As the rest of the country rang in 2019 with new hopes and resolutions, friends and family of Somdeng “Danny” Thongsy, a Southeast Asian refugee who recently finished serving 20 years of a life sentence, hoped for one thing: an official pardon from the governor of California.
Thongsy, who was born in a Thai refugee camp after his family fled the civil war in Laos in 1979, was hopeful that a gubernatorial pardon for a crime committed when he was 17 would mean a halt in his deportation order. But despite community efforts and petitions, he was not among those pardoned on New Year’s Day by then Gov. Jerry Brown.
After he was granted his parole, Thongsy, who was a legal permanent resident and green card holder until he was given a final order of removal in immigration court, was handed over to immigration authorities instead of being let go. There, he was given a final deportation order.
Though ethnically Thai, Thongsy’s family lived in Laos close to the Thai border and fought in the “Secret War” against the communist Pathet Lao. Like many, Thongsy’s family fled for safety, without permission from the Lao communist government, eventually settling in Stockton.
There is currently no repatriation agreement between the governments of Laos and the United States, so during his deportation proceedings, Thongsy was released and required to check in regularly. If an agreement between Laos and the U.S. were to develop, Thongsy would be notified, detained and processed for deportaion to Laos.
“For me, I live in a constant state of fear. Any day or any time, [ICE] can knock at the door and detain me,” said Thongsy. “You’re sitting around with family members or community members and you can’t help but think, ‘This might be the last time I see them or hold them.’”
If detained and deported, Thongsy will leave behind his sister and step-brother. And assimilating to a country he has never known or set foot in would be difficult. “My community and my entire experience is here,” he said.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that Thongsy isn’t technically a citizen of Laos either. According to Lao policy, a Lao national loses their citizenship if they have “resided in other countries for more than seven years without authorization.” Thongsy’s parents fled after the civil war without permission from the Lao government.
Still it has not deterred Thongsy from pushing through this increasingly uncertain time. His positivity remains unwavering, largely because his time in prison was transformative.
When Thongsy was 17 his brother was murdered and he went spiralling down a path that could have destroyed the rest of his life. But while in juvenile detention, a chaplain showed him compassion and he turned his sentence into a meaningful experience.
Thongsy performed a spoken word piece about his “journey from innocent kid to hustler and from vagrant to a prisoner,” according to the San Quentin News. He was a member of a tournament winning basketball team, and he received his associates degree in social science from Lassen Community College. Thongsy also has plans to continue his education.
“I would like to earn a PhD in Counseling, Psychology or Sociology. After deep introspection of my own life—with self-help groups, my spirituality and educational classes—and facilitating classes and counseling men, I have gained a deeper understanding of self, of others and of the world. I have found that I have a passion for this field,” Thongsy told the San Quentin News on Sept. 1, 2016.
After his release from San Quentin, Thongsy was handed over to immigration custody from San Quentin and spent two months in immigration detention before he was released. After that, Thongsy was named the Asian Law Caucus’ 2017 Yuri Kochiyama Fellow, a fellowship started in 2016 for formerly incarcerated Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants. He continues to this day to volunteer with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee.
Thongsy has dedicated his freedom from prison to to helping others—inmates here and those who have been deported—re-enter society. He spends his time helping former inmates get their ID’s and work permits, offering help with job résumés, and writing support letters for prisoners going before parole boards. He also has his phone open for those seeking counseling.
Community support for Thongsy is unsurprising, seeing as he has touched so many lives.
His supporters, who include fellow reformed prisoners, use words like “selfless,” “loving” and “genuine” to describe Thongsy.
Regarding the support of his community Thongsy said: “I feel very appreciative of them. I can’t do what I do without them. My story isn’t just about me, but it’s about the intersectionality of experiences of people like me.”
The backing from his community is vital for Thongsy as he waits to hear whether Gov. Gavin Newsom will grant him a pardon.
At the very least, before leaving office in January, Gov. Jerry Brown did sign AB 2845, legislation to improve accessibility and transparency in the pardon and commutation process. According to the law, the Board of Parole Hearings will consider expediting review of a pardon application if the need is urgent, such as a pending deportation or deportation proceeding.
Regardless of what happens, in 2019 Thongsy said he wants to continue his advocacy to save families from being torn apart.
“I believe everyone makes mistakes but they can learn and transform their lives,” said Thongsy. “I see myself as someone who has lived a compassionate life.”
And while he’s at it, he’d also like to pursue self-healing.
“And watch more Transformers,” he laughed.
Story by: Gracie Ngo