Phal Sok: I’m a product of violence. I’m a product of state violence, of the violence that’s perpetuated by American policies.
Saba Waheed: From the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK, this is Re:Work. I’m Saba Waheed
Veena Hampapur: And I’m Veena Hampapur. What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘teenager?’ ‘Juvenile?’ ‘Child?’
To quote Whitney Houston, “We often believe that children are our future.” A symbol of hope for a better tomorrow. We see them as innocents who need love, support, and stability. But not all young people are nurtured this way. Too often youth from marginalized communities of color are not seen as needing protection — they are treated as the ones we need protection from.
Saba Waheed: We see this in today’s episode with Phal Sok, who was once a kid in Long Beach forced to grow up too soon. This episode is part 2 of our series on Cambodian refugees who get caught up in the criminal justice system at a young age.
Phal Sok: My name is Phal Sok. I’m Cambodian by ethnicity, but born in the Thai refugee camps. My dad and my brother were living in Cambodia during the time of the Vietnam War. But after the Khmer Rouge took power, my dad and my brother wound up in forced labor camps, re-education camps. They had seen a lot of different things happen, you know just a lot of murders and torture, crimes against humanity, things of that magnitude.
Veena Hampapur: During the Vietnam War, the US enacted a brutal bombing campaign against Cambodia. Fearing for their lives, tens of thousands of civilians fled to Thailand, including Phal’s father and 18-year-old brother.
Phal Sok: They just ended up in the UN camps and that is where my dad and my mom actually met. So if we look at it from that perspective, if not for the war, I would not be born.
I was born after they had already been approved for asylee status in the United States. My family went into a staging camp for where you would travel out and so I was born there. 61 days later, we were in LAX and so that’s when I arrived to the US, as a child of a refugee. A family unit was me, my mom, my dad, and my brother.
Saba Waheed: The transition to life in Southern California in the eighties just wasn’t that easy.
Phal Sok: My parents end up divorcing due to a lot of the issues of just trying to like adapt to a new environment. Shortly after the divorce, we ended up moving. My dad felt very uncomfortable living in LA. He said there weren’t a lot of Cambodians. Then he found that there were pockets of Cambodians that had settled in Long Beach…
Veena Hampapur: Phal’s family was part of a migration of refugees that moved to lower-income neighborhoods in Long Beach. Today, Long Beach is home to the largest Cambodian population in the country.
Phal Sok: My dad felt more comfortable with neighbors that were Cambodian that he can go knock on a door and ask for something. “Hey, I need some sugar.” When I needed something or in times of need or whatever when I was younger, it was always folks from the Cambodian community that were there. I do remember like first day of school, like nobody walks you or anything. You just follow the line, just try to figure out where you’re going and I remember starting to cry. I was like five years old and like all kinds of white students walked by. Nobody did anything. Then there was an older Cambodian student. She came through. She was the first one who grabbed my hand and figured out where I was supposed to be at. Stuff like that kind of left a mark on me, made me more comfortable being around other Cambodians. The embrace from a white community or a black community or a brown community just wasn’t there.
Saba Waheed: Phal’s father worked long hours to provide financially, and his older brother had moved out. As a child, Phal had to learn how to take care of himself.
Phal Sok: From the age of I want to say seven or eight, I was basically coming home to nobody and so I had to learn how to cook, I had to learn how to feed myself. I always used to wonder where my dad was, but then he was like, “You know, I’m out just trying to make money.” When he was in the camps he had beaten in the back with some rifles and stuff like that. So he had a lot of injuries, physical trauma, amongst you know emotional trauma, etc.
What type of meaningful, sustaining labor is there for folks like that, and so he would do like manual labor, whatever he could do.
He used to go out and just collect cans and recycle as a means of income. My dad never drove, so he was always using public transit, or he’d find a shopping cart to use. Those were my earliest memories of my dad.
Veena Hampapur: Neighborhood violence became a concern as Phal approached his teen years.
Phal Sok: I wanna say there was a lot of violence within the communities. It came to a situation where you know I literally only walked a couple of miles back and forth between home and school. But some of my friends only walked about a mile, and some of my friends never made it home. That was the type of violence that was brewing inside the communities.
In my teenage years, it became more of cops drawing down on us and pointing guns at us, telling us to get up on the wall and you know searching us and things like that, going through our backpack. Those became more of a regular occurrence.
It was just us in the neighborhoods, just hanging out like in a front yard where we knew we would be safe. Sometimes the helicopters would be coming by, and then next thing you know, here comes the police showing up, like blocking off both sides of the street, and then just finding everybody that’s young, that’s Asian, and telling us all to sit on the curb. Sometimes it’s five or six of us, sometimes it’s 10 or 12 of us.
Veena Hampapur: Phal and his friends were not being protected from danger – they were being treated like they were the danger.
Phal Sok: For a lot of us growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money so a lot of our clothes were hand-me-downs so it would look baggy and you know out there, like a young person walking around with baggy clothing, you know you’re getting profiled as a certain way. It didn’t matter if your backpack was full of books, you know you’re just walking home. That’s all they saw.
They were putting us on cop cars, on top of the hood. Sometimes it would get really bad. There were instances where people were being put in the back of the police car not even being arrested or anything. And then a cop car would drop them off in an alley somewhere and just tell them to get out of the car and a cop car would drive off. Leaving these people in danger and this became more and more frequent.
Saba Waheed: Policing youth of color was nothing new, but what changed in the 1990s was politicians and the media fostered a sense of crisis. This contributed to surveilling and criminalizing low-level offenses that had not been punished in the past.
Veena Hampapur: The systems used minor infractions to build criminal records – pushing youth into the criminal justice system — even before a serious crime was committed. When it came to youth from marginalized communities, punishment trumped care.
Phal Sok: Because they always asking, “Who are you? What’s your name? Where do you live? What’s your address?” So it leads me to assume like all of us got put to a point to a gang database.
There wasn’t any opportunity to really process those interactions. We just kind of had to deal with them, just accept them for what they were.
If I wanted to go tell my brother about it, he’d be like, “Well, what did you do wrong?” If I went and told my dad about it, he’d be like, “Well, what did you do wrong?”
If we went to the school and we said it, you know and then the school would kind of just look at us sideways. So when we’d have these encounters with law enforcement, you know all the adults around us are thinking we did something wrong. I kind of felt secluded. They never saw these encounters for what they were. So I had to just like kind of suck it up. As a young person, it’s very traumatizing. It carried through with me as I got a little bit older, too.
Saba Waheed: Then in high school, Phal’s father became ill.
Phal Sok: I had to rush home, or I had to find a means of somebody to drive me home because he needed daily care. I would come home from school, go get the heparin, had to go get a syringe, I had to go check his Jevity and his feeding bag, make sure the machine was running, no alarms or anything like that. Check his weight, make sure his catheter was clean, et cetera, right, and making sure the supplies were there. It kept me secluded, kept me isolated and not really having anybody else to hang out with. I didn’t have any siblings that were my age. I didn’t really have any peers.
Veena Hampapur: Phal took care of his dad this way for over a year. One day, he got a call from the hospital.
Phal Sok: My dad had passed away. Some of the last words from him weren’t the greatest of words to me. He kind of yelled at me, blamed me for being sick, stuff like that. So I had to process all of that real fast, or try to process it and deal with losing him.
Saba Waheed: Phal was just 16-years-old, and now, he was completely on his own.
Phal Sok: Nobody came to check up on me. Nobody from Social Services showed up. There wasn’t a youth center I could go to. There wasn’t a grief counselor, you know. I would’ve walked two, three miles to see somebody, say, “What do I do now?” The only thing I got was a pamphlet from the hospital, said, “Hey, this is grief.” I read it, didn’t understand it. I had never dealt with grief before, so I didn’t know what grief was. I needed somebody to like tell me, give me that understanding. I went to school, and I was like, “Hey, my dad just died.” The teachers were like, “Oh, that sucks.” But it wasn’t like, “Oh, wait, hold on. Really?” Like, “Who’re you living with? Who’s taking care of you now?”
Veena Hampapur: Phal had been an engaged student with a knack for electronics.
Phal Sok: That was just a natural skill or aptitude I have. My dad would just buy me like soldering irons, solder, and just give me stuff. I would find broken stuff. Or in some cases, I would have working stuff, and I would break it to try to learn how it worked.
I was enrolled in Poly High School, but I was also enrolled in a Cal State program. It was an adult program so I was getting Cal State credits while I was working towards my high school diploma at the same time. It was a program that was set up for me to be able to get into the field of electrical engineering, to like really go in that route.
Veena Hampapur: His father’s death started to impact his education. He was struggling, even in the Cal State program he loved.
Phal Sok: I tried to stay focused and tried to do some schoolwork and tried to maintain the Cal State program. And the only reason, too, is because when I was withdrawing, the professor was like, “Look, there’s something unique about you. You have a talent, and you have a skill.”
He pulled out this dot chart. There was one that was way above everybody else. He said, “That dot is you. That’s your score, even though you’ve missed every single assignment except for one. There’s something about you. You have the ability to like work with this information I’m giving you.” He’s like, “Whatever you do, come back to my class. I don’t care if you ditch the others, skip the rest, whatever. Just don’t miss this class.” And so I tried. I tried. I tried. It became you know more and more difficult as it went by.
Saba Waheed: Phal realized he needed help so he reached out to his high school counselor.
Phal Sok: So I went to go see the counselor, and I said, “Hey, I’m really struggling. What do we do?” While she was eating on a sandwich, she handed me a piece of paper, said, “Sign here. Turn in your books by the end of the day and report to this packet school. They didn’t say, “Well, why don’t you wait? Hold on. Let’s talk about this.” It was just, “Here is your slip. Sign it. Turn it in.” And then when I went to the other school, that’s when I learned it was just a packet school. They literally copied exercises out of a textbook and the work was like very remedial. They gave me a card and they said, “This card is what you show to law enforcement when you have law enforcement contact.” They didn’t say, “If you get stopped by.” They said, “When you get stopped by the police.” That was more of an important conversation than the curriculum itself.
Saba Waheed: The whole system had failed Phal — social workers, teachers, and counselors. They all missed the chance to provide him with resources. Rather than being a place of nurturing and growth, schools mirrored the surveillance and control he faced in the street.
Veena Hampapur: Phal struggled coming home to an empty house.
Phal Sok: I would walk home. And my dad wasn’t there, right. Nobody was there. I would just sit being very bummed out, very depressed. I can only take so much depression. I would just leave the house. So I just ended up in the streets.
The one thing I found is that the streets embraced me. They’d say, “You lost your dad, man. We feel you. Let’s just hang out, whatever.” And so with that embrace, you know it was like very heartwarming in a sense. It was helpful just to keep me emotionally stable. I would hang out just trying to cope with forgetting about losing my dad. I hung out and I hung out more and more and more, and with more hanging out, I got involved with thefts and things of that nature, a lot of property crimes and stuff like that. Eventually at the age of 17 I ended up being arrested. The arrest was very demeaning. It was like the sun was barely coming up. They put me up against the garage next to my house, and they started taking pictures of me handcuffed. And students that I knew in the neighborhood were walking by. Elders that were taking their kids to school.
Veena Hampapur: White and middle class youth who have run-ins with the law are often treated as troubled kids who need help, receiving mental health counseling and guidance. This was not an option for Phal, despite being the product of generations of violence and trauma.
Phal Sok: I ended up going to the central Juvenile Hall. I didn’t know what I was getting charged with. Then finally, I went to court. They just handed me some papers and said, “Here. They want to send you to adult court.” It was a matter of a 30-minute hearing. The fate of my life was decided by this. I got the paperwork, and I’m starting to read it, and I’m trying to figure it out. And then I start seeing the charges, and then I start seeing how they add up all the years. I was like, “Oh, my God.” Now I was looking at like 40-something years. I was like, “Man, I haven’t even been alive that long. I haven’t even been alive half of that time.” At some point somebody said, “Oh, you’re probably going to get deported.” “What’re you talking about?” That was the first ring of it. But still, I never, like, “Uh, whatever.” I was more confused with going to court rather than thinking about my status here as an immigrant. So that came later on.
Saba Waheed: Phal never had a childhood, and when he was arrested – he was prosecuted as an adult. In the 1990s, this became increasingly common in the courts due to racist fears of growing youth crime.. . Even 13-year-olds faced life sentences.
Phal Sok: And off I go to prison. I looked around, and everybody was in their 30s, their 40s. Everybody was like grown men, so I had to really navigate this environment, just try to like, “Hey, who can I trust? What do I do here?” Just trying to figure that out. And so I had to learn how to just basically grow up in that environment.
As my birthdays went by, I ended up spending all of my 20s in there. And then my 30s came around, and I spent my 31st, my 32nd, my 34th. I’m like, “Wow, you know, I still have quite a few more years to go.” During that time I started to like go to programs and started to like really do things, learn some law. Oddly enough, I started learning law because folks came to me with legal papers, and they said, “Hey, can you help me understand this?” I said, “Why are you asking me?” They said, “You’re young. You’ve probably been in school. You can probably read better English than I can. I don’t know any of this. I’ve been in prison, in and out all my life.”
So I spent 14 years’ worth just learning different aspects of law. I had to learn it on my own.
Veena Hampapur: After Phal’s family came to the United States as refugees, they became legal permanent residents. Despite having a green card, Phal was still vulnerable to deportation – to a country he had never been to.
Phal Sok: After I went into prison, I was told that I would see a counselor, and then the counselor would assign where I would go. This white lady came in and they called me out by name so I went down there and they were like, “Do you have a Green Card?” I was like, “Yeah, my family came here, I have a Green Card.”
Then she was like, “Well, you know I’m with Immigration.” And I was like, “Oh. okay.” Then she was like, “You’re probably going to get deported.” Other people in the building who saw me, they were like, “Hey, who’s that? Man, you’re going somewhere already? I’ve been here a year waiting.” I’m like, “No, that was INS.” They were like, “Oh. Wait, what?”
I talked to other Cambodians. They were like “When you get out, they’re going to come get you.” And so from that conversation with the lady, she ended up filing a detainer and the only reason that she came to the prison to visit me was because when the state prison system receives somebody and brings them into the prison system, they come with some paperwork. On the paperwork there is a box that says, “Citizenship,” and whoever wrote this report wrote “Unknown.” They called INS just to say I triggered the request.
Saba Waheed: This experience with immigration didn’t impact Phal until he had a chance for parole. In 2014, California Senate Bill 260 recognized that youth should not have been tried as adults. They could be released if they showed remorse and rehabilitation.
Phal Sok: I was one of the first ones to come, to make it through that very hard barrier, very high standards. But unfortunately, in that conversation, they said, “Hey, you know what? You have this ICE hold.”
So I started looking at Immigration law. I started reading up. Kinda like deciphering backwards, deciphering just reading the cases from the federal courts or what they had ruled “Do I have an opportunity for relief? Am I really deportable?” And I started looking and I’m like, “Oh, my God, I’m like under mandatory deportation.” I’ve been here all my life. Didn’t matter. Came here as refugees. None of that mattered. My only family’s here didn’t matter. The fact that my brother, my sole remaining sibling, was a US citizen, didn’t matter. None of this mattered.”
When my release date came I saw a gentleman in a gray suit with a firearm walking in, getting my parole… like the papers that were supposed to be given to me to say “Report to this address” was being given to this person.I ended up being shackled. While I was being escorted out, I was watching other people go home, carrying their property ready to go out, go catch the bus or go meet their family outside the gate. People were happy. But here I go into the unknown.
So I went to ICE, got the paperwork from them, got a notice to appear, got placed in detention…
ICE wanted to deport me to Thailand. I always said, “Well, you know my parents are Cambodian.” They were like, “Eh, whatever. You were born in Thailand.” As soon as I take the order, they start processing me to go to Washington to go see the Consulate.
Just to share a little bit about how much money ICE has to spend on enforcement, not looking at last year’s budget, but just this journey I had.
Veena Hampapur: Phal took a bus from Bakersfield to Fresno to Sacramento County Jail.
Phal Sok: I’m like, “Wait, shouldn’t I be flying?” They were, like, “No, you’re going to be here. You’re going to Sac County Jail for the night.” They came back, put us on a bus, took us to the ICE building. Sitting in a tent, like, “Hey, where we’re going? You know, I’m supposed to go to Washington.” They’re like, “No, you’re going to Arizona.” They finally put us on a plane. This is the first time I’ve been on a plane that I have a working memory of. I had never been on a plane except for like coming from overseas.
It’s a private chartered flight full of US Marshals. They were like, “Yeah, you’re going to San Diego first.” Sure enough this plane takes us, goes to San Diego and then it hops over Arizona. And it takes off from Arizona. We land in Denver. It drops everybody off, except for me, a Somalian, and the other Cambodian. So it was just the three of us from Denver to Washington on a fully chartered 737. I was like, “Damn, this cost a lot of money, right?”
I see the Consulate. The Consulate said, “We’re just here to gather data, the information. We take that back to Cambodia. They’ll make the decision over there, whoever the decision-makers are.” He’s like, “Here, do your thumbprint in red for us. Go stand up over there. Take your picture. That’ll be your passport picture if they do take you.”
I went back and waited. Mind you, I’m always in private facilities all this time. So I have this term, “Deportation Incorporated.” That’s what it really is. And on the journey back, it’s the same route, except it’s backwards.
We finally make it back to Bakersfield and the ICE agent asked me, “Hey, what did they tell you?” I was like, “Hey, honestly, I don’t know.”
Then the six-month mark was nearing. Next time I saw him again, I said, “Hey, man. My 100-day review is coming around the corner. What’re you going to do? Are you going to recommend to detain me or not to continue?” He said, “No, man. I’m going to release you. Just give me a few days.”
One night he kept yelling my name. As soon as he saw me, he said, “Hey, who’s getting you your ticket?” I was like, “Man, you give me a date and a time. I will have somebody here to pick me up.” He said, “Tomorrow at 10:00 AM.” I was like, “All right. You got it.”
In the morning, they pulled me out and then he said, “You know, as soon as you land, go get your work permit. You see your deportation officer. Check in. Show them that you’re doing good, whatever. Stay out of trouble.” And he was like, “Man, good luck to you.” That was the last time I ever saw him. And so off I go.
That was in March of 2016. That was my first time being outside of a confined environment ever as an adult, was sitting on a planter on the curb, just looking around, like, “I don’t even know where I am. I don’t know what to do. If my family doesn’t show up, I don’t know even what to do.” You know I was like, “I’m probably just going to walk and carry this stuff over there to this restaurant and ask if I can use the phone.” So it was just kind of like playing out these scenarios.
But sure enough, my brother came around the corner. My brother was like, “You need ID,” cause I didn’t have an ID. Always people told me, “When you get out, you’re going to need your ID, because if you don’t, you’re not going to be able to do anything out there. Especially because you’re losing your status, it’s going to be very difficult.
So I ended up going to the DMV. Sensory overload with so much lights and noise and people. Mind you, I had been in a very monochrome environment for all that time. I never heard helicopters. I didn’t hear dogs barking, cars, the normal noises of life. Like I didn’t hear any of that for such a long time. So now I’m being bombarded with all this stuff, like, “Wait in line. Here’s your number. Take your ticket. Sign here. Move here. Get in that line.”
Saba Waheed: Phal settled in South LA and became involved with volunteering and his local church. He was getting his life together and moving on.
Phal Sok: Then one day there was a letter in the mail. It was from Homeland Security, said, “Come, report, check in.” I went, started asking around about this letter. They were, “No, every time we’ve seen it, it was always a redetention.” So that was like very difficult. By the time I got this letter, it had only been about three months. I was like, “Oh ma, dang, I got to go. It’s my time.”
I’m like, “Well, at least I’ll be free over there, you know liberty-wise. I won’t be looking over my shoulder, hiding from the law.”
Just knowing that deportation was coming at some point was very brain-wracking, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of depression. Just like having the ability to just get up every day was very challenging, because I was always thinking about that. I became very reclused, very quiet. I went to report and sure enough, I got redetained.
Veena Hampapur: Phal ended up in Orange County and awaited his deportation. His brother visited him, and now he also had a whole community of support.
Phal Sok: Folks from the church that I got plugged in with started showing up. The pastors were showing up. Folks from the community were just showing up. People I had just barely met that didn’t even know me, and they were like, “Man, if you know how to do anything to stop your deportation, do it. We’ll support you 100% of the way. Whatever we can do, let us know. We want to see you here with us.”
Saba Waheed: When Phal’s plane didn’t arrive as scheduled, he filed paperwork challenging his deportation. All those years of studying law paid off. Phal got his case reopened.
Phal Sok: I asked for a bond hearing. Got the bond hearing, and the same folks from the community came. They filled up the court room, spoke up for me. The judge was, like, “Okay, I’m going to give you a $5,000 bond with an ankle monitor.
I didn’t have any money. So the folks that ultimately paid it were the folks that came to court. They did a little bit of fundraiser.
Eventually the bond got paid, and I came out. Last day of November of 2016, I walked back out again.
Veena Hampapur: Phal became involved in the fight for immigrant rights and the development of a justice fund to assist those facing deportation.
Phal Sok: When I went back to the community, I felt that same sense of panic. The folks that I used to see in the communities, I wasn’t seeing anymore. I wasn’t seeing the elotera that was down the street selling corn. Those are the faces that are missing. The paletero going around selling ice cream… like I didn’t see these people anymore. I saw that same…like people were hiding people. Then I learned that it was that same fear that I saw in detention. It was that same fear, except now in what we would say is the free world, the liberated world, if you could call it that, just free of physical confinement, right? I was out like really just challenging that narrative, like that dichotomy, just because somebody wasn’t born here, they shouldn’t get a second chance, or a third chance or a fourth chance that somebody that was born here would get, right? Why are people being treated any different? You know, it’s kind of this backwards way of thinking. We say we are a land of equality. But where is that equality?
So it like takes immigrants to get involved with the fight for immigration, right? But it also takes migrants to also understand like the narrative, like, “Criminal? I’m not a criminal,” is not the way to go. A lot of the times I see young people, DACA students in particular, say, “We’re not criminals.” I’m like, “Hey, you just threw me under the bus. You know you also threw your parents under the bus, because your parents violated a law when they came without inspection. Remember these things.” So to be mindful of that.
Saba Waheed: This work eventually connected Phal with the Youth Justice Coalition, an organization committed to challenging incarceration and discrimination.
Phal Sok: They were like, “Hey, why don’t you come check us out? Get involved.”
Then that’s what led me to be involved with the Youth Justice Coalition where I am now. I’m continuing to do a lot of… well, a lot more wider-ranging work now, besides immigration. They were able to give me stipends, which were able to help sustain me. But then also the one thing that YJC did for me that nobody else did was offer me their platform. They said, “This is what we have access to. However you want to use that to fight your deportation, it’s all yours.”
Basically, with that platform, I ended up getting a lot of legislative support from every level, aside from the White House, that pushed Governor Brown to give me a pardon. Folks from the community were outpouring support. So because of that work, I ended up getting a pardon in August of last year. So it’s been roughly a year. And so through that, I ended up going back to my next court date. Case was terminated, so now I have my residency restored.
Veena Hampapur: Now a YJC organizer, Phal embodies the community support, wisdom, and guidance he needed growing up in Long Beach.
Phal Sok: The story still goes on, right?. It doesn’t even end, and the work continues on. But for me, I think ultimately, though, my goal in this is to like really help people understand that you know when this country was founded,
it wasn’t built for the benefit of people, the indigenous people. It wasn’t built for the benefit of anybody that was black or anybody that was brown.
So these are the things that create a lot of the social factors what causes people to end up in the systems that we end up in. That are the things that I try to work on, those things that I try to kind of flip that model. If you’re going to invest in policing, also invest in our young people. One of our youth organizers, she always says, “If the youth are the future, then why are you treating the youth this way?” Like, “Why are the investments not there?” Like, nobody seems to know how to answer that. And so you know that’s the work that I do today now with YJC.
Saba Waheed: A special thanks to Phal Sok for sharing his story. To find out more about the work of the Youth Justice Coalition, you can visit their Facebook page @youthjusticeLA.
Veena Hampapur: You’re listening to Re:Work, a program of the UCLA Labor Center and KPFK. This week’s show was produced by Veena Hampapur, Saba Waheed, Pam Gwen, and Amy Zhou.
Saba Waheed: Editing by Veena Hampapur and D’Angelo Jones.
Veena Hampapur: Subscribe to Re:Work Radio on Apple, Spotify, or Google.
Saba Waheed: Visit our website at reworkradio.org or Facebook at forward slash reworkradio. You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram at rework underscore radio.
Veena Hampapur: ‘Til next time, rethink, rework.
Phal Sok: I’m a product of violence. I’m a product of state violence, of the violence that’s perpetuated by American policies.