Ny Nourn's first real glimpse of freedom, after 16 years in prison, was from the back of a US Immigration and Customs Enforcement van. She hadn't even had a chance to step outside the gates before an ICE agent shackled her arms and legs.
She recalls staring at the trees, grass, and the sky through the van window during the three-hour drive from the Central California Women's Facility to the Yuba County Jail, which holds ICE detainees on a contract basis. "I got overwhelming feelings of joy, excitement, that I'm finally leaving prison," she said in a phone call from the jailhouse. "But yet, in reality, I'm not free. I will [still] be detained."
In 2003, Nourn was convicted of murder for her role in a fatal shooting perpetrated by her abusive boyfriend. For years, the media painted her case as a "love triangle gone wrong." Nourn's boyfriend shot and killed her boss after discovering that Nourn had slept with him, and Nourn helped to facilitate the murder, the story went. But Nourn and her current defense team paint a starkly different picture: Ny, then a teenager, was trapped in an increasingly abusive relationship with a man roughly twice her age. That fatal night, they say, she was terrified that he would kill her if she didn't do what he said.
Now, even though she has been granted parole, the 36-year-old will be stripped of her residency status and faces deportation to Cambodia—a country she has never been to.
Nourn's life has been shaped by violence since birth. In 1980, she was born in a Thailand refugee camp after her mother fled Cambodia. Five years later, she and her mother came to the United States as refugees, settling in Florida. The next year, they moved to San Diego, where Nourn's mother met the man who would become her stepfather. According to both Nourn and numerous expert psychologists who later examined her court documents, police reports, and videos, the adults' relationship was characterized by verbal, physical, and sexual violence, with Nourn's stepfather frequently threatening to have her mother deported if she called the police.
In turn, Nourn recounts that her mother was verbally and physically abusive towards her, telling her, "I wish you'd never been born" or "I wish I had left you [in Thailand]." What she witnessed at home became Nourn's model for relationships: "I never would have a man hit me," she said as she recounted her life in a series of phone calls to Broadly. "But I didn't know the warning flags."
At age 16, Nourn discovered the world of internet dating. It became her escape from the violence at home. "[Online] you could be any type of person you want," she said. When she was 17, she met 34-year-old Ron Barker online. They began dating and having sex, but within months, Nourn says, Barker became manipulative and controlling, restricting his teenage girlfriend's movements and attempting to isolate her from friends and family. "He told me that I was being watched, that I was being followed," she said. "At 17, I took it as 'This guy is really giving me attention. He really wants me.'"
But then his behavior became more menacing, according to the accounts that Nourn gave to court psychologists, the parole board, and to Broadly. He began calling her names and raising his hand as if to hit her. He sneaked into her home when her parents were out. He also persuaded Nourn to help him take out credit cards in her stepfather's name, running up tens of thousands of dollars in debt. He threatened to kill her if she ever tried to leave him. Like many victims of abuse, Nourn internalized the blame for his actions, thinking, "Maybe it's my fault. Maybe it's because I'm not the best girlfriend." She recalls that she was too embarrassed to tell anyone about their relationship, let alone the abuse.
Shortly after turning 18, she began working as a telemarketer for a dating service. When her boss, 38-year-old David Stevens, expressed an interest in her, she rationalized that having sex with him would be harmless so long as Barker did not find out. One night, she went to Stevens' apartment, where the two had sex. When she returned home later that night, Barker was waiting for her. She admitted to having sex with the other man. In response, she says, Barker hit her, raped her, and threatened to break up with her. It was the first time that he had ever laid his hands on her. (Broadly was unable to reach Barker, who is currently serving a life sentence in California.)
Terrified that he would become even more violent if she agreed to end their relationship, Nourn begged him not to leave her. Barker told her that the only way they would stay together was to kill Stevens; Nourn later told police she thought Barker would kill her if she didn't go along with his plan. "I felt so powerless," Nourn said over the phone. "He was not going to let me out of his car until I agreed. He had already put his hands on me and raped me."
Barker instructed Nourn to tell her boss that her car had broken down and she needed help. When Nourn and Stevens left his apartment, Barker followed them. He flagged them down, posing as Nourn's brother. He shot Stevens twice in the head, then set his car on fire.
"I got overwhelming feelings of joy, excitement, that I'm finally leaving prison. But yet, in reality, I'm not free."
"I'm not going to kill you as long as you listen to me," Barker told her afterwards, according to Nourn. "If you tell anybody about this, I'm going to kill you and I'm going to kill your family. Now you know what I'm capable of." Terrified, Nourn kept quiet for three years before finally going to the police. Police arrested her and Barker; Nourn's initial defense attorney had to be removed from the case after Barker threatened him, court documents show. Barker also attempted to have Nourn's family kidnapped and held hostage to force Nourn to take full responsibility for the murder.
The two were tried separately. In court, Barker represented himself and denied all of the charges. "I was not the one who did the crime," he told the jury, arguing that the burn marks on his arm came not from setting Stevens' car aflame but from his love of barbecuing. In his closing arguments, he never once mentioned Nourn by name; instead, he denied ever having killed or hurt anyone in his life and insisted that he was only guilty of committing adultery against his wife.
In 2003, Nourn was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. She appealed, submitting reports from four expert psychologists stating that she suffered from Battered Women's Syndrome, and was subsequently sentenced to 15 years to life. In January 2017, she was granted parole. Four months later, she left CDCR custody, only to be immediately shackled by an ICE agent and driven to detention.
In 2016, ICE deported 65,332 people—approximately 1,250 per week—who had been living in the US. (This number does not include the 174,923 people detained and deported at or near the border.) Under the current administration, these numbers are likely to increase.
Ny Nourn is part of a group facing the most extreme threat of deportation: immigrants in jails and prisons. The Criminal Alien Program, or CAP, is ICE's largest deportation program. CAP is responsible for between two-thirds and three-quarters of all deportations from within the United States (or deportations that did not happen at the border). Under CAP, immigration officials have access to jails and prisons to look for immigrants who are deemed deportable. From 2010 to 2013, CAP was responsible for nearly 508,000 deportations. Its scope grew dramatically along with its budget, from $6.6 million in 2004 to $192.5 million in 2010 to $316.2 million in 2016. The intersections of criminalization and deportation have gained increasing attention in recent years, even garnering the term "crimmigration."
Nourn is also part of a smaller subgroup, one on which no data is kept: immigrants who have survived domestic violence and incarceration, only to face deportation once they leave prison. Abuse survivors are disproportionately represented in prisons and jails: According to the ACLU, nearly 60 percent of American women in prison have a history of physical or sexual abuse, with the rate reaching a startling 94 percent in some prison populations. Nourn has experienced this harsh reality firsthand. "I haven't met a woman who has not been in an abusive relationship in my entire 16 years in prison," she said.
Some didn't originally identify their partners' violence for what it was—she recalls one roommate who didn't think that her boyfriend hitting her constituted abuse. "I encouraged her to do therapy, and I'm really proud of her," Nourn says. "I told her, 'No one has the right to control anybody or to put their hands on you.'" It's a lesson that Nourn learned through attending counseling and self-help groups in prison—one that she wished she'd learned years earlier as a young girl on the outside.
Anoop Prasad, a staff attorney for Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and Nourn's current attorney, represents low-income immigrants facing deportation because of their criminal convictions. He says that every woman he's represented has been a survivor of abuse. But, while immigrant survivors without convictions can seek relief under the Violence Against Women Act, those same forms of relief are closed to survivors with criminal convictions. This is because of a litany of laws that subject immigrants who have been convicted of felonies to specific, harsh punishments: The 1988 Anti Drug Abuse Act, which infamously required mandatory drug sentences, also contained an immigration provision creating the category of aggravated felonies that subject immigrants to deportation. The Immigration Act of 1990 created additional penalties for aggravated felonies. The 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act required the mandatory detention of non-citizens convicted of a wide range of charges. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, also passed in 1996, expanded that list.
"This series of bills brought the immigration and criminal systems much closer together," says Prasad. "Both systems became harsher and more aligned." In 2013, 40 percent (or 52,935) of deportations of immigrants living in the US were of people with aggravated felonies.
Just as criminalization doesn't affect all people equally, neither does immigration enforcement. "Who's in immigration detention looks a lot like who's in jail," Prasad adds. That includes people with mental health issues, poor people, queer people, those from marginalized communities, and domestic violence survivors. In other words, those with less access to resources and opportunities.
After years of counseling, Nourn understands how her parents' experiences with war and genocide shaped their interactions. They have since reconciled and, though it's rare for them to travel 400 miles to visit her given their advanced age and declining health, her parents have done their best to stay connected. Being deported means Nourn will be unable to help care for them in their last years; given the distance between California and Cambodia, it also means that she may never see them again.
Nourn also fears that Barker, who is still in prison but has family in Asia, will be able to fulfill his threats to have her killed. In Cambodia, she notes, the government would not be able to protect her. "He's always told me, 'I will never let you go.' I believe that, even though it's been 16 years," she said. "He still thinks it's my fault, that I put him in prison."
However, Nourn is not giving up. On August 11, she has one last immigration hearing. Normally, a judge cannot consider possible mitigating factors when deciding upon deportation. For Nourn, this means that her youth, history of abuse, culpability, or years of rehabilitation can't be taken into account. But she and the Asian Law Caucus are making the case against deportation under the Convention Against Torture and her fear of being harmed if she is repatriated.
"What purpose is deportation serving?" asks Prasad. "It's not supposed to be punitive." In California, the governor must approve parole before an applicant is released. For Nourn, Prasad points out, "the governor, the parole board, everyone who reviewed her file agree that she deserves a second chance, that she was put in an impossible situation as a kid."
"No matter what I do, I can never bring David back," said Nourn. "I can only help the next person." She was pursuing certification to be a substance abuse counselor while she was in prison, and wants to work with other abused women. "I've been doing that in here already," she added. She hopes to continue doing that work in the community.
Nourn is now sharing her story, not only to secure her freedom but also to bring attention to the ways in which domestic violence can be a pathway to incarceration and, for many immigrants, deportation. "For me to speak my truth is helpful," she told me shortly before our last call got cut off. "I just want to help the next person."