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Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Pupil Danny Thongsy: We are able to look inside ourselves to search out power and persevere

Danny Thongsy, a previously incarcerated Laotian American pupil at UC Berkeley, shares his journey to America as a political refugee and the governor’s pardon that gave him hope for his future. (Illustration by Neil Freese)

This I’m a Berkeleyan was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with undergraduate pupil and Underground Scholar Danny Thongsy.

I’ve made errors in my life that I’ve tried my greatest to study and develop from. Some are small, some are huge, and a few have an enduring impression. These life classes have formed me to be who I’m right now.

However as a previously incarcerated Southeast Asian immigrant, I really feel like there must be an consciousness, and a extra inclusive perspective, of my group and our experiences.

The one motive I’m a UC Berkeley pupil right now is due to the help I’ve gotten from my group. Right here at Berkeley, I’ve been empowered to proceed to succeed in out for assist and help from the numerous numerous communities I belong to.

Archival photo of Hmong troops in Laos.

Anti-communist troops in Laos in 1961. (Wikimedia Commons photograph)

I used to be born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979.

Initially from Laos, my household fled there within the late Nineteen Seventies due to the key conflict between the USA and Laos. It was a civil battle that spilled over from the Vietnam Struggle and was backed by the U.S. authorities as a option to battle towards communism in Laos and different elements of Southeast Asia.

However when the conflict was misplaced to the communists, many Laotian households had been killed by the brand new regime, and others, like my household, fled to close by camps. The refugee camp itself was actually tough to reside in. Troopers had been all the time operating round with weapons. It was crowded, folks had been sick and dying, and there was an absence of meals and medical sources.

Because of the dying of my older sister, and the trauma of the conflict, my father turned mentally unstable and suffered from schizophrenia. My mom informed me he would run into the forest at night time and roam the fields alone, simply speaking to himself.

When my mom, older brother and myself resettled in Stockton, California, within the early Eighties, my father was left behind in Thailand. I used to be two years outdated and would by no means get to see him alive once more.

My mom remarried my stepfather in 1984. He was additionally a conflict refugee from Laos who had a son from one other marriage.


Being a refugee dwelling in America was actually difficult. We weren’t accustomed to American tradition and traditions. My dad and mom didn’t converse English and didn’t know methods to ask for assist or the place to get help for the trauma they had been experiencing as a result of conflict.

Throughout the day, I’d typically see my mom area out for no obvious motive in any respect. And my stepfather would use alcohol to manage. Seeing this affected me, too.

As a child, I didn’t speak a lot, and I’d maintain my feelings inside. I used to be typically in bother, stepping into fights with different youngsters, skipping courses and never prioritizing faculty.

As an adolescent, my group of buddies had been all refugee youngsters, too. We bonded as a result of we had been going by way of an identical expertise. The neighborhood we lived in, traditionally, was impoverished with gang tradition and overpoliced. There was additionally a historical past of redlining that segregated the realm by race and sophistication. These had been systemic points we needed to discover ways to navigate.


The gang tradition that surrounded us additionally influenced how we took up area as a bunch. We had been bullied and picked on by different American youngsters that had been a part of neighborhood gangs. They didn’t actually perceive who we had been as Laotian refugees and would make enjoyable of us. That introduced us nearer collectively to construct our personal group, our personal gang, to guard ourselves.

Adverse influences turned normalized.

I began consuming medication and alcohol to slot in and to discover a sense of belonging. However I additionally began doing troublesome issues and would get arrested.

After I was 16, my mom despatched me to reside with my older brother. She felt he might assist straighten me out. Staying with my brother gave me a construction of values that I wanted. He helped me enroll again into faculty, and he pushed me to be a greater model of myself. He held me accountable every time I’d get in bother and hung out with me.

However once I was 17, he was murdered, and I felt just like the very material and basis of my life was simply taken away.


I ended up falling right into a deep melancholy. And naturally, being that child that I used to be at the moment, I didn’t know methods to ask for assist. That melancholy continued to spiral and become anger that led me to finish up retaliating for his dying.

I used to be incarcerated on the age of 17 and sentenced to life in jail for taking one other individual’s life. I believed my life was over.

Sitting in jail gave me numerous time to replicate on what I had executed. I felt a heavy sense of guilt, and I used to be additionally nonetheless grieving my brother’s dying and apprehensive about my mom, who was experiencing medical illnesses.

I’d break down and cry, wishing none of it had ever occurred. The truth that I had damage one other individual, and {that a} life was taken from their household, remains to be devastating to at the present time. It doesn’t matter what I do, it should by no means make up for the hurt I’ve precipitated.

I knew I wanted to make a change.

Danny Thongsy stands at a podium wearing a graduation outfit.

Thongsy, center, throughout a commencement ceremony for the affiliate’s diploma he earned whereas incarcerated. (Picture courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

Church in jail was a group the place folks had been in a position to escape the politics and misery of the jail yard. It additionally supplied a group of people who had related life experiences as me and had already remodeled their lives. That gave me the consolation and hope that I wanted.

My spirituality actually helped me develop a way of steadiness inside. It additionally motivated me and gave me confidence to attempt for a greater life. I studied to get my GED, and I additionally earned an affiliate’s diploma whereas incarcerated. I bought concerned with Bible examine teams, mentored different prisoners and helped them with life expertise and psychological well being points.

After I transferred to Folsom State Jail to be nearer to Stockton, the place my mom lived, I acquired a letter within the mail saying that she had handed away. Devastated, I couldn’t imagine this was occurring.

But it surely was a wake-up name for me that we don’t have as a lot time as we predict.

Danny Thongsy and friends at his parole hearing

Thongsy posed with buddies and activists at his parole listening to within the state capitol. (Picture courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

I requested to be transferred to San Quentin State Jail and actually began to deal with getting paroled. In 2015, the California Senate handed a regulation that expanded the youth offender parole course of. Since I used to be a youth once I dedicated the crime, I used to be allowed to seem earlier than the parole board early, as an alternative of getting to attend to serve my most sentence, 27 years to life.

When the parole commissioners interviewed me and understood my transformation, I used to be in a position to earn my parole. However my immigration standing was impacted as a result of I had a felony. My inexperienced card was stripped away, and I might be deported to Laos, despite the fact that I had by no means even stepped foot in that nation in my life.

Flawed militarized international coverage precipitated us to flee our nation to America and right into a neighborhood the place folks of shade are surrounded by an atmosphere that funnels us into the school-to-prison pipeline.

And now, after serving my time, I used to be being funneled right into a flawed immigration system that needed to discard me with out even contemplating the modifications I had made in my life. I proceed to see this pattern occurring to folks I do know and the way it negatively impacts their households.

It’s the way in which the system is structured, and it’s unhappy.

I’d break down and cry… The truth that I had damage one other individual, and {that a} life was taken from their household, remains to be devastating to at the present time.”

Being paroled and transferred over to ICE was like being punished once more for what I had already paid my debt to society for. I used to be interrogated, then put right into a federal detention facility for 30 days earlier than assembly with an immigration decide who ordered me to be deported.

I knew folks from locations like Mexico, Cambodia and the Philippines in these conditions that had been instantly banished and deported to their household’s nation of origin.

So, in my thoughts, I used to be simply fascinated by my household and my group and being separated from them. I used to be afraid of getting to adapt to a brand new authorities, tradition and language.

I additionally feared being killed once I bought to Laos.

However I used to be one of many lucky ones, and I used to be not deported as a result of there was no repatriation program or arbitration settlement between the U.S. and Laos. So, they launched me, however I used to be nonetheless beneath federal supervision.

For 3 years, I needed to examine in with ICE periodically. First, it was each three to 6 months, after which yearly they’d give me a date I wanted to report back to them. If there was any change within the coverage, they might handcuff me and deport me.

Danny Thongsy with relatives

Thongsy visiting relations in Stockton, Calif. (Picture courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

Going to the ICE constructing was all the time horrifying. The night time earlier than, I’d spend time with my household and buddies and say goodbye, simply in case.

I might be right here with them sooner or later and gone the subsequent.

So, I started working in the neighborhood with organizations like Asian Individuals Advancing Justice – Asian Regulation Caucus and the Asian Prisoner Assist Committee to advocate for felony justice reform for previously incarcerated immigrants going through deportation.

All of those communities additionally had a way of urgency to get my standing modified, as properly. Our analysis discovered {that a} pardon by the governor would launch me from the specter of deportation.

A pardon marketing campaign was began for me, and when Governor Gavin Newsom heard about my story and the help I had from my group, in fall 2020 he needed to fulfill with me on a Zoom name.

I used to be nervous.

However when Newsom appeared on the display, the very first thing he mentioned was, “What the hell occurred?” That broke the ice and made me really feel comfy. We had an informal dialog about my life experiences, the group work I had executed, my future plans and the way I had modified from a younger misplaced child to who I’m right now.

I felt like he noticed the humanity in me, that I used to be an precise individual and never only a quantity on a chunk of paper. A month later, I acquired a name that my pardon had been granted, and I broke down in tears.

Group of people advocating for Danny Thongsy's pardon

Neighborhood activists advocated for Thongsy and arranged a marketing campaign to get him pardoned. (Picture courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

I considered my mom and my brother. I considered all of the people who had fought alongside and advocated for me. I believed in regards to the sufferer’s household that I had harmed and the group that had held me up by way of powerful occasions. I used to be and am perpetually grateful.

With the worry of deportation gone, I used to be in a position to deal with my dream of going to UC Berkeley. I used to be taking group school courses at Laney Faculty by way of the Restoring Our Communities program, and related with Berkeley’s Underground Students Initiative. Just a few months later, I bought accepted to Berkeley for the autumn 2021 semester: I used to be on cloud 9.

My first day on campus, I checked out my pupil ID and in contrast it to my outdated ID, and all I might suppose was, “That is superb.” It was like I used to be a unique individual, and every thing I had been by way of led to this second.

Berkeley’s NavCal and Underground Students applications have since supported me in navigating campus sources and to attach with completely different communities within the space. As a sociology main, I wish to perceive the deeper spectrum of inequitable felony justice insurance policies which have impacted my immigrant group since I used to be a toddler.

Danny Thongsy speaking to a state committee

Thongsy advocated to cease deportations in California to a state capitol committee. (Picture courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

I wish to discover artistic options that may change these insurance policies and produce down the school-to- jail pipeline. And Berkeley has given me the chance to try this.

My analysis at the moment focuses on how deportation insurance policies impression previously incarcerated immigrants’ reentry into society after being in jail. Quite a lot of occasions, what falls by way of the cracks in analysis is how households of these being deported and/or incarcerated are affected by these insurance policies, by the shortage of sources they get to remain related and the trauma that happens.

This analysis is knowledgeable by the work I proceed to do in my group as a grassroots advocate. However it doesn’t matter what good I do, once I consider the household that I harmed with my actions and the crime I dedicated, I don’t really feel deserving of this life I now have.

However I hope that individuals will take away from my story a way of perseverance.

That it doesn’t matter what errors we make in life, we study by way of perseverance. And we are able to look inside ourselves, our struggles and experiences, and know that we are able to use them to beat challenges and to result in change from inside.

Danny Thongsy wearing a Berkeley sweater

“I wish to discover artistic options that may change these insurance policies and produce down the school-to- jail pipeline,” mentioned Thongsy. “And Berkeley has given me the chance to try this.” (Picture by Joyce Xi)

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