Local pastor is petitioning governor to halt his deportation
The Rev. Vanna In sits outside his Fresno church and imagines the worst.
The pastor is used to uplifting people, but on this particular Friday, he's the one asking for some help.
The 42-year-old father of three young children faces the threat of deportation to Cambodia, a country he's never set foot in.
In is a licensed pastor of student and family ministries at North Fresno Church - Mennonite Brethren and volunteers as an assistant flag football coach at Robinson Elementary School. He previously worked with two organizations that helped get gang members off the streets and become productive members of society.
His work with young people spans a wide age range, from middle school to adults in their late 20s.
He loves helping people become more "welcoming, loving and forgiving" so they can build healthy relationships and "love the world the way God loves us."
A painful past
His life was very different 20-plus years ago. A challenging childhood led him to join a gang as a teenager. He says his parents, who brought him to the U.S. from Vietnam at the age of 2, still carried the trauma of war in Vietnam and a Cambodian genocide.
"My family was never professionally diagnosed, but there was definitely PTSD. There was a lot of unhealthy parenting that caused one, like myself, to question, 'Am I worthy to be alive? Am I worthy to be a part of the family? Am I good for anything?"
He found a sense of belonging in the gang, which eventually landed him in serious trouble. He was convicted of second degree murder.
During an interview with Christian website CBN.com, In acknowledged he and fellow gang members committed a drive-by shooting and killed a rival gang member. According to the website he was arrested in 1994, tried and convicted as an adult.
Locked inside the California Youth Authority, he decided to change his life for the better. He led a Bible study group and found a faith that transformed his life.
"It helped me spiritually, psychologically, emotionally," In says of his Christian faith. "It healed all the scars, helped me to learn how to forgive."
The threat of deportation
He changed, but his criminal record remains, and that puts him at greater risk for deportation. It also prevents him from applying to become a U.S. citizen. A presidential executive order directs the Department of Homeland Security to prioritize the removal of undocumented immigrants who have been convicted of any criminal offense.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported 92 percent of its arrests during fiscal year 2017 were of immigrants with criminal convictions or pending criminal charges, or who illegally reentered the country or are deemed an immigration fugitive.
A gubernatorial pardon could give In the chance to take his case back to an immigration judge, who could overturn his deportation order. It's happened before. Just last month, a pardon from Brown got national attention for clearing the way for deported Army veteran Hector Barajas to return home and become a citizen.
In's case is more unusual in that on paper, he's already deported. But at the time of signing his deportation order in 2001, In says, Cambodia wasn't taking back its citizens. Although he was born in Vietnam, In is considered a Cambodian national.
Since he signed his order, others have been deported to Cambodia. In says some were living in Fresno. He lives in a constant state of anxiety and fear.
ICE reported deporting 29 Cambodian nationals in fiscal year 2017. The majority of deportations during that period – 128,765 of 226,119 – were to Mexico.
In says he checks in with ICE as he's required to. The last time was in February.
"There's always a high level of anxiety because they don't have to take me while I check in, they can take me anytime. But anytime you go to the place where it says ICE, it's kind of scary."
His three young children, wife, and mother-in-law are U.S. citizens. If deported, he fears they would experience "unimaginable pain and heartache that I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy – that I wouldn't want to wish on anybody."
He wants the chance to become a citizen.
"I grew up thinking that I was an American citizen. I thought I was an American. I was American through and through."
Of his petition to Brown: "It gives me a glimmer of hope that I could possibly be a citizen of this great nation – and I never thought that was possible, and now there's some hope. There's some hope that this country can continue to be forgiving."
After In was released from the California Youth Authority in 2001, he worked as a vocational placement counselor with Hope Now For Youth in Fresno, which aims to "bring youth out of gangs into a productive life through loving and caring relationships and jobs."
He helped more than 125 young men get full-time jobs, and has given more than 100 anti-gang presentations, workshops and speeches at public schools and community events.
"If anyone deserves to receive a pardon from the governor, it's Vanna In, who has hundreds of times over paid back our society for the crimes he committed," said the Rev. Roger Minassian, founder of Hope Now For Youth.
While working for Hope Now For Youth, In went to college and earned a master's degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary. He went on to co-found Jobs of Hope in Greeley, Colorado, helping more than 80 young men and women there find full-time jobs.
"We have graduates that I'm working with today that will tell me that Vanna saved their lives," said Pres Montoya, its director.
Montoya said his community misses In's caring personality and ability to connect with people.
In left Colorado to care for his ailing mother-in-law in Fresno, where he's been living with his family for the past two years.
"Vanna has contributed far more than the average citizen to the well-being of Fresno and the state," said Duncan Wanless, a UC Berkeley student who helped hire In at North Fresno Church. "He's done so much, and it would honestly be a crime to allow him to go to a country he's never even been to, taken away from his family and children."
At the church Friday, In smiles as he watches his two youngest children, Thanny, 2, and Jeevin, 4, play on a set of drums in the youth room.
"The goal is to give them a life I didn't have," he says, and to "break the cycle of violence."
Of his work as a pastor, In says, "What doesn't change is the need for a young person to belong or to know that they're loved. That's timeless.
"Every one of us, we want a sense of belonging, we want a place where we can be welcomed and not judged by the country we were born in."
In filed his paperwork for a gubernatorial pardon in December and made his change.org petition after signing a similar petition for a friend.
He hopes that sharing his story will "bring some humanity to this lightning rod topic." He says it's easy to say "send them all back" when "we've kept people at arms' length."
"Once they take the time to meet somebody like myself, hopefully the goal is that their perspective would change, because this is not a political issue. This is really a human issue. … It's a family issue."