Campus & community, People, Profiles

Student Danny Thongsy: We can look within ourselves to find strength and persevere

A formerly incarcerated Laotian American student shares his journey to America as a political refugee and the governor’s pardon that gave him hope for his future

Illustration of Danny Thongsy

Danny Thongsy, a formerly incarcerated Laotian American student 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 student and Underground Scholar Danny Thongsy.

I’ve made mistakes in my life that I’ve tried my best to learn and grow from. Some are small, some are big, and some have a lasting impact. These life lessons have shaped me to be who I am today.

But as a formerly incarcerated Southeast Asian immigrant, I feel like there needs to be an awareness, and a more inclusive perspective, of my community and our experiences.

The only reason I am a UC Berkeley student today is because of the support I’ve gotten from my community. Here at Berkeley, I have been empowered to continue to reach out for help and support from the many diverse communities I belong to.

Archival photo of Hmong troops in Laos.

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

I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979.

Originally from Laos, my family fled there in the late 1970s because of the secret war between the United States and Laos. It was a civil conflict that spilled over from the Vietnam War and was backed by the U.S. government as a way to fight against communism in Laos and other parts of Southeast Asia.

But when the war was lost to the communists, many Laotian families were killed by the new regime, and others, like my family, fled to nearby camps. The refugee camp itself was really difficult to live in. Soldiers were always running around with weapons. It was crowded, people were sick and dying, and there was a lack of food and medical resources.

Due to the death of my older sister, and the trauma of the war, my father became mentally unstable and suffered from schizophrenia. My mother told me he would run into the forest at night and roam the fields alone, just talking to himself.

When my mother, older brother and myself resettled in Stockton, California, in the early 1980s, my father was left behind in Thailand. I was two years old and would never get to see him alive again.

My mother remarried my stepfather in 1984. He was also a war refugee from Laos who had a son from another marriage.

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Being a refugee living in America was really challenging. We were not accustomed to American culture and traditions. My parents didn’t speak English and didn’t know how to ask for help or where to get support for the trauma they were experiencing due to the war.

During the day, I would often see my mother space out for no apparent reason at all. And my stepfather would use alcohol to cope. Seeing this affected me, too.

As a kid, I didn’t talk much, and I would hold my emotions inside. I was often in trouble, getting into fights with other kids, skipping classes and not prioritizing school.

As a teenager, my group of friends were all refugee kids, too. We bonded because we were going through a similar experience. The neighborhood we lived in, historically, was impoverished with gang culture and overpoliced. There was also a history of redlining that segregated the area by race and class. These were systemic issues we had to learn how to navigate.

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The gang culture that surrounded us also influenced how we took up space as a group. We were bullied and picked on by other American kids that were part of neighborhood gangs. They didn’t really understand who we were as Laotian refugees and would make fun of us. That brought us closer together to build our own community, our own gang, to protect ourselves.

Negative influences became normalized.

I started consuming drugs and alcohol to fit in and to find a sense of belonging. But I also started doing troublesome things and would get arrested.

When I was 16, my mother sent me to live with my older brother. She felt he could help straighten me out. Staying with my brother gave me a structure of values that I needed. He helped me enroll back into school, and he pushed me to be a better version of myself. He held me accountable whenever I’d get in trouble and spent time with me.

But when I was 17, he was murdered, and I felt like the very fabric and foundation of my life was just taken away.

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I ended up falling into a deep depression. And of course, being that kid that I was at that time, I didn’t know how to ask for help. That depression continued to spiral and turned into anger that led me to end up retaliating for his death.

I was incarcerated at the age of 17 and sentenced to life in prison for taking another person’s life. I thought my life was over.

Sitting in prison gave me a lot of time to reflect on what I had done. I felt a heavy sense of guilt, and I was also still grieving my brother’s death and worried about my mother, who was experiencing medical ailments.

I would break down and cry, wishing none of it had ever happened. The fact that I had hurt another person, and that a life was taken from their family, is still devastating to this day. No matter what I do, it will never make up for the harm I have caused.

I knew I needed to make a change.

Danny Thongsy stands at a podium wearing a graduation outfit.

Thongsy, middle, during a graduation ceremony for the associate’s degree he earned while incarcerated. (Photo courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

Church in prison was a community where people were able to escape the politics and distress of the prison yard. It also provided a community of people that had similar life experiences as me and had already transformed their lives. That gave me the comfort and hope that I needed.

My spirituality really helped me develop a sense of balance within. It also motivated me and gave me confidence to strive for a better life. I studied to get my GED, and I also earned an associate’s degree while incarcerated. I got involved with Bible study groups, mentored other prisoners and helped them with life skills and mental health issues.

After I transferred to Folsom State Prison to be closer to Stockton, where my mother lived, I received a letter in the mail saying that she had passed away. Devastated, I couldn’t believe this was happening.

But it was a wake-up call for me that we don’t have as much time as we think.

Danny Thongsy and friends at his parole hearing

Thongsy posed with friends and activists at his parole hearing in the state capitol. (Photo courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

I requested to be transferred to San Quentin State Prison and really started to focus on getting paroled. In 2015, the California Senate passed a law that expanded the youth offender parole process. Since I was a youth when I committed the crime, I was allowed to appear before the parole board early, instead of having to wait to serve my maximum sentence, 27 years to life.

When the parole commissioners interviewed me and understood my transformation, I was able to earn my parole. But my immigration status was impacted because I had a felony. My green card was stripped away, and I could be deported to Laos, even though I had never even stepped foot in that country in my life.

Flawed militarized foreign policy caused us to flee our country to America and into a neighborhood where people of color are surrounded by an environment that funnels us into the school-to-prison pipeline.

And now, after serving my time, I was being funneled into a flawed immigration system that wanted to discard me without even considering the changes I had made in my life. I continue to see this trend happening to people I know and how it negatively impacts their families.

It’s the way the system is structured, and it is sad.

I would break down and cry… The fact that I had hurt another person, and that a life was taken from their family, is still devastating to this day.”

Being paroled and transferred over to ICE was like being punished again for what I had already paid my debt to society for. I was interrogated, then put into a federal detention facility for 30 days before meeting with an immigration judge who ordered me to be deported.

I knew people from places like Mexico, Cambodia and the Philippines in these situations that were immediately banished and deported to their family’s country of origin.

So, in my mind, I was just thinking about my family and my community and being separated from them. I was afraid of having to adapt to a new government, culture and language.

I also feared being killed when I got to Laos.

But I was one of the fortunate ones, and I was not deported because there was no repatriation program or arbitration agreement between the U.S. and Laos. So, they released me, but I was still under federal supervision.

For three years, I had to check in with ICE periodically. First, it was every three to six months, and then once a year they would give me a date I needed to report to them. If there was any change in the policy, they could handcuff me and deport me.

Danny Thongsy with relatives

Thongsy visiting relatives in Stockton, Calif. (Photo courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

Going to the ICE building was always frightening. The night before, I would spend time with my family and friends and say goodbye, just in case.

I could be here with them one day and gone the next.

So, I began working in the community with organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee to advocate for criminal justice reform for formerly incarcerated immigrants facing deportation.

All of these communities also had a sense of urgency to get my status changed, as well. Our research found that a pardon by the governor would release me from the threat of deportation.

A pardon campaign was started for me, and when Governor Gavin Newsom heard about my story and the support I had from my community, in fall 2020 he wanted to meet with me on a Zoom call.

I was nervous.

But when Newsom appeared on the screen, the first thing he said was, “What the hell happened?” That broke the ice and made me feel comfortable. We had a casual conversation about my life experiences, the community work I had done, my future plans and how I had changed from a young lost kid to who I am today.

I felt like he saw the humanity in me, that I was an actual person and not just a number on a piece of paper. A month later, I received a call that my pardon had been granted, and I broke down in tears.

Group of people advocating for Danny Thongsy's pardon

Community activists advocated for Thongsy and organized a campaign to get him pardoned. (Photo courtesy of Danny Thongsy)

I thought about my mother and my brother. I thought about all the people that had fought alongside and advocated for me. I thought about the victim’s family that I had harmed and the community that had held me up through tough times. I was and am forever grateful.

With the fear of deportation gone, I was able to focus on my dream of going to UC Berkeley. I was taking community college classes at Laney College through the Restoring Our Communities program, and connected with Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Initiative. A few months later, I got accepted to Berkeley for the fall 2021 semester: I was on cloud nine.

My first day on campus, I looked at my student ID and compared it to my old ID, and all I could think was, “This is amazing.” It was like I was a different person, and everything I had been through led to this moment.

Berkeley’s NavCal and Underground Scholars programs have since supported me in navigating campus resources and to connect with different communities in the area. As a sociology major, I want to understand the deeper spectrum of inequitable criminal justice policies that have impacted my immigrant community since I was a child.

Danny Thongsy speaking to a state committee

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

I want to find creative solutions that can change these policies and bring down the school-to- prison pipeline. And Berkeley has given me the opportunity to do that.

My research currently focuses on how deportation policies impact formerly incarcerated immigrants’ reentry into society after being in prison. A lot of times, what falls through the cracks in research is how families of those being deported and/or incarcerated are affected by these policies, by the lack of resources they get to stay connected and the trauma that occurs.

This research is informed by the work I continue to do in my community as a grassroots advocate. But no matter what good I do, when I think of the family that I harmed with my actions and the crime I committed, I do not feel deserving of this life I now have.

But I hope that people will take away from my story a sense of perseverance.

That no matter what mistakes we make in life, we learn through perseverance. And we can look within ourselves, our struggles and experiences, and know that we can use them to overcome challenges and to bring about change from within.

Danny Thongsy wearing a Berkeley sweater

“I want to find creative solutions that can change these policies and bring down the school-to- prison pipeline,” said Thongsy. “And Berkeley has given me the opportunity to do that.” (Photo by Joyce Xi)