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A refugee’s journey from school to prison and back to school

A refugee’s journey from school to prison and back to school

Somdeng “Danny” Thongsy never imagined he’d one day be a student at the University of California, Berkeley. Not after facing the many obstacles as a formerly incarcerated Southeast Asian refugee.

“Even to this day, I think about all the barriers in my life, everything I had worked towards, and wonder ‘how did I end up here?’” he said.

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Thongsy grew up in the aftermath of America’s “Secret War” in Laos, the largest CIA paramilitary operation in U.S. history. Between 1963 and 1974, the United States dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed nation per capita in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians fled for safety, with many ending up in Thai refugee camps, such as one where Thongsy was born and raised until he was two years old.

He and his family arrived in Stockton, California, in 1981. But the trauma of war and forced displacement made resettlement difficult. Southeast Asian refugees, who represent the largest refugee community resettled in the United States, were often scattered across urban areas of concentrated poverty with under-resourced schools and little social or economic support.

“It was like moving from one war zone to another,” Thongsy said.

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Growing up in an impoverished neighborhood riddled with violence, Thongsy saw the world through a pessimistic lens. He remembered attending school with holes in his pockets and bullies in his face, thinking he’d be lucky if he made it to his 18th birthday. Often bullied for being outsiders, Southeast Asian American youth like Thongsy found solace and protection in gangs.

His life changed in 1997 when a rival gang member murdered his older brother. Thongsy fell into deep rage and depression, leading to his incarceration at age 17.

“When I was younger, my older brother always provided me with words of wisdom, which would help me stay on track. When he passed away, it shook that foundation. I didn’t know where to turn to or how to ask for help,” he said.

“Tough on crime” policies of the 1990s resulted in harsher sentencing laws for youth. Though Thongsy was a minor at the time, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to 27 years to life. Asian juveniles in California during this time were more than twice as likely to be tried as adults compared to white juveniles who committed similar crimes, a 2000 report found.

During his first week in juvenile detention, Thongsy attended a church service that provided a glimmer of hope. The preacher, a formerly incarcerated person himself, shared a message about self-forgiveness and transformation, thus planting the seed of Thongsy’s healing journey.

Thongsy devoted his time to introspection and self-exploration from that moment forward, embracing spirituality and finding refuge in books. He soon changed his name to Danny in honor of his brother Mee “Danny” Thongsy.

Somdeng “Danny” Thongsy was 17 when he was tried as an adult and sentenced to prison. After being incarcerated for 20 years at San Quentin, Thongsy was granted parole and accepted to U.C. Berkeley earlier this year. Photo: Benjamin Fanjoy

While incarcerated, he joined and facilitated self-help programs, earned his high school diploma and an associate’s degree in social science, and completed three vocational courses in landscaping, office services, and graphic arts. But attaining an education while working a full-time job that paid 13 cents an hour had its challenges.

“You also have to navigate through life in prison, which is the politics, the racism, the authoritarianism from correctional officers, the lockdowns, the lonely nights, the separation from family— both my parents had passed away while I was in there,” he said.

Thongsy persevered and directed his focus to community organizing. He advocated for the passage of California’s SB260 and SB261, which afforded youth a fair chance of parole, and by 2016 stood before the Board of Parole Hearings for the very first time. After serving 20 years of a life sentence, he was granted parole.

It was a shocking and humbling experience, he said, but the celebration didn’t last long. Like many immigrants and refugees, Thongsy was pushed into what advocates call the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline. He was immediately transferred from San Quentin State Prison to immigration custody and issued a final deportation order.

“It was one of those challenging times. You live in this state of uncertainty that you could be here one minute and gone the next, separated from your family and everything you have known,” he said.

Immigration policies enacted in 1996 curtailed due process and vastly expanded the grounds for detention and deportation. As a result, more than 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam have received final orders of removal, many of which are based on decades-old convictions.

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Thongsy spent two months in immigration detention before he was released from Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center under an order of supervision. After two decades apart, he reconnected with his sister and relatives and began rebuilding the remaining life they have as a family. But the fear of deportation remained.

While the United States has no repatriation agreement with Laos, Thongsy lived day to day, not knowing if or when he would be deported— a common experience among Southeast Asian Americans, many of whom arrived in the United States with refugee status and later obtained green cards.

“When people often talk about deporting immigrants, they try to justify their actions by dehumanizing them. They fail to recognize the inhumanity,” Thongsy said. “When you deport someone, you’re deporting family members. You’re deporting fathers, you’re deporting brothers, sisters, and mothers. An entire community suffers.”

Thongsy continued to advocate for criminal justice reform following his release. He served as a Yuri Kochiyama Fellow at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, then went on to work at Oakland Rising, a racial and economic justice collaborative that educates and mobilizes voters. Today, he volunteers for the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, helps with re-entry support to formerly incarcerated people, and promotes community justice and safety as campaign coordinator at the Justice Reinvestment Coalition of Alameda County.

“The Southeast Asian community plays a key role in helping other refugees going through the crisis today. We have insight into what can help. We understand the trauma of war, displacement, and the need for holistic mental health and culturally competent resources,” he said.

In November 2020, Thongsy received an unconditional pardon from Gov. Gavin Newsom in recognition of his transformation and contributions to the community. With the weight of imminent deportation lifted, he could fulfill his dream and pursue a bachelor’s degree in sociology at UC Berkeley.

As a 1.5 immigrant and first-generation college student, Thongsy is eager to learn how to break the cycle of the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline that plagues his community. He hopes his story inspires others to reflect on their own lived experiences and demand transformative justice for all.

“I’ve learned throughout the trajectory of my life and its challenges that no matter how dim things can be, we must remain optimistic and resilient, fight for change and fight for others,” he said. “Seek help and by doing so help others along the way.”

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