Veena Hampapur: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, this is Re:Work. I’m Veena Hampapur.
Saba Waheed: And I’m Saba Waheed.
Veena Hampapur: The criminal justice system implies justice. But laws and sentences aren’t always fairly distributed. And in today’s political climate, there’s a prominent narrative of bad immigrants who don’t deserve to be here, even after they’ve “done their time.”
Saba Waheed: This isn’t new – it’s a part of a much longer history of criminalizing immigrants and refugees in the United States. And it raises the question, who deserves a second chance?
Veena Hampapur: This week’s Re:Work is the first of 2 parts that explores the experience of refugees from Cambodia who get caught up in the criminal justice system at a young age. We follow Billy Taing’s story of fleeing the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and resettling in America with his family, only to continue facing hardship.
Billy Taing: The earliest memory that I can piece together was just seeing broken rooftops or some type of like shack with openings where the sun was exposing into the place where I was at. We were sent to a labor camp, so I think that’s how we ended up in the shack.
Saba Waheed: Billy’s family was ethnically Chinese. His grandparents had immigrated to Cambodia during the Chinese Revolution, the Mao era.
Billy Taing: People were starving, so everybody was fleeing China. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodian government. They start killing off a lot of people that they deem a threat. If you were an educator or if you were different ethnic and spoke different language, then those people were the target. My father was, unfortunately, an educator, and they accused him of speaking Chinese when they barged in the house one night, and beat him up in front of our family, and then just dragged him away. We never saw him again after that.
Saba Waheed: After his father’s death, Billy and his family were sent to the labor camps. Since he was young, Billy stayed at home while his mother and brother worked.
Billy Taing: My mom usually had to go work in the rice field and my older brother, at the time, was probably five or six years old. He was sent to the child labor camp. I would have to wait for my mom every night, for her to come and feed me. Sometimes, she wouldn’t even make it at night because she was forced to work in a rice field so far away that sometime, it was so dark for her to even travel back home.
Veena Hampapur: When Billy was around five years old, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. This provided an opening for some Cambodians in the labor camps to escape. With her two sons, Billy’s mother joined a caravan of other refugees crossing the border. It took them over a month to get to Thailand.
Billy Taing: There were some ditches of just bodies I never processed any kind of gruesome scene at the time. My main goal was just to survive.
Veena Hampapur: From Thailand, the family went to the Philippines where they waited for US sponsorship. Finally, they arrived in Atlanta, Georgia.
Billy Taing: The first day of school I thought they were going to take me away from my family again, so I do remember just crying that first day. Everything else was pretty foreign to me. I still didn’t understood what was going on at the time.
Saba Waheed: Billy’s mother met his stepfather and together, they moved to San Diego.
Veena Hampapur: In San Diego, they found a community that shared their experiences.
Billy Taing: We moved to this apartment with just a bunch of other immigrants. A lot of them was from Cambodia also. They were telling stories of what happened. I think I was still too young to even understood the full trauma of what they were just expressing at the time. I thought that was just like normal. What happened and I really didn’t give much thought to it, but just heard the story. A lot of time my mom was sharing the story of how my father died. I couldn’t comprehend that.
Saba Waheed: Two years later, the family moved again, this time to Monterey Park, a neighborhood in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles.
Billy Taing: I had to start over and try to make friends. At the time, when I went to the new school, it didn’t have a lot of Asian kids. I just remember just being, just feeling like a sense of like loneliness again in that environment. Having to start over again was hard.
Veena Hampapur: As soon as Billy settled into his new life, his family decided to move back to San Diego.
Billy Taing: I didn’t want to go, and so I was left with this elderly woman we adopted as our grandmother. I was like sixth, seventh grade. I was fine with not going with them. I just wanted to have like that stability. At that time, I started making bad choices already. One of the kids, like, “Hey, let’s steal food,” because we didn’t have the money to pay for it. The fear of like being looked at like I was, I don’t know, maybe weak overcame the fear of doing what’s right. After we succeeded, I remember we bragged to other kids. Then there was more like a reassuring feedback from other kids, it was that feeling of exhilarating, right? I did get caught later on, the elderly woman talked my mom into like, “You know, he just didn’t have money to pay for it, so that’s why he did what he did.” I didn’t get the whooping that I thought I was going to get. That ended that shoplifting era.
Veena Hampapur: Around the same time, Billy’s brother joined a gang and ran away from home. A feeling that was all too familiar washed over him.
Billy Taing: I always looked up to him, like tag along and just, I view him as an older brother and as a role model or somebody that was going to guide me through life. When he ran away, I felt that sense of loneliness again. Like, “Oh, I got left out.” Or I got somewhat abandoned when he ran away and I was left home.
Saba Waheed: Billy shifted his energies towards his studies and did quite well; but when he got to high school, he started to struggle again.
Billy Taing: Freshman year, it’s more like I hung out with kids hanging out in donut shops or just hanging out. I started smoking. Gradually I went from hanging out to ditching school, to drinking, and then the gang life. Pretty much most people that I knew was in the gang. Within the gang, I felt that sense of belonging. A lot of us came from a background that was traumatizing. We was just all broken and just wanted to find comfort in each other. I felt that sense of embrace, that sense of acceptance and approval. Eventually, yeah, I wanted to elevate myself in the organization so that I would get more attention, more false sense of respect right.
Veena Hampapur: After high school, Billy continued to long for community and a path to being a good person. He decided to join the army.
Billy Taing: I knew that my lifestyle was bad, wasn’t decent right so I just wanted, just to escape all that, but what I found in the military was a sense of isolation and out of place. I remember, in bootcamp, that a lot of other people was from different part of the nation, people that I’m not accustomed to being around. I didn’t think that they understood my culture, and even sometimes they were even making fun of me. Like making these like Bruce Lee sound or automatically thinking I know karate. I just felt, just out of place. I felt very homesick.
Saba Waheed: Billy left the military after his term ended. He came back home but with even a greater desire to belong.
Billy Taing: Longing to belong drove me right back into the gang atmosphere. I felt that sense of wanting to prove myself even more this time, which led to the idea of by me volunteering to commit this crime that I would earn that sense of respect again.
We were going to rob a tour bus that people was going to Las Vegas. Someone brought up the idea that, “These people is gonna go to Vegas and throw away their money anyway, so why not just take it from them?” It was planned a month ahead of time, and everything was arranged for us to board the bus as passenger on the day that it was going to happen.
On that day, right when the bus got on the freeway ramp, the guy that was going to the bus driver got up and that was my cue to get up also, to the back. I told the tour guide to translate that we were going to rob everybody in the bus, and that no one was going to get hurt, as long as they gave us the money. The whole ordeal lasted for approximately 10 minutes.
Veena Hampapur: Everything had gone according to the plan. They got away and went to hide in a warehouse. But later, one of Billy’s partners went out to get food and was stopped by the police. They showed up at the warehouse with a search warrant.
Billy Taing: They were questioning us for hours and hours. Eventually, they brought us to the Sheriff Department and booked us in. I remember asking for a phone call, but then again, I didn’t really want to call anybody also, because who can I call?
Saba Waheed: Billy waited in the County Jail for his trial.
Billy Taing: I spent 18 months in the gang module where I guess having everything stripped away, metaphorically and literally. They had racial riots, they had people sharpening metal objects to make weapons. People getting attacked while they’re in line.
Being in cells where we don’t get to see the sun for a period of months, being in an environment where it’s overcrowded. It’s a four-man cell, but usually, there’s six or seven people in a cell. Being in an environment where when the toilet’s flooded, we often have to sleep in that condition for several days before they even try to come and fix the toilet. Once the light is out, you see mices running around on the floor. That condition, of being involved in a violent situation and witnessing a lot of abuse of power. All the time the fear is if the Sheriff cuff you up, and bring you a room, you’re going to get beat up, and you’ll be lucky if you survive that.
Veena Hampapur: Billy received a life sentence without the possibility of parole and was sent to a maximum security prison. He believed he would never get out.
Billy Taing: We were talking about the era where Pete Wilson said, “There’s no parole policy,” and Grey Davis followed that through. So the idea was I’m pretty much done with any kind of freedom or just being able to see another daylight again, that was hard.
Veena Hampapur: In the 1980s and 90s, the US had pushed “tough on crime” policies that included more funding for prisons and harsher sentences such as mandatory minimum sentences and the three strikes law. By 1990, California led the way, increasing its prison population faster than any other state. These policies especially impacted low income men of color.
Billy Taing: The prison was very new at the time. I remember just being the first guy in my cell. the first time I stepped into that prison yard. I remember this big old gate closing behind me. I mean, just we’re closed in. We couldn’t even see any freeway. There was no sign of civilization besides just concrete walls and buildings. Entering my cell was the same. When the door closed behind me, I just felt that sense of despair. I remember just questioning myself, like, “How am I going to do this whole time? Back then, pretty much life means life, so there’s no hope of getting out.
Saba Waheed: One of the things that kept Billy going was his mother. But staying in touch with his family was difficult. Phone calls were expensive and it was hard for his mom to get to the prison to see him.
Billy Taing: One time in the County where my mom was visiting me very late at night. It sunk in that she was willing to really disregard her own safety just to see me because she was riding the bus by herself at night.
That’s when I realized, even though she often don’t show that love but, ultimately, she loves me. In realizing that allowed me to think not just for myself this time, but of her and not wanting to create anymore harm for her or any worry where it could stress her out. I feel like that’s the least I can do, since I can’t, I guess, be the son that she expected me to be.
Saba Waheed: Eventually, Billy decided to go back to school.
Billy Taing: There was college programs. I remember just trying to get into one of the programs where all the books and everything was paid for, but then being a life inmate, you weren’t high priority on the list, because you weren’t getting out any time soon, so the program went to people that had a chance of reentering society in the next years or couple of years. Being a lifer was just like we didn’t have that kind of priority.
We were able to fill out the grant for, just to cover the tuitions, but we still have to pay for our books. I would just ask people to borrow the books from them. I would buy like maybe one or two books, and I’d kind of do a trade. I did that for four years. I think that really helped a lot. My first class was sociology, and just learning about, I guess the social environment as a whole and not just looking at everything in microscopic vision like I used to.
For me, that really expanded my mind as far as just looking at things in a different angle and diversifying my whole thought process. Gradually, I just took classes that are more stimulating to the mind. Philosophy or critical thinking that challenge my way of thinking, how everyone exists in society.
Veena Hampapur: Billy received an Associates degree, but he wasn’t done with learning.
Billy Taing: Gradually, I started taking a lot of self-help programs. One of the first class was called Breaking Barriers, it’s teaching us how to change our belief system. That we can do better. We’re capable more than just the gang environment. I kind of started thinking outside the box a little bit
Eventually, the self-help classes helped me as far as just reinventing my values. I think one class that really stood out was the Victims Crime Impact, where I really, truly saw the ripple effects of my actions. At the time, my action traumatized everybody at the bus. I remember thinking back then, like I took away their sense of security, their sense of enjoying any vacation that they were going to engage in the future. There’s always that fear that something was going to happen to them.
At that point, I realized that that was more, trauma to them was more than physical harm. That lasting effect that it have, because of my action, really allowed me to make that step of transformation, to just say, “Oh, yeah. I need to do better. I want to do better.” That overwhelming sense of guilt at the time.
Saba Waheed: One day, Billy saw a notice for a Buddhist service being held at the prison.
Billy Taing: That’s when I got into do some meditation. Initially, it was like, “How am I going to meditate in the middle of a dormitory that housed over 200 something people, where I am exposed to all those people?” But being there and listening to the sponsor or those volunteers, and just wanted to try it out. I think I set myself like five minutes, then like, “All right, I could do more,” so I started gradually increasing the time to 10, 15, 20, 30 minute.
With meditations and combining with all the self-help classes that I was attending, it allowed me to be more mindful of my actions in the past of who I am, helped me to truly understand, and accept my situation in that environment. I put myself there. My actions created a situation where I was at the time.
Even understand that, the bad choices that I made growing up was also the result of not being able to process the trauma that I experienced as a kid growing up, or even those three years when we were in the labor camp where I was experiencing hunger, neglected, even experienced some couple illness where I wasn’t even expected to make it. All those contributed to the need to wanting to be embraced, to belong, to feel loved.
All those contributed to decisions in my life. I was able to see that and to, in a way, find some sense of forgiveness for myself, also and that allowed me to feel compassion for other people also in the environment, whatever situation, their background, they experienced a lot of stuff in life, trauma in life that led them to that situation.
Veena Hampapur: In the early 2000s, California’s prisons were so severely overcrowded, the US Supreme Court deemed them cruel and unusual punishment. The state began to make a series of reforms that reversed previous policies.
Saba Waheed: Billy started to hear about other people with life sentences getting parole. So he decided to petition and he was granted parole in 2016. All of the positive changes that he was making in his life were paying off. After 21 years in prison, Billy was finally going to be free.
Billy Taing: I was transferred from a tank that was supposed to process people that was paroled onto the street, but instead, I was cuffed again and just transferred to a van instead.
Veena Hampapur: Billy was transferred from prison straight into ICE detention. Even though he had a greencard, and had served his time, he could still be deported.
Billy Taing: The reason why was because I never became a citizen, when I committed my crime I just had legal permanent status, and according to immigration law, you have to be a citizen. I was deported three weeks after I entered detention center.
Going to the ICE detention, I talked to people and did a lot of research on what the process was like, and found out, at the time, that Cambodia wasn’t accepting people, so if I just signed the paper, I would look at like maybe four months in the detention center. If I fought it and still lose, then I’ll stay there longer than maybe nine months or a year. So I did choose to sign it, and because there was no way for me to even beat deportation because of my crime, so at that point, it just was like, you know what? If I get deported, then I’ll just start a new life at a different place, and that would be like a new beginning for me.
Saba Waheed: Cambodia denied Billy’s citizenship and wouldn’t accept him. Since the US was unable to deport him, they released him.
Billy Taing: When I re-entered back into society, I wanted to be more involved with community, so I joined several nonprofit organizations for re-entry. For one, half years, I was in a process of just trying to obtain a job right and learn what I can. Technology was challenging for me. Getting back my driver’s license was challenging. Work was also challenging because I had to wait six months for a work permit.
You know, everything combined was obstacles, but I had my freedom right, so yeah, I’d rather have these obstacles in front of me any day versus being in prison. I was grateful to have a second chance.
Veena Hampapur: The world had changed, and Billy was adapting, he was piecing his life back together.
But then, in October of 2017, ICE took him again. The Trump Administration decided to enforce the deportation orders of anyone who had committed a crime. Billy had survived the 1990s tough on crime era, but was now being dragged, into the War on Immigrants. He was flown across the country to six different detention facilities. This second round of detention was especially hard.
Billy Taing: I was actually reestablishing my life again, and to have that snatched away, and to have to go to a different place to start over it was just harder to accept.
Those were the feelings in there. Just hopelessness. I witnessed an 83-year-old grandpa that was with us, being in a processing tank for more than 25 hours. He had a bad health condition and just for him to be there, and just to suffer through all that, it was just heartbreaking to see. Some of these people, they were already out here working, contributing in tax, supporting their family, and all of a sudden, they’re going to be deported. Deported to a country where they don’t have any recollection or don’t even know the culture.
We’re here, we grew up here. American lifestyle is all we know. We have family here. I witnessed a lot of guys in there that their spouses gave birth to their kids. You know, they’re struggling in there. Not able to hold their kids, or the thought of just being separated from their infant children.
If it wasn’t for nonprofit organizations, attorneys filing injunctions to stop the deportation, which allowed me to file a writ to reopen my case. After six and a half months, I was able to bond out.
Saba Waheed: Billy was out again, though not completely free.
Billy Taing: I was on an ankle monitor for three months, because they said that I’m a flight risk. Even though I was free, I was still being tracked. I continued where I left off, which is get involved more and this time, it was more incorporated into being more active in the immigrant advocacy section. So I was fortunate to know people right, and to be able to be in a space where I could learn from people that are experienced. Yeah, just going out there, sharing my stories, encourage others to share theirs as well and to continue with the meditation practice. To continue to like network with people. Participate in a workshop that teach me about organizing or networking, all those was very new to me.
Veena Hampapur: Someone suggested that Billy petition for a pardon. For him, it was a long shot, but so was getting paroled on a life sentence. With encouragement from people around him, Billy decided to go for it.
Billy Taing: We filled out the application for a pardon and, fortunately, I was pardoned on Christmas Eve by Governor Brown. I just remember it was just such a, it was, I just didn’t I was very happy, but I was like not really believing that it’s actually even happening.
I’m very fortunate, you know, to still be here and to continue to share my story, and to continue to like encourage others also to share their story. I think when people learn about our story from different standpoint, or different lifestyles, that people will humanize us, and see us, not just somebody who made mistakes in life, but somebody who deserve a chance to be a part of this society’s community and deserve a chance to be with their family, to have a happy life.
Saba Waheed: On his way to the radio station to record this interview with us, Billy got an email from the electricians union, IBEW. He had just been accepted into their competitive training program — the first step into a stable career in construction. Billy had been searching for community his whole life. Now he sees it all around him — and within himself.
Billy Taing: I have this understanding now right, I know now right that my mom loves me, and the family love is there. So yeah, it’s been amazing for me, just to be able to be there for them, to be able to physically be together on holidays, not just through phones. My whole outlook now is just that appreciation for life, for every little things that I used to take for granted. Yeah, so just being able to be here with my family, to care for my mother when she grows old, and to experience, be a part of my nephew and niece life as they grow up. That’s priceless. I mean, I can’t even describe it with words.
Now I realize that it’s okay to be alone sometimes, that loneliness is not a bad thing. A lot of times, I don’t feel that loneliness. I know that I could go to community or my family’s there. Sometimes, I want to be alone and that’s okay too. You know, it’s okay to have that feeling of, to want to be alone.
Veena Hampapur: A special thanks to Billy Taing for sharing his story. Stay tuned for our next episode, which will be part two of our mini-series on Cambodian refugees caught up in the criminal justice system.
Saba Waheed: You’re listening to Re:Work, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Saba Waheed, Veena Hampapur, Amy Zhou, and Pam Gwen. Editing by Veena Hampapur and D’Angelo Jones.
Veena Hampapur: Subscribe to rework radio on Apple, Spotify, or Google. Visit our website at or Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at rework underscore radio.
Saba Waheed: ‘Til next time, rethink rework.