Strangers in a Strange Land

Hundreds of Cambodian Americans who fled the Khmer Rouge as youngsters face exile to a country they can hardly remember.

June 1, 2003

The man of few words is Choeun Mom, a 23-year-old Cambodian American who has sweated what he calls the "petty stuff" burglary and assault IV — all before his 16th birthday. Had he been just another person born in the United States, the consequences of his acts might have landed him elsewhere, instead of slated for deportation to the country where he was born and which he and his family ultimately fled.

Mom is one of 1,419 Cambodians who are targeted for deportation by the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. Thanks to a repatriation agreement inked between the United States and Cambodia in March 2002, Cambodia now accepts the deportation of Cambodian immigrants, even legally-permanent U.S. residents, convicted of breaking American laws. In the past, Cambodia was among several countries, including Vietnam, Laos and Cuba, which did not accept deportees. In June 2002, the first six Cambodians were sent into Phnom Penh, the nation's capital. Since then, fifty more Cambodians with U.S. records have been deported in small groups of about ten or so. Many arrived in Cambodia with scant knowledge of how they will adapt to the language and culture, or find a job or a place to live.

Some, like Mom, are under supervised release and anticipate the day the INS will take them away for good, maybe without proper goodbyes to family or friends. Others bide their time in INS detention centers across the country — many are young men in their 20s and 30s who are being held despite having served their sentences. The forced repatriation has struck fear into Cambodian communities nationwide, who wonder how they can raise the attorney fees for deportation hearings, or how they will support themselves when a son, a brother or a husband is forced to withdraw from their lives.

Jay Stansell, an assistant federal public defender in Seattle who represented a Cambodian man before the Supreme Court who had been detained indefinitely by the INS, understands each of these. One of his clients had committed a crime four years ago, did nine months of jail, completed his probation, got a job, fell in love and had two children. His wife told him he ought to be naturalized, and he agreed. He did so, and was subsequently detained.

"We recently got him out, about two weeks ago," Stansell says, "because there's no reason in the world to break up the family. He is so clearly rehabilitated, but the laws exist [to the point where] there's nothing that he can do [except be deported]."

The laws say that any non-citizen living in the U.S. who has had a brush with the law can face deportation depending on the severity of the crime. That law became stricter in 1996 when Congress passed an amendment mandating that non-citizens convicted of "aggravated felonies" be deported regardless of the length of their residencies. Before 1996, those who had committed crimes but held a green card for at least seven years could apply for a waiver.

In addition, the 1996 law greatly expanded the definition of aggravated felonies to include misdemeanor offenses. Prior to 1996, aggravated felonies were generally defined as serious crimes such as murder and drug trafficking, and included other violent crimes and theft offenses if the sentence was five years or more. The 1996 amendments lowered the threshold from five years to one. That leaves many at the mercy of the law, including those with nonviolent records, like Sor Vann, a heavy equipment operator from Houston who was one of the first six Cambodian deportees. He had urinated at the construction site where he worked and was convicted of indecent exposure. He later violated parole and served four years in prison.

But immigration officials say that those targeted for deportation are dangerous. INS spokesperson Sharon Rummery told a Bay Area newspaper, the East Bay Express, that aggravated felons have a two-thirds recidivism rate. "It's for the protection of the people of this country that we seek to remove aggravated felons when their sentences are up," she said.

This nightmare that begins in the U.S. continues for these exiles upon arrival in Cambodia, where government officials reportedly jail them. The government says it must process each of the deportees' information and confirm that they have a relative to sponsor them in the country. To date, there have been no reports of human rights abuses, though that has done little to quell the anxiety of the 171,000 Cambodians living in the U.S. who have a deep memory of the Khmer Rouge and have nothing but fear for relatives facing deportation.

Bill Herod, a coordinator for the Returnee Assistance Project (RAP), a non-governmental organization based in Phnom Penh designed to ease the transition for new deportees, confirms that the deportees are being detained in crowded conditions, but there have been no reports of physical abuse.

"The period of detention ranges from one day to nearly one month," he writes via e-mail. "There is no legal basis for this detention and we are challenging it."
Herod says RAP attempts to contact the individuals waiting to be deported, as well as their families, well ahead of their deportation dates to prepare for their assimilation.

"We try to help them find jobs and housing, and provide orientation, literacy classes, personal counseling," Herod writes. "We are really making it up as we go along as we try to respond to the real needs of these people."

It's an impossible situation, notes Herod, in which a vast majority of the deportees have no real connection to contemporary Cambodia.

"They don't have a clue how to function here, and, at first, little interest in learning," Herod writes. "Months after arrival, many still function as 'tourists.' Most speak Khmer — though most do not read and write it — but other than that they might as well be in Brazil or Zimbabwe."

That feeling — of being strangers in a strange land — is one familiar to Cambodians, who became refugees when America began bombing their country during the Vietnam War, and again when the Khmer Rouge, or "Red Communists," began killing two million countrymen. In the late '70s and '80s, they relocated to the U.S. — in what was reported to be the largest refugee relocation in U.S. history. Having resettled largely in urban cities, Cambodians faced widespread poverty and crime. They had few resources and even fewer people sympathetic enough to aid them in their plight.

Kids like Choeun Mom were particularly susceptible to their often-dangerous surroundings. His memories of the early years growing up in White Center, a blue-collar urban neighborhood south of Seattle, WA, are selective. What he does remember is the presence of gangs — such a strong force in the community, especially among young boys, that Mom was ultimately enticed to join.

"Just about everyone was in gangs," says Mom, who fled Cambodia in 1984 with his family to Thailand, the Philippines and then to Seattle to live with sponsors. "You see older people in gangs, and you just want to be like them when you're young. You don't know better."

In 1991, Mom, then only 12 years old, says he "got into it with somebody and the other guy got hurt." That "somebody" was a rival gang member and the hurt Mom inflicted was by stabbing him. Charged with assault II with a deadly weapon, Mom served a few months before committing burglary and assault. But it was the armed robbery of a household that he and four other gang members conducted in May 1994 that landed him in his current predicament. Tried as an adult even though he was 15, Mom was sent to prison, ultimately serving a sentence of four years and five months. At the time of his 1998 release date from prison, INS officials were waiting to transport him to a detention center, where he stayed until May 2000.

After his release, he moved in with his parents and four sisters in Seattle where he continues to live today. He earns his living helping his dad with landscaping jobs. During the week he stays home to avoid any sort of trouble that can entangle him with the INS. He says he knows what's in store for him, but only sort of. He has no idea when he's going back, but he says if the INS comes, they come. Some of his friends have already been deported. He says he's glad he only has to care for himself and doesn't have a kid or wife to leave behind. And yes, he does regret the things he's done, but there's little he can do now.

"You know, I can't say nothin', can't change nothin'," Mom says. "Everything where I was livin' it was all about that — runnin' the streets and stuff. It was wrong what I did to people."

There are many like Mom trying to turn their lives around. Some have become active in their communities, speaking at protest rallies hosted by local community organizers and flanked by activists who want the INS to reconsider their deportation policies. Their mission is to lobby their local representatives and garner support for legislation like HR 1452, or the Federal Family Reunification Act of 2002, which would allow the U.S. Attorney General to cancel an order of removal for a legal permanent resident who isn't a threat to the community. According to T.C. Duong, project manager of the Advocacy Initiative, through the Washington, D.C.-based Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), the bill passed in the House Judiciary Committee but died in the last Congressional session. He hopes that a similar bill will be reintroduced.

"We were floored that HR 1452 passed in the House," Duong says. "As you know, post-9/11, the sort of climate in Congress has been fairly hostile toward immigrants. So the fact that it got out of the committee and got bipartisan support, is a testament to community organizing."

In Long Beach, CA, the Cambodia Association of America is committed to organizing and educating its community — the most sizable Cambodian enclave in America, according to 2000 census figures. CAA Executive Director Him Chhim says the organization focuses on providing social services, family counseling, alcohol prevention and citizenship application advice, as well as drafting petitions to be sent to local congressmen and state senators.

"As an organization, we don't condone criminal activity," Chhim says. "The hardcore criminals need to be punished in some way [but] there are light criminals. There is nothing more than very light cases, like shoplifting or drunk driving. All those small cases should be eliminated from the deportation proceedings."
A lot of the work done at the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, MA — home of the second largest population of Cambodians living in the U.S. —is working not only with those small cases, but also with careful attention to the youth who face deportation.

"They're very scared," says Samkhann Khoeun, the former director of CMAA who still consults nonprofits committed to helping his community. "They've heard of the Killing Fields."

For these individuals, and the families that support them in their final days in America, there is much confusion and alienation — confusion because they don't fully comprehend the scope of what's happening or how they can fight, and alienation because they don't understand how a government that let them into the country can boot them out so cruelly.

"By and large they looked at the United States as their savior, because they provided safe havens," Stansell says, "and because of that, there's this inherent disbelief. I've talked to many people in community meetings and people will commonly say that this [deportation] can't happen, that's it's gotta be unconstitutional, that this violates their human rights….I say to many of them that it can happen."

Khoeun says it's hard for those going back who feel nothing but American. They've gone to school here, lived here and want nothing but to stay. Being sent back to Cambodia, he says, is nothing but a death sentence — punishment for those who survived genocide, U.S. relocation and assimilation.

"We're sending them back to the Killing Fields," he says, "back to where they came from. This is an ongoing cycle of suffering and pain, and we need to do more to break the cycle."

This is what people sound like on borrowed time.

Did you stab him? "Huh? Yeah."

And how old were you at the time? "Um. Twelve or 13."

What was the formal charge? "Assault II with a deadly weapon."

Did you serve time for that? "Yeah. For a few months."


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