Asian woman sets a bouquet of white flowers on his body. An older Asian man wearing a hat holds his hand.
Vithea Yung is covered in kisses and hugs upon his release from prison.
(Josie Huang
LAist )

But then last November, a parole board recommended Yung’s release after 25 years in prison. Days later, Immigration and Customs Enforcement lifted a “detainer” on Yung, stating his case did not meet its “enforcement priorities.” In other words, ICE agents would not try to take Yung into custody.

Because ICE did not explain itself — nor reveal its decision until last month— Yung’s attorney can only surmise that his client’s dire health was a leading factor. While Yung’s case may have extenuating circumstances, Anoop Prasad of the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco said he should not be the exception.

“It can be the norm that people are allowed after decades of incarceration to finally come home to their families and for it to be a joyful day, not a day of more incarceration and separation,” Prasad said.

An Asian man is being transported by stretcher by two EMT's.
Vithea Yung was brought by ambulance transport to the Rancho Los Amigos rehabilitation hospital in Downey.
(Josie Huang
LAist )

A bill pending before the state Legislature called theVISION Act would stop federal authorities from deciding the fate of these immigrants by barring most state prison-to-ICE transfers.

“What we want for everybody in Vithea’s situation [is] like anybody else who has done their time — to really step out of that prison gate by themselves, but without being escorted by ICE agents,” said Ny Nourn, co-director of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.

Nourn said she knows of only of a handful of cases where ICE did not pick up immigrants when they were released, or said agents would arrest an individual but ended up not showing up.

Immigrant rights activists in the Southeast Asian community have long argued that non-citizens are double-punished for crimes often committed when they were teens and young men from refugee families living in impoverished, dangerous neighborhoods, where joining gangs offered protection and acceptance.

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Yung was sentenced 35 years to life for fatally shooting a man from a rival gang. He said he fired shots after being cornered by multiple members of that gang, which had been responsible for the shooting death of a close friend days earlier.

An old photo shows a young Asian man in a blue shirt standing behind three younger girls and a boy.
In this undated photo, Vithea Yung poses from prison with four younger relatives.
(Courtesy of Terry Honoré)

Because of his age at the time of the crime, Yung was eligible for parole earlier and successfully presented his case for early release, sharing the good reviews he’s received working jobs such as a teacher’s aide and participating in self-help classes and restorative justice programs.

But with parole came the worry that he would go straight from state prison to an immigration holding cell.

“You don't know which direction you're going, you know?” Yung said Thursday. “You don't know if you're going left or right or if you’re going straight home.”

Even the morning of his release, Yung felt pangs of doubt. The ambulance transfer Yung needed still hadn’t shown up to where he’d been living for the last several months — a secure unit in a Sylmar nursing facility that’s under contract with the state prison system. He had been moved there after living for years in the Sacramento-area.

An hour ticked by, then two. Yung said to himself “Ok, things aren’t adding up.”

Meanwhile, at Yung’s destination, the Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center in Downey where he was supposed to spend his first couple weeks out of prison custody, a dozen of his family, friends and supporters from the ICE Out Of CA coalition sought shade as they waited for hours, checking the time on their phones and jumping to attention every time an ambulance approached.

A Cambodian man in a hospital bed is surrounded by four smiling relatives-- a man and woman on his left, and two women on his right.
Vithea Yung, center, with family in a 2017 photo taken after a spinal cord injury.
(Courtesy of Terry Honore)

Yung’s mother, Sinun Hengsoka Snun, dabbed at her eyes, her yellow surgical mask absorbing the tears she missed. She hadn’t seen her son in person for 12 years; the two of them got too emotional whenever she visited. She resorted to making his favorite Cambodian dishes to be delivered by his siblings, like samlor machu kroeung, a savory soup flavored with lemongrass and tamarind.

“He told me, Mommy, can you cook for me — this one, that one?” she recounted.

Finally, shortly after 3 p.m. Thursday, a white ambulance with a red stripe across its middle, rounded the corner. When the doors opened to reveal Yung on a stretcher, his mother started crying, as did he. One of his sisters Terry Honoré started shrieking with joy.

“Pinch me,” she said, “then it’s real.”

As family squeezed Yung tight, and others called in by Facetime, Ny Nourn stood back, smiling. She had been advocating for Yung these last few months with other immigration rights advocates and had flown down from Oakland for Yung’s release. She was delighted that his experience had been so different from hers.

Nourn, too, was not a citizen when she was sentenced to prison. On her release day, she and four other women were taken to a cell to wait for family members to pick them up. Nourn had not heard one way or another whether she was going to be transferred to ICE and had arranged for a ride, but then a prison guard told her she would be.

“My whole heart, my face just really dropped, you know?” Nourn said. “And then I also felt very embarrassed too, because the women, they're all happy and excited, like celebrating, and then they heard the conversation between me and the guards. And when I walked back in they said, 'I'm so sorry.'”

Nourn would be detained six months by ICE before she was released on bond and able to continue her fight against being deported to her native Cambodia. She was granted a pardon in June of 2020, which dropped her removal order.

Phal Sok of the Youth Justice Coalition, who was also present to greet Yung, said his case will offer hope to the hundreds of immigrants who are transferred by the state to ICE each year. But Sok said the public can't leave things to the whim of ICE, and must still apply pressure in individual cases.

“Folks have to really press and make some noise,” Sok said. “In order for us to progress as a society, we have to think about people as a whole, and not just convictions.”

An Asian man in a stretcher poses for photos with a group of smiling men and women.
Vithea Yung posed for many photos with friends and family eager to capture the momentous day.
(Josie Huang/LAist)

As Yung posed for photos with friends and supporters, Honoré was masterminding her brother’s future. She needed to help him check in with his parole officer and she had to find him housing, hopefully near Long Beach, where he had grown up, but rent was so high. Down the road, she wanted to help him seek a pardon from the governor, which would be the only way to protect him from future deportation.

“That's always been a concern for me,” she said. “You know, with God's help, maybe he can gain a little bit more mobility but then they’ll feel like, Oh, well, he's stronger.’”

Yung wasn’t thinking as far ahead as his sister. After an entire adulthood spent in prison, he was looking forward to being out in the world, seeing what he could physically do by himself and having his own place.

“Wherever I can lay my head, as long as there's a roof over it, that’s good,” Yung said.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.