On February 27, the Supreme Court overturned a 2013 ruling that allowed immigrants who have been detained for at least six months the right to periodic bond hearings. The decision is concerning for many immigrant advocates, including Oakland-based nonprofit Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC). The organization provides “culturally competent” support and services to Asian Pacific Islander prisoners and the formerly incarcerated population. They’re worried that without the right to a bond hearing, many will remain detained indefinitely, including those seeking asylum, as well as immigrants with criminal records.
One such person is Borey “PJ” Ai, a Cambodian immigrant who was detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) after serving 20 years of a life sentence in prison. Ai now faces deportation to Cambodia, a country he’s never been to, and has been in an ICE detention facility for the past two years. APSC staffers say his situation is familiar to many in the Southeast Asian community whose families fled their countries as refugees and are facing deportation.
Ai was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, and his parents escaped genocide in Cambodia, eventually landing in Stockton, California, where he grew up in a violent neighborhood. Ai joined a gang and at the age of 14, turned himself in after murdering a store owner during a burglary. He became one of the youngest people in California to be tried as an adult and was sentenced to life. Inside San Quentin, Ai was active on issues of youth advocacy and facilitated many self-help programs, teaching Asian American history and becoming a certified peer counselor.
Despite being a central organizer among his peers, he was turned over to ICE after serving his prison sentence, since he lacked residency status that would allow him to legally stay in the United States. Without a bond hearing, Ai remains in a detention facility waiting for a ruling in his case.
Ke Lam, reentry coordinator at APSC, is one of the organization’s members who are trying to raise awareness of Ai’s situation. “I think the general public is stuck on that model minority myth, that Asians don’t have an issue with the criminal justice system, that poverty doesn’t impact the Asian community,” Lam said.
As a child of Vietnamese refugees, Lam understands Ai’s situation firsthand. He met Ai in San Quentin state prison, where they bonded over their similar upbringings and fates and worked on advocacy issues while incarcerated together. Lam was also detained by ICE after being released from his life sentence, but a 2008 agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam restricts Vietnamese citizens who arrived in the U.S. before July, 2005 – like Lam – from being sent back to Vietnam. He now dedicates his time to continuing advocacy work through APSC, and says there isn’t enough awareness of the challenges facing Ai and those in the Southeast Asian community.
Advocates believes that bond hearings are essential for detained immigrants like Ai. Without them, there isn’t an opportunity for them to stand before a judge who can evaluate if they truly pose a risk to society or could be a potential flight risk, leaving many immigrants to stay detained indefinitely.
On March 8, Ai’s supporters gathered for a preliminary injunction hearing at the U.S. District Court in San Francisco, where the judge determined more time was needed to evaluate the next steps of Ai’s case, since the Supreme Court’s recent decision has further complicated the legal landscape. As the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals evaluates whether denying bond hearings is constitutional, APSC is amping up their campaign, for which they use the hashtag #BringPJHome. By organizing letter-writing and phone-banking campaigns, they hope to appeal to Governor Jerry Brown, Oakland’s former mayor, to issue a pardon for Ai. They believe without it, Ai’s chances of staying in the U.S. are slim. In the meantime, without a bond hearing, Ai awaits the outcome of his case in detention.