Escalating his opposition of Trump administration policies, California Gov. Gavin Newsom this week pardoned two Cambodian refugees that immigration officials wanted to deport.
Hay Hov's and Kang Hen’s families fled Cambodia and the genocidal, communist Khmer Rouge regime. Hov’s family landed in Oakland, California. Kevin Lo, Hov’s attorney, described it as another kind of war zone.
“He was beaten up, he was stabbed,” says Lo, who’s with Asian Americans Advancing Justice. “At age 13, he almost lost a leg from a bullet that ricocheted off a wall and hit him in the knee.”
Lo says Hov got swept up in the national push toward incarceration in the 1980s and '90s. When Hov was 19, he was convicted of attempting to set up a murder. Lo says he didn’t do it. Hov’s green card was revoked. And he hadn’t applied for citizenship.
“Some people don't realize that they have to apply for citizenship,” Lo says. “There's a lot of confusion about the fact that legal permanent residency can be taken away from people.”
Hen was on a similar trajectory. His family settled in San Jose. He pleaded guilty to driving a getaway car during a robbery when he was 18. Hen also lost his green card.
The two men could have been deported years ago, but Cambodia wasn’t accepting deportees. So, Hov and Hen served their sentences and stayed in the US. Apart from regular check-ins with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they had normal lives with wives and children — until the Trump administration took office.
Courtesy of Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
“A lot of young people in these impoverished communities were swept up in the criminal justice system,” Lo says. “And then decades later, now that they're mostly in their 40s and 50s, those consequences have come back to haunt them.”
Anoop Prasad, who represents Hen, says the Trump administration put sanctions on Cambodia to pressure officials into accepting deportees.
“And since then, it's just been raid after raid after a raid on the Cambodian community,” says Prasad, who’s also with Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Immigration officials say deportations of people to Cambodia have increased 279% since fiscal year 2017. Many of those returned don’t know the language. One man deported to Cambodia died there in a traffic accident. Federal authorities say nearly 1,400 Cambodian nationals with convictions remain in the US and have been ordered deported.
In his proclamation pardoning Hen and Hov, Newsom specifically cites their impending deportations and says they don’t deserve to be separated from their families. Hov has his green card back, and the governor’s pardon means he probably won’t be deported. Hen’s still in a detention center. But Prasad says the pardon means he’s safe from deportation. He says they’ll ask for Hen’s case to be reopened and his permanent residency restored.
“It's actually pretty rare for a new governor to have the political courage to exercise clemency power early on in your term,” Prasad says. “This is Governor Newsom protecting California from unjust deportation policies coming from this administration while also recognizing that California can do more to roll back mass incarceration and roll back mistakes we've made in our past.”
The pardons are just the most recent shot Newsom’s taken at the Trump administration. In February, one month after Newsom took office, he recalled the National Guard troops who’d been sent to the Mexico border. Two months later, Newsom took on Donald Trump’s asylum policies, which he says show a disregard for the nation’s Constitution.
In response, President Trump says, “Governor Newsom honestly is living in a different world. And that’s a very dangerous world he’s living in. And if he keeps living there, lots of problems for the people of California. They don’t want that.”