Chanthan Mo was born in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge genocide. When he was a toddler, his family was forced to flee across the border to Thailand and later moved to a refugee camp in the Philippines. Eventually in 1984, his family resettled as refugees in Stockton.
Chanthan grew up in a poor and gang-controlled neighborhood but managed to stay out of trouble and never got in trouble with the police. Still, the streets of Stockton at that time were violent and unpredictable.
One evening in 1998, Chanthan was walking around with his friend in Stockton. Another youth began yelling at them and started a fight. Chanthan was confused because he did not know the other person or why he was angry at him. Chanthan’s friend did not know or have any conflict with the other youth either. As tension arised, an older man in his 50s came out and attempted to swing a piece of lumber. Chanthan’s friend managed to get a hold of the lumber and defended them by swinging at the attacker. They both then ran away.
Days later, Chanthan was shocked when he heard that the other person had passed away. Chanthan turned himself in to the police and was arrested. Chanthan’s lawyer told him to accept a plea deal to voluntary manslaughter with a prison sentence but did not explain that the plea would also mean deportation. Chanthan accepted the deal hoping to serve his sentence and return home. It was Chanthan’s first and only criminal conviction.
While in prison, Chanthan completed his GED and stayed out of trouble. To his surprise, on his release date, ICE agents arrested him. An Immigration Judge ordered Chanthan to be deported but after Cambodia refused to recognize him as a citizen, ICE released him.
Chanthan returned to Stockton and went to work rebuilding his life. He opened a tattoo business and met Tina, his future wife. Chanthan stayed out of trouble. In 2011, ICE raided Chanthan’s home and deported him with no warning. Tina was pregnant at the time with their son, Tristen. Tina and Chanthan made the difficult decision for her and their newborn son to uproot their lives and move to Cambodia to be together as a family.
Both Chanthan and Tina, who is Vietnamese-American, struggled to adjust to life in Cambodia while raising a newborn without speaking the language, knowing the culture, or having access to good medical care. Chanthan opened a tattoo shop in Cambodia and eventually developed a loyal customer base but still struggles financially. Tina has struggled being away from her family in Stockton particularly her elderly parents. The family considered bringing their Tina’s parents to Cambodia, but they are worried that he might not be able to access the medical care he needs.
In 2015, the Ninth Circuit held in another case that Chanthan’s conviction was not a deportable offense. Even though he should not have been deported, immigration law does not provide an easy way for him to return. Chanthan is asking an immigration judge to reopen his deportation order and is also seeking a pardon from Governor Newsom.