At age 35, Phal Sok faced being deported to Cambodia, a country he had never set foot in. He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents before coming to the States as an infant.
Phal’s father and half-brother fled Cambodia in 1979 because they feared for their lives under the murderous Pol Pot regime. They journeyed into Thailand across a militarized border laden with land mines and made it into the refugee camp where Phal’s parents would meet. After two plus years in the Thai camps, they were brought to the United States as a refugee family. Phal was 61 days old.
But life only became more difficult for Phal. At age two, his parents divorced and his mother left, leaving Phal and his brother in their father’s care. They struggled to fit into American society. His father was already in his 50s and never learned English. His brother was already in his 20s and entered college but didn’t graduate. When Phal was 16, his father died of cancer.
“I was left to grieve alone,” recalls Phal. “At a time when I needed more support than ever, none was to be had. I wound up gravitating to my peers within the streets.”
At age 17, Phal was arrested, tried as an adult, and convicted of armed robbery. He was sentenced to prison for 23 years and eight months.
Inside, Phal met many immigrants and refugees with similar backgrounds. They had fled wars or poverty at young ages, only to arrive in the U.S. and find themselves caught in a school-to-prison pipeline that harms communities of color across the country.
In 2015, Phal was released early. A new law was passed by the California legislature in 2013. It allowed anyone tried as an adult to appear before the parole board, with consideration given to them as having been under 18 when they came into conflict with the law. This was an opportunity he did not expect and in 2015, the hearings finally began. He was one of the first to go. He was found suitable and scheduled for release within months.
But the fact that Phal was not born here placed him in a different situation. On the day of his release, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation handed him over to immigration enforcement.
“For most, liberation brings freedom. For me, that was not the case,” says Phal. “I was ‘released’ into a cage inside a van, shackled and chained. I was hauled off to immigration detention.”
Phal spent eight months in for-profit private prisons throughout the west coast before being released. He was under an order of deportation and could be taken back in at any time.
“After 17 years of confinement,” says Phal, “I sat on a concrete wall on a sidewalk alone for the first time as an adult. I was on parole and under an order of deportation. I had to report to both the parole office and the ICE office.”
Four months later, Phal was detained again, with immigration enforcement preparing to send him to Cambodia, a country he’d never been in. Community members came to visit him and wanted him to stay here with them. Phal used the law he taught himself in prison to fight for his freedom. He was educated about the double inequity of the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems.
“I continued my fight and my deportation case was eventually reopened,” says Phal. “I was brought back to California from immigrant prison in Louisiana and I was able to request a bond hearing. The community came together to support me and paid the bond I was given.”
Seeing Phal’s passion for the community, an immigrant rights organizer asked him to join the ICE Out of LA Coalition, using what he’d learned from his own experience, to fight for other immigrants and their families.
“I saw fear in the community, especially after Trump’s election,” remembers Phal, “so I jumped into the deep end and started organizing.”
Phal became a public figure in a campaign to have the newly established L.A. Justice Fund, a multimillion-dollar immigrant legal defense fund, represent all immigrants, regardless of their arrest or conviction record. But county supervisors voted to exclude immigrants with certain convictions, even after Phal testified that this exclusion meant he would not be able to access the Fund’s resources.
Undeterred, Phal became an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition. He continued organizing youth and community leaders to demand better state and local laws that push the criminal justice and immigration enforcement systems to treat people fairly and with dignity.
In August 2018, Governor Jerry Brown pardoned Phal along with two other Cambodian refugees, making his future more possible. In November 2018, his deportation case was closed and he was given his residency status back.
Recently, he helped organize young people in a successful campaign urging the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to establish a strong oversight commission that will hold the probation department accountable to both youth and adults.
Phal remains dedicated to transforming the systems that restricted his freedom for most of his adult life. He sees the intersections between his experiences as a Cambodian refugee pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline and all the other communities of color facing both criminalization and deportation.
“I am thankful for the strength and ability to do this work,” says Phal. “I am interested in helping create a system that will give all of us a real chance at healing, so young people can have a real future.”
Phal Sok is an organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles, CA. The child of Cambodian refugees, Phal was incarcerated for 17 years, only to find himself ensnared in the immigration enforcement system upon his early release. In 2018, California Governor Jerry Brown acknowledged all of his civic engagement efforts, pardoning him and allowing him to remain in his community and help others.