Vanna In’s family came to the United States seeking refuge when he was just 3 years old, fleeing Cambodia and war-torn Vietnam in the 1970s. But the family didn’t find the refuge they sought.
By the time he was 15, In was a young man filled with rage, picking fights and looking for trouble. At home, he said, his mother beat him with a broom stick. At school, he was told to go back to his country.
But as part of a gang, he was among family. He joined because that’s what he was looking for. He started out stealing from people, then robbing people and fighting people. And then one night, In took a man’s life. It was November 1993, and In, then 17, shot and killed a rival gang member after a party, a crime for which he would serve six years behind bars. He was then ordered to be deported in 2001, stripped of his green card.
“I don’t think I knew what true remorse was at first,” In told The Washington Post. “Maybe I was more sorry I got caught. But in March 1994, I gave my life to God. That’s when I learned to be truly sorry for what I did.”
Now a youth pastor at North Fresno Mennonite Brethren Church, In said he has spent the past 17 years trying to honor the life of the man he killed by helping dozens of gang members get off the streets and find jobs and stability — efforts that grabbed the attention of Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown this month.
On Friday, Brown pardoned In for the 1993 murder, indicating he hoped it would allow In to avoid deportation back to Cambodia, a country in which he has never set foot. The deportation order has not been executed since it was entered in 2001, In said, because Cambodia was not accepting deportees at that time. Instead, In said, he has been living under an order of supervision, checking in with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on a regular basis, fearing the supervision order could be revoked at any time.
“While the seriousness of the crime can never be minimized,” Brown wrote in the pardon, “I believe that Mr. In should be permitted to have the chance at remaining in a community to which he has devoted a life of service.”
In was among 36 people Brown pardoned Friday, including two other Cambodian refugees also at risk of deportation. The pardons don’t automatically throw out deportation orders, but allow attorneys to petition an immigration judge to reopen their cases and potentially decide to halt the removals, as the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus explained. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Such pardons for immigrants with criminal records have emerged as one tool of resistance to the Trump administration’s deportation efforts in states, like California and New York, that are generally viewed as having hostile relationships with ICE. In July, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo granted clemency to seven immigrants facing deportation with minor convictions on their records, most related to drugs. In March, Brown provoked outrage from President Trump when he pardoned five ex-offenders facing deportation whom Brown believed were rehabilitated. Among them were men convicted of kidnapping and robbery, domestic abuse and vehicle theft.
“Is this really what the great people of California want?” Trump tweeted.
With In’s case, hundreds of people wrote to Brown to support his pardon, the governor said, including members of In’s church and young men he helped escape gang life since his release from prison.
Before returning to Fresno to become a “beloved pastor,” as Brown put it, In worked as a counselor for Hope Now for Youth, where he estimates he helped 125 young people complete a job training program and find steady work following his release from prison. He then moved to Greeley, Colo., to co-found Jobs for Hope, where he roamed the city to build relationships with gang members, helping to persuade them to turn their lives around. In estimates he helped 80 young men here.
“I wanted to keep the word ‘hope’ in there, because that’s what people in my situation needed,” In said.
In knew what to look for, because the young people he encountered reminded him of himself: teenagers from poverty and abusive families. In was born in South Vietnam, the youngest of six just after his family fled Cambodia, where his father was a soldier who supported the Americans in the Vietnam War. They took a boat to Thailand and stayed at a refugee camp until finding their way as refugees to the United States. Growing up in Houston, In said he lived in the projects and suffered verbal and physical abuse at home. He said all this is “not an excuse” for committing violence on the streets — but nevertheless contributed to it.
His family later moved to Fresno in the late 1980s. He joined a gang after his older brother was sent to prison — the same gang his brother had been a part of, In said.
“It took years and years of reconciliation,” In said of the murder. “There’s reconciling, and there’s mourning, and then there’s acceptance of responsibility.”
In is grateful to Brown for the second chance, but said he knows from reading the reactions to the news of his pardon that not everyone believes he should get one. Many, he said, want him to go back to Cambodia.
“Some people want to continue to just label me as a murderer. I get it, but it’s hard,” In said. “I know that no matter how good I become or how far away I get, people will still see me a certain way. I’ve come to accept it. I’ve come to accept that’s the way it is.”
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