Sear Un’s early life was filled with one bad turn after another—a turbulent youth as a migrant in California, an impulsive crime that landed him behind bars, a post-prison battle with addiction. Since then the Cambodian-born refugee has been working hard to turn his life around with sobriety, a steady job and a young family. But last fall the Trump administration put his whole life in reverse, ordering him to return to the country he escaped decades ago in the midst of war.
Then another unexpected twist came on Christmas Eve: an 11th-hour pardon by Governor Jerry Brown that rescued him from deportation. The one-page letter granting clemency for a burglary conviction from 1997 affirmed that Un—who migrated to the United States at age 7—had redeemed himself by living “an upright and honest life” and demonstrating “good moral character.” And the clemency helped spare Un the fate that now looms over hundreds of other Southeast Asian refugees who could be uprooted after spending most of their lives in the US, because of criminal convictions dating back decades.