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Advocates rally around former Cambodian refugee who faces deportation

“We are simply asking that Governor Newsom not assist ICE in deporting Tith,” said one advocate working with the man's family.
Image: ICE Agents
A Cambodian-born man who entered the U.S. legally and is in prison for murder can expect to be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and deported upon his release.John Moore / Getty Images

Tith Ton, who came to the U.S. legally with refugee status, has served roughly 22 years of a life sentence for the murder of an alleged gang member. Based in part on his work as a substance abuse counselor, he was deemed suitable for parole earlier this year and scheduled to be released from San Quentin State Prison in November.

But instead of looking forward to freedom, Ton can expect to be detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Cambodia upon his release.

On Friday, immigration advocates and activists gathered at the California State Capitol to call on Gov. Gavin Newsom to stop the impending deportation of Ton and others in similar situations.

Newsom, a Democrat, recently vetoed an immigration enforcement bill that would have prohibited California’s state prisons from using resources to help ICE arrest individuals in state custody. Currently, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) coordinates release dates with ICE to ensure that people granted parole are arrested, Anoop Prasad, staff attorney at legal nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus, told NBC News.

Advocates hope that Newsom will halt Ton’s transfer to ICE custody after his release, arguing that former refugees who’ve served their sentences should not endure additional punishment in the form of deportations.

“We are simply asking that Gov. Newsom not assist ICE in deporting Tith,” Prasad, whose organization has been working with Ton’s family, said. “Governor Newsom can instruct CDCR to treat Tith the same as others and release him without coordinating his release with ICE.”

Ton was born in a Cambodian forced labor camp during the Khmer Rouge genocide. His mother smuggled him and his siblings out and escaped to a Thai refugee camp before the group eventually made their way to the United States. Ton’s family moved often in attempts to avoid violence, but could only afford to live in impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago and Fresno.

Ton eventually joined a gang when he was 14, hoping it would protect him after he was hit by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. At 16, Ton killed a rival gang member. He was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison.

While incarcerated, Ton earned his GED and enrolled in college courses. He also successfully became a licensed substance abuse counselor, helping those incarcerated with addiction. Today, he trains others to become counselors, as well, and has been guaranteed a position at a nonprofit upon his release.

After obtaining recommendation for parole by the Board of Parole, prisoners are typically approved by the governor and released roughly 120 to 150 days after the recommendation. While Ton obtained legal permanent residency in 1981, his conviction makes him deportable under a 1996 immigration enforcement law that in part broadened the types of offenses that subjected legal immigrants to repatriation. If he goes into ICE custody, he’ll be served an order of removal.

The bill that Newsom vetoed, AB1282, would have kept the state from aiding private prison corporations, like G4S, in the deportation of Ton and others like him. Roughly 12,000 noncitizens are currently serving in the state’s prisons and will face deportation upon release, Prasad said.

ICE contracts G4S to transport immigration detainees and conducts an estimated one-third of immigration arrests in California state prisons. AAAJ-ALC has claimed that the global corporation has carried out warrantless immigration arrests at state prisons, even though federal law does not grant private security guards the authority to do so.

The governor wrote in his rationale that he was “concerned” the bill would interfere with prison operations and “could hinder and delay needed transfers between facilities for myriad situation-specific reasons such as medical care and court obligations.”

Days after the veto, the nonprofit sent a cease-and-desist letter to the state’s corrections department last month, demanding the agency to stop unlawful immigration practices. They have not received a response from the governor’s office or the CDCR.

Prasad explained that he hopes people can see Ton for the work he’s done while incarcerated and the strong relationship he’s maintained with loved ones.

“Tith is more than his worst moment. He's more than a mistake he made as a teenager. Tith is a beloved member of his family and community who want to finally be reunited with him,” Prasad said. “We also know that as California faces an opioid addiction crisis that Tith's experience and skill as a state certified substance abuse counselor makes our community safer with him in it.”

Neither Newsom nor the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation responded to NBC News’ request for comment.

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