Immigration Enforcement Brings Fear to Cambodian Communities

San Francisco, California — Many Cambodian-Americans across the United States are now living in fear of the aggressive immigration enforcement practices of the Trump Administration. A small percentage of the Cambodian refugees who came to America many years ago committed crimes in this country. For those crimes, they were arrested, prosecuted, and in many cases, convicted of the crimes and then sentenced to jail or to probation.

Upon being convicted, the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) issued “orders of removal” which gave the U.S. government the power to remove these individuals from the United States and send them back to Cambodia. In approximately 700 cases, the individuals were sent to Cambodia but in many more cases – around 1,900 – the U.S. government took no further action. Most of the individuals in this class have been living peaceably in their communities and have remained crime-free.

However, this new practice of enforcing removal orders that were issued many years ago has raised much concern in Cambodian communities across the United States. It has also caused two individuals, Nak Him Chhoeun and Mony Neth, to sue the United States Government in the United States District Court for the Central District of California. They claim that ICE is violating their right to due process of law under the United States Constitution by staging raids and taking them into custody without an opportunity for a hearing. (“Due process” means you are entitled to a fair hearing before being deprived of your freedom).

Chhoeun and Neth also asked the court to certify their case as a “class action” which means that any ruling issued in the case would apply to anyone in the United States who was in the same situation. The court agreed to do that. The court also issued a temporary restraining order that prohibits ICE from staging any additional raids and taking individuals into custody without first giving them 14 days notice so that they can gather up any important documents that will help them defend against the removal order.

Back in 2002, the U.S. and Cambodia signed a repatriation agreement by which Cambodia agreed to allow into the country any Cambodian nationals deported by the U.S.

However, Cambodian homeland political conflicts reached its peak when Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha was arrested on September 3rd, 2017 for treason. Prime Minister Hun Sen accused the opposition party leader of conspiracy with the U.S. Government to oust his regime. The U.S. Government responded with a sanction that put a stop to issuing visas to certain officials from the country.

This sanction caused Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation to issue a statement on September 14, 2017, which said that Cambodia had proposed a temporary suspension of the ”repatriation as well as its addendum” in October 2016 after “fierce protests from Cambodian-American communities and some of the United States congressmen” but now Cambodian officials pledged that it “will continue to accept Cambodian nationals who be deported by the U.S.” In the following month, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement began a series of raids in Cambodian communities across the U.S. and detained many of whom were born in the refugee camps escaping the Khmer Rouge, a regime that killed over 2 million Cambodians between 1975-1979.

“ICE is required to provide at least 14 days written notice before detaining Cambodians and this order will remain in affect until May 2019” said Staff Attorney Kevin Lo at Asian American Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC). “We continue to work with Southeast Asian organizations across the country to fight the ICE raids that now hit the Cambodian community every 4 months. And we know there is a plan in place that about 200 Cambodians to be deported each year over the next decade” said Lo over phone interview with the KhmerPost USA.

Since 2016, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (ALC) has been engaged in the fight against Cambodian deportations. Lo and his co-workers were invited by Cambodian organizers to run a legal clinic for deportees in Phnom Penh. They also attended a taskforce organized by the prime minister to address the issue of Cambodian American deportations. Many Cambodian deportees testified to the impact of deportation on the community and their families.

“In many cases, they may have rights to return back to U.S. but don’t have the legal resources to help explore that option,” said Lo.

“We filed the Chhoeun lawsuit, and we began assisting Cambodians in reopening their old removal orders since the law had changed for many people’s convictions. This meant that they were no longer deportable, but an immigration judge still needed to agree to reopen their cases” wrote Lo in an email to KhmerPost USA.

Protestors gathered outside of the courthouse in Sacramento, CA during the National of Action to End SE Asian Deportation in February 2019. Credit: ALC

In 2018, 136 Cambodians were lost to deportation.

ALC successfully brought back two Cambodian deportees. One was Phorn Tem in November 2018, and the other was Veasna Meth in February 2019. Phorn had been deported in April 2018, and Veasna had been away from his family since 2014.

Despite the pending court case, ICE raids have resumed this month. Advance Asian American Justice/Law Caucus issued an alert on March 5 “The first ICE raids targeting Cambodian Americans in 2019 began yesterday” the statement wrote “We stand with our Cambodian refugee community and call for an end to the deportations terrorizing Southeast Asian lives. Know that it’s possible to fight deportation.” The ALC urges anyone come into contact with ICE to call their helpline at 414-952-0413.

Any Cambodians with old removal orders should begin gathering their immigration court paperwork and their criminal records so that a lawyer can help them assess whether or not their case can be reopened. The online guide also available to help getting these records and other resources on SEAraids.org.