by Andy Pacificar. This post originally appeared on the SEARAC blog.
I spent eighteen years in prison. I was incarcerated from 1990 until 2008. It was amazing to see all the changes in the world that happened in that amount of time. In the very beginning of my journey through prison I met a young man who was at the time only 17 years old. A misguided youth if you will. I was 30 years old at the time and this young man and I started to form a bond that still is enduring and growing today. He became my friend, my brother, my son and so much more. My Brother in struggle was also a Southeast Asian Refugee. He was also a LPR (Legal Permanent Resident).
Around 1992 he and I started on another journey in which we tried to make meaning of our lives and incarceration and learn from the mistakes we made that led us to prison. We came up with the idea of starting an Asian Pacific Islander Group within the prison walls that would serve as a vehicle to assist the various API prisoners and their unique needs within the prison walls and the misguided youth in the Community. He and I wanted to prevent others from following in our missteps and give meaning to our incarceration. Thus the Clallam Bay Corrections Center APICAG (Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group) was born. To our credit the APICAG still stands and serves today. My young Brother quickly became a leader among his peers and an example to follow. He received his GED, as well as Certificates in every self-help class that was offered. Classes that include such courses as Anger Management, Inter-Personal Relationships, Growing to Perfection etc. He learned the Roberts Rule of Order to serve as the President of the APICAG. He was a model prisoner.
For the first time in his young life he found meaning, purpose and validation in positive accomplishments. You see his beginnings were very challenging to say the least. His mother escaped the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge in war torn Cambodia with her young family to a Thai Refugee camp and eventually to an impoverished neighborhood in Long Beach California. After surviving the displacement from genocide to a sweltering refugee camp and then to the mean streets of Long Beach the trauma this young family experienced was great for lack of a better word. My young friend/brother had to survive the traumas, culture shock, and communication barriers that were thrust upon him and his family at an early age. He made no issue of his journey prior to prison only that he wanted more out of life than life was willing to give him.
As my young friend and I journeyed through the prison experience and self-discovery the world was changing outside of our prison walls in ways we could have never imagined. The Internet came of age, cell phones entered an era of no return and two new laws were passed. The ADEPA and IIRAIRA also known as the 96 Laws would affect our friendship our journey and our Families with yet another threat of displacement. As prisoners often do we move forward in our life of self-growth as the world grows on without us. While my friend/brother and I focused on Community Building and renewal of self, values, morals, and new life convictions the world outside our walls forgot that they sent us to prison to learn these lessons so we could show society that we are productive and valued human beings. The world outside forgot about redemption and rehabilitation. The 96 laws told me and my young brother that a war refugee who missteps has no right to redemption.
Nevertheless, my brother and I were released from prison in 2008 and 2009 and we embarked on yet another journey of service to a broader community. We took on campaigns of youth awareness, community celebrations at the LBC Cambodian New Years to name a couple. We participated in and facilitated the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center‘s (SEARAC) Leadership Advocacy Training (LAT) in Washington DC. We took the skills learned there to our National and Local Legislators. We participated in Community building from Seattle Washington to Philadelphia Pennsylvania. We led our local Chapters of the 1Love Movement in immigration reform issues. We spoke to community organizations up and down the west coast and participated in the campaigns of local and national politicians. We knocked on our legislators doors both in Washington DC and in Sacramento. We met with our legislators in their local districts. We helped build some of the most brightest and intelligent youth into Community Leaders. Most importantly we helped give voice to the Southeast Asian Refugee Community. A voice that we ask all of you to raise today for my little brother and all SEA Refugees.
In addition to all of the above my young brother and friend received his dialysis technician certification from the State of California and he started a family of his own. He has a young son and daughter who depend on his love and guidance. He has an elderly traumatized mother who depends on his love and strength. He has me as a friend who depends on him for collaboration and insight. I depend on him for understanding for he knows how long the journey has been and what has been endured. He feels the pain of my defeats and the joys of my victories. He alone knows what the words brother and friend mean to me.
As my brother and I have experienced the changes in life and the world over the past two and a half decades we have encountered yet another obstacle on the road. The 96 laws have now reached down across three generations. The 96 laws are demanding more from the life of my brother, more from his traumatized mother and sadly more from the life of his young children. Do these laws really intend to allow redemption to some but not to war refugees? I say they unjustly do!
These laws are demanding that my friend return to a country he fled as a toddler. They demand that his self-growth and incarceration become meaningless. They are demanding that my brother’s community service is invalid to him, his community and his family. They are demanding that a young son forfeit his right to a fathers love for a misstep that was paid for in tears isolation and dignity. How many displacements can one man endure in one lifetime? When will redemption be allowed for all human beings? When will his debt be considered paid? How many more generations will these laws reach back in time to destroy. When will these laws no longer ask mothers that saved their sons from the Khmer Rouge’s genocide to return them to the country of their trauma? More importantly how long will we as a Society, a Country, a Community allow this injustice to continue?
As I sit and write this and feel all the emotions I feel, my Brother, my Friend, my Family asks these same questions as I do. I also know that he would not ask me to write about him personally. He would not want me to share our journey. David would ask me to tell the story of all the other Refugees that have been deported before him. He would speak of all the other Refugees that have been denied redemption. He would ask his son to be strong and call for the changes that would invalidate the 96 laws. He would ask us all to #FIX96 before more injustice is demanded from war refugees.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.