Phal Sok was not born in Cambodia and has never visited the country. He has lived in the United States for 37 years, almost half of which he has spent in prison. He never became a US citizen.
Sok is now facing a legal battle to remain in the United States, the only country he has ever known.
Sok says he has been in contact with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and requested his case be dropped, but expects he may have to take it to court.
“I’ve filed for the proceeding to be dropped. Once it is dropped and I have my Green Card back, I can apply for US citizenship,” he says.
Sok was pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown on August 10, with Brown citing his time served and community contributions.
“He has shown that since his release from custody, he has lived an honest and upright life, exhibited good moral character, and conducted himself as a law abiding citizen,” the governor said in a statement.
Sok was sentenced to 23 years and eight months in prison in April 2000 for taking part in an armed robbery in Long Beach when he was 17 years old.
He was released early, in 2015, for good conduct under an initiative aimed at aiding juvenile offenders, but was later detained by ICE for deportation to Cambodia under the rules of a repatriation agreement signed between the US and Cambodia in 2002.
Sok has decided to fight the deportation, but could not afford to retain a lawyer, so instead spent many days reviewing relevant case law in the hope of defending himself when the time came.
“I prepared all the paperwork myself because when I was in jail for the 15 or 16 years, I studied the US Constitution, criminal, and immigration laws,” he said. “Once I was in detention I started working on the case.”
Sok’s case was reopened and was released from custody November 2016, but his subsequent unconditional pardon did little to stop the deportation proceedings, despite the convictions on which the authorities are basing their deportation case being eliminated.
Sok’s family fled Cambodia in 1979 at the end of the Khmer Rouge’s reign to a refugee camp in Thailand. Sok was born in the camp before his family gained refugee status and moved to Long Beach, CA, in 1981. But Sok’s mother left the family when he was two years old. His father died of cancer when he was 16, after which Sok spent some time on the streets.
Under President Donald Trump’s administration, more than 155,000 undocumented immigrants have been arrested, a rise of more than 170 percent. The unique repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the United States, deportations to Cambodia have been slower than other nations. But the Trump administration has sought to speed up the process by issuing visa sanctions.
More than 880 Cambodians have been deported and some 1,600 remain in limbo, according to Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC).
“They have a very strong chance of basically eliminating immigration problems through the pardon,” said Jenny Zhao, an immigration attorney at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, in an interview with VOA Khmer. “So the pardon is a huge step towards getting their Green Card back. It doesn’t happen automatically, there is still a court process that they need to go through.”
“I think the pardons are recognition that many of these Cambodian refugees have been contributing to their community for many years and even though they had made mistakes many years ago when they were younger, they’ve turned their lives around and now they are supporting their families,” she added. “And it’s great that the governor of California has recognized that.”
Sok is currently an organizer of the Los Angeles-based non-profit Youth Justice Coalition, focusing on juvenile justice and criminal legal reforms.
“Since I came out some detainees and their families have asked me to help them to avoid splitting up because of the deportation,” Sok said. “Many Cambodian families have called me to help their relatives out. And our organization is helping students who are kicked out of schools to make sure that they don’t do anything bad.”
Phal Sok’s hearing will be on November 26 at the Lose Angeles court.
“If I win the case I want to continue my studies so that I will be able to help those children and families living in poverty.”