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LOS ANGELES — Sokha Chhan was relieved when he learned that he was granted a pardon from then-California Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
He had come to the United States from Cambodia as a war refugee about four decades ago, but faced possible deportation to the country that he barely remembered after being convicted of inflicting corporal injury on a spouse or cohabitant and threatening a crime in 2002, for which he served about a year in prison. He was happy to know he would be able to stay with his community in Northern California.
“Even though it’s my birth country, it’s like going back to a foreign country with no family or friends,” Chhan, 50, told NBC News. “That’s why I’m happy I get to stay here with my children and my family.”
Chhan was one of two Cambodian nationals who came to the U.S. as refugees at risk of deportation who received gubernatorial pardons from Brown the Friday before Easter last year. The other was Phann Pheach, 36, a Southern California resident.
While a pardon doesn't eliminate a conviction in California, it restores certain rights convicts lose, such as the right to serve on a jury. For immigrants facing deportation because of a criminal conviction, a pardon does not necessarily invalidate a deportation order, but it can help reopen an immigration case.
Chhan’s pardon hasn't completely eliminated the threat of deportation that's loomed over his life for more than a decade. His attorney, Raha Jorjani from the Alameda County Public Defender's Office, said the pardon will help his case because it will show an immigration judge he's been rehabilitated. But it doesn't eliminate the criminal ground of deportability on which Chhan is being charged.
"The thing that stands out about this story and Sokha’s pardon is that immigration laws are so draconian and unreasonable that even a governor’s pardon is not enough to eliminate immigration consequences,” she said. “So Sokha Chhan remains in removal proceedings and has to keep fighting his case in hopes that an immigration judge will grant his application to remain in the country.”
Still, the pardons Brown granted have allowed Chhan and Pheach to remain with their loved ones over the last year.
Chhan said he's been able to return to his normal life since receiving his pardon. He works 15-hour days seven days a week at a restaurant, takes care of his kids and volunteers at his local temple when he can, he said.
Chhan's pardon document noted that after his conviction, he was awarded custody of his five children, raising them as a single father, and served honorably in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Tania Pham, at attorney representing Pheach, said in an email that her client was granted a pardon while he was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement followed by a stay of removal that temporarily postponed his deportation while he was awaiting a flight to Cambodia.
Pheach's pardon was welcomed by his wife, 4-year-old son and elderly mother, Pham added. Pheach's removal was ordered after he was convicted of possessing a controlled substance for sale in 2005 and served six months in prison.
But employment-wise, things have been tough for Pheach. He lost the full-time information technology job he held because he was detained for several months and has struggled to find comparable employment, Pham said.
Like Chhan, Pheach is in the middle of removal proceedings. His attorney said she's optimistic he will be granted relief and be able to apply for citizenship afterward.
Pheach has a final hearing scheduled for November 2020. Chhan has yet to receive a final hearing date for his case.
Pardons have become an avenue for Cambodians to fight deportation orders. Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney managing the criminal justice reform program at the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, previously told NBC News that it's one of the only ways to stop deportation in these cases.
“It allows the immigration attorney or the individual themselves to challenge the basis of the deportation order,” she said.
Brown issued 1,189 pardons during his latest stint in office — 2011 to 2019 — and 404 in his first stint — 1975 to 1983, Brian Ferguson, deputy director of media and public affairs in the Office of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, said in an email. The number of pardons were more than any other governor in the state's recent history.
Ferguson did not specifically comment on how Newsom plans to use his pardon power while in office, but said pardons aren't granted unless they are earned. “Each pardon case that comes before the governor is evaluated on its own merits and receives careful review and consideration,” he said.
Ny Nourn, a fellow at the Asian Law Caucus who is also at risk of deportation, said in an email that pardons for Southeast Asian refugees in imminent danger of deportation are necessary to allow them to remain with their loved ones and community.
She argued that these refugees have changed their lives to become model community members who should not be punished for a crime they committed more than a decade ago.
Several groups earlier this year launched a petition urging Newsom to issue pardons to Cambodian Americans at risk of deportation. It has so far amassed more than 14,400 signatures.
ICE said last month that 1,784 final orders of removal have been issued for Cambodians, 1,294 of whom are convicted criminals. In total, 45 Cambodians with final orders of removal were detained at that time.
“It is essential for Gov. Newsom to follow in Brown's footsteps to ensure pardons is one form of relief to help protect our vulnerable immigrant community members against the current administration hate filled polices of targeting immigrants with felony convictions," Nourn said.