A New Year, A New Way Forward to End Immigrant Criminalization

The new Congress must cut the prison-to-deportation pipeline before it causes life-long pain to more Asian American refugees and immigrants.

By Daishi Miguel-Tanaka

As we usher in a new year and new Congress, the time has come to permanently end America’s mass immigrant incarceration and detention crisis. On January 26, Representatives Jesús “Chuy” Garcia (IL) Pramila Jayapal (WA), Ayanna Pressley (MA), Karen Bass (CA) led the reintroduction of the New Way Forward Act alongside more than 30 original cosponsors including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. The New Way Forward Act, first introduced in 2019, would end the prison-to-deportation pipeline by disentangling local law enforcement and ICE, ending mandatory detention policies, and providing important relief for people in deportation proceedings for criminal convictions. Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) issued a joint statement in full support of this landmark legislation.

Southeast Asian immigrants are three to four times more likely to be deported for old criminal convictions compared to any other immigrant group. During the press conference, Chanthon Bun, a formerly-incarcerated Cambodian community advocate at Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, illustrated the harrowing trauma a cruel justice system perpetuates. Bun spoke about escaping the Cambodian genocide where half of his family members were murdered. Upon moving to the U.S. at a young age, he faced xenophobia and harassment that led him to a gang lifestyle to seek protection. After committing a robbery where no one was harmed, he was sentenced to 49 years and eight months in San Quentin, a California prison.

Bun journeyed a personally-driven and community-supported transformation and was set to be released early on parole in 2020. However, instead of being released, he was to be transferred to ICE detention, stealing his freedom from within arm’s reach. Shortly before his transfer, Bun fell victim to the biggest prison COVID outbreak. Bun, ill with the virus, feared not only being deported and separated from his family, but facing imminent death once transferred to ICE detention. “I knew that if I was to be detained by ICE, I would die in their custody. So I wrote a letter to my family saying goodbye,” Bun reflected.

Upon hearing the news, Bun’s friends and supporters conducted a public campaign to advocate for his release. The public pressure worked, resulting in ICE halting the transfer and San Quentin releasing him.

Community members helped Bun heal and he began to speak up about his experiences to challenge existing narratives of incarcerated people. Bun is now a fellow at Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus advocating for immigrant rights and criminal justice reform.

Bun’s story is far from unique. Roughly 15,000 Southeast Asian Americans currently live with a final order of removal, and about 80 percent of those removal orders are based on past convictions. These countless stories illustrates that we must take immediate action to ensure that Asian American refugees and immigrants do not fall victim to a violent, racist mass incarceration and deportation system. As the page turns to a new year, we implore Congress to pass this new way forward.

Daishi Miguel-Tanaka is the Immigration Policy Associate at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC.

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Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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Advancing Justice – AAJC

Advancing Justice – AAJC

Fighting for civil rights for all and working to empower #AsianAmericans to participate in our democracy.

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