U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent more than 40 Cambodians, many of whom were refugees, back to Cambodia this week.
They arrived in the Southeast Asian country on Thursday, and are the largest group ever to be deported from the U.S. to Cambodia. Asian-American civil rights groups fought several legal battles to keep the deportees in the U.S.
The U.S. government is expected to send a total of 200 people back to Cambodia this year, and activists are worried about what’s to come.
“It’s clear that this Administration will be ― and has been ― escalating its attacks on these communities,” said Katrina Dizon Mariategue, immigration policy manager of the nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), in an email to HuffPost.
Fifty Cambodians who had received orders of removal were originally scheduled to be deported in December. But Cormac J. Carney, a district judge in California, blocked the move with a temporary restraining order. A month later, he granted an injunction, extending the stay of deportation until Feb. 5.
Meanwhile, families were able to file motions to reopen their deportation cases, and some found success. Mariategue pointed out that Sokha Chhan and Phann Pheach, refugees who had fled the Khmer Rouge regime, were among those who were pardoned by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D).
Still, 43 people ended up getting “ripped from their families,” said Mariategue, who’s worked with a number of the deportees’ families.
An ICE spokesperson told HuffPost in an email that most of the deportees are “criminals” who committed serious crimes. However, Mariategue noted that many were “productive citizens supporting U.S. citizen families” and have long stayed away from the criminal justice system. The refugees who were deported entered the U.S. legally following the Vietnam War and had green cards. But, after being convicted of crimes, many of which occurred decades ago, the refugees received orders of removal due to their criminal records. Punishing these individuals with both incarceration and deportation, she said, is “an incredibly unjust form of double jeopardy.”
“We must move beyond this notion of punishing those that go against what is ‘legal’ and challenge ourselves to reexamine the laws that have been put in place by those in power,” Mariategue said. “True equity lies in understanding not what is legal, but what is just. One size fits all policies that promote a black or white mentality [fail] to take into consideration the unique challenges and histories of these refugee communities who have faced historical forms of oppression, intergenerational trauma, and lack of support in their schools and communities.”
Repatriation has been a source of friction between the U.S. and Cambodia under the Trump administration. In a 2002 agreement, Cambodia consented to take in a limited number of deportees. However, as protests and backlash from the Cambodian-American community grew and humanitarian concerns came to light, the Cambodian government stopped issuing travel documents for deportation last summer.
The Trump administration retaliated in September by imposing visa sanctions on the country, blocking high-ranking Cambodian officials and their families from traveling to the U.S. Under pressure, the Cambodian government looked into accepting about 26 people for deportation. By the end of the year, the number of travel documents Cambodia issued for deportation rose to around 50.
Going forward, advocates want answers. SEARAC, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and VietLead filed a Freedom of Information Act request to ICE for records related to the enforcement, detention and deportation of immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. The groups say that with this information, they’ll be better equipped to help communities disproportionately affected by these immigration enforcement activities. What’s more, over 60 civil society and community services organizations have signed on in support of the FOIA request.
Mariategue encourages families who are currently dealing with similar situations to seek legal counsel immediately. While many of these immigrants and refugees have lived in the U.S. for years or decades, those who receive deportation orders often fail to speak with a lawyer until they are actually detained or threatened with removal, she said. And though some people may not have access to legal help, Mariategue advises them to reach out to local community-based organizations for support.
“At the end of the day, we want to push for long-term legislative solutions and we want to continue to build a movement led by those directly impacted,” she said.
This story has been updated to explain how the refugees lost their U.S. residency.