Photography by Michelle Kwon
editor's letter
Waiting on God in Prison

“Today we are at day 356 of detention. August 29th is his one-year anniversary since he was picked up by ICE,” Montha Chum says of her brother, Chamroeun Phan, who she calls Shorty. “Not much has changed, it’s just the Board of Immigration that has to make a decision.”

Ever since August 29, 2016, Montha and the rest of Shorty’s family have been working against the Department of Homeland Security to bring Shorty home, after he was suddenly detained by ICE following his regular supervision check-in. Montha’s attention to detail becomes immediately apparent as she lists off numerous court dates and appeals that have marked pivotal moments in the past year of legal battles to free her brother.

Eight Cambodian men from Minnesota faced the same situation as Shorty: all had grown up in the United States and were facing deportation to a country their families had fled from and where they had never even visited. Six of the eight had already been deported. Only Shorty and Sameth Nhean remained; the immigration judges had granted their Motions to Reopen and Emergency Stays of Removal.

All had grown up in the United States and were facing deportation to a country their families had fled from.

Throughout this lengthy process, Shorty’s fellowship with each of the Minnesota 8 grew as he prayed with and for the group while in detention. Montha remembered when Shorty was moved to an ICE detainment center in Arizona. “I was crying over the phone with Shorty, who was really sad because he had just watched his brothers, who he had spent months with, change back into their street clothes and get ready to board the plane to be deported.” 

Montha quickly organized intercessory prayer for the remaining members of the Minnesota 8. When Shorty called her back, Montha recounted, “The first thing he said was ‘God is good’, and I said ‘All the time’, and he began to cry, and he said, ‘I see Sam getting out of his street clothes and back into his [prison] uniform.’

“And you never typically get excited about that, but the reason Shorty was so excited was that Sam had been very close to being deported. They were already separated, but he could see through the cell walls that Sam was changing out of his regular clothes into the green uniform and moving back in with him.” This would give them more time to fight against Sam’s deportation and tell a different story with his life.

Shorty’s story reached back to before he was born. His father had been a freedom fighter for the United States in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge regime, before he fled with his family to Thailand, where Shorty was born in a refugee camp. When Shorty was an infant, the Phan family fled again, this time to the United States. When he was 3, his immigration status was updated to lawful permanent resident, but he was never naturalized as a U.S. citizen. 

Shorty faced poverty and generational trauma, growing up as a Cambodian refugee with parents affected by PTSD. Southeast Asian populations face higher rates of criminalization than East Asians and experience other systemic disadvantages that East Asian Americans do not. 

Southeast Asian populations face higher rates of criminalization than East Asians and experience other systemic disadvantages that East Asian Americans do not. 

While Asian Americans as a collective may get swept up in the model minority stereotype of being highly educated and wealthy, this narrative falsely assumes that Asian Americans are not affected by systemic injustices, and somehow operate outside of the social ills of American society; this blinds us to how we are also impacted by racism and immigration issues in America. Treating Asian American issues as a monolithic phenomenon, when the Asian American experience ranges widely based on ethnicity, class, gender, and sexuality is damaging — both on a structural and interpersonal level — to those who do not fit the standard stereotype.

Despite his circumstances, Shorty became a skilled electronics repair technician, got married, and had a young daughter who had just started kindergarten. He made a single mistake in 2009 when he broke three bar windows and was charged with 40 days of jail time for the damages. Since then, Shorty lived his life, supporting his family and his ailing parents, both of whom had become U.S. citizens. He has not reoffended since.

Waiting on God in Prison

However, new adminstrative orders regarding deportation rolled in with the Trump administration, allowing ICE officials to actively target immigrants with previous infractions. On August 29, 2016, Shorty was detained by ICE when he was doing his regular supervision check-in that he had been doing every six months since 2013. Since then, Montha has been advocating for Shorty’s case as a part of the Release Minnesota 8 movement. 

New adminstrative orders regarding deportation rolled in, allowing ICE officials to actively target immigrants with previous infractions.

Despite — or perhaps because of — this hardship, Montha and her husband Socheat have found their faith to be a source of strength for their family and Shorty over this past year. “God has such a bigger purpose, and there will be so much glory given to God’s name when Shorty is released,” Montha said.

“I know that there will be a story told of how God moved through him throughout this entire process. Even though it’s been really hard for my family, I’ve learned so much through this and I’ve had many opportunities to share Shorty’s story, speak at different workshops, lead workshops, and meet with legislatures and congressional leaders.”

On May 17, 2017, an immigration judge ruled to cancel Shorty’s deportation, citing the irreparable harm and hardship it would cause his family. In the midst of celebrating Shorty’s imminent release, Montha and her family found out that the Department of Homeland Security would be appealing the judge’s decision. Montha and her family are now simply waiting until the Board of Immigration’s decision is made, gripping both long-suffering pain and patience. 

Yes, Shorty made a mistake, for which he already served his due time. But does that warrant decimating a family and sending him to a country he has never been to? Under the Trump administration, we are seeing our justice system bent on expelling those who belong to the only homes they’ve known here except on paper. In the false dichotomy of good or bad immigrants, empathy and compassion — and ultimately righteous justice — are exchanged for political power moves. 

Yes, Shorty made a mistake — does that warrant decimating a family and sending him to a country he has never been to?

Yet, as the complicated execution of what is considered justice plays out in the lives of those on the margins, God is also making moves. In response to the appeal, Socheat recounted how he’s seen Scripture come alive during his brother-in-law’s case. “We’ve seen through prayer — many may call it a coincidence — mountain after mountain move to the point where everyone who should be against him is now for him.”

“The county attorney, the bar owner who was the victim of the 2009 incident, and the judge who granted his release have all written letters in support of Shorty’s release. The fact that the government is currently appealing the judge’s decision isn’t a surprise to us, because we know it’s just part of the battle, part of the journey that Shorty is on to mold him as a brother in Christ. ‘Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces character, and character produces hope’ (Romans 5:3-4, ESV). Although we continue to battle challenges and face opposition, that doesn’t change who God is to us.”

Life right now for Montha, Socheat, and their family is a balance of waiting for God to make the next move and recognizing when God is inviting them into action. Socheat said, “We’ve had a lot of faith, and one thing we’ve always told ourselves is faith without action is dead. So we pray all the time, and we have lots of prayer warriors standing with us. Through our prayer, God provides those open doors, and we have to step through them.” 

"Through our prayer, God provides those open doors, and we have to step through them.” 

While there are some who won’t support Shorty’s case because of Shorty’s past, and others who hold a fixed stance on immigration issues before hearing Shorty’s situation, Socheat is thankful for the “support from many of our Christian family, from those who have stood in the gap with us.”

The amount of faith that Montha, Socheat, and Shorty have may seem extraordinary, but it’s also the kind of faith that can sustain them beyond ordinary faith. It’s what propels Montha to keep organizing and speaking out for her brother, and Socheat to keep praying with congressional leaders at meetings and events, despite the emotional pain and stress they’ve experienced.

In this time of uncertainty and waiting for decisions over which they have no control, Montha and Socheat continue to be still and know that God is God. Waiting on God’s timing can be both difficult and reassuring. As Socheat says, “Some days are easier than others, but it means that in the end, no matter what challenges we face, or what the outcome is, we know that God is in control. Being still doesn’t mean that we aren’t human or that we don’t have feelings or emotions. It means that in hard times and good times, God is our comforter; His word remains truth in our life, and because of that, we can find peace.”

Waiting on God’s timing can be both difficult and reassuring.

After being detained by ICE for 387 days, Shorty was released on September 18, 2017. He is the first person in Ramsey County to have ever been resentenced after completing probation. In two years, Shorty will be able to apply for citizenship since he is no longer an “aggravated felon”. His next step is to file another motion for a cancellation of removal, which, if granted, will enable him to apply for citizenship immediately and readjust the history of his legal permanent residence status to July 19, 1984. While life may not be “normal” for a long time, Shorty can start returning to his day-to-day life at home.

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