A group of 36 people, most of whom had arrived to the U.S. decades ago as refugees from the Vietnam War, left from El Paso, Texas, for Cambodia on Monday. Another mass roundup of those with orders of removal is expected in the coming weeks.
While the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) declined to comment on the deportation itself, a spokesperson told HuffPost that “every country has an international legal obligation to accept the return of its nationals whom another state seeks to remove.”
“The United States routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked.”
The deportees flew out on a plane from private charter flight company Omni Air International, which has been participating in several deportation flights, Kevin Lo, immigration rights attorney for civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus (AAAJ-ALC) told HuffPost. The past two rounds of deportations in the Cambodian community, which took place in April and August, were also executed by Omni Air.
Initially, almost 50 Cambodian immigrants were expected to be deported in the group. However between the emergency pardon Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington issued, in addition to some legal avenues of relief some potential deportees were able to receive, the number decreased.
In fiscal year 2018, ICE deported a total of 110 Cambodian immigrants ― a significant increase from the 29 individuals who were removed the year prior. Lo believes the agency will likely conduct deportations every four months until all of the almost 2000 Cambodians with orders of removal have been repatriated.
The subject of repatriations has been a source of tension between Cambodia and the U.S. for some time. Currently, Cambodia is on the list of countries ICE classifies as “recalcitrant” as their government has refused to issue the travel documents required for the U.S. to carry out a deportation in the past.
Back in 2002, Cambodia began accepting a limited number of deportees as part of a formal agreement. These repatriations sparked a flurry of protests from the Cambodian-American community and eventually, the Cambodian government temporarily suspended repatriations due to humanitarian concerns.
However in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security issued visa sanctions to Cambodia “due to a lack of historical cooperation with regard to accepting their nationals who have been ordered removed,” an ICE spokesperson told HuffPost. While Cambodia caved to concerns and has been regularly issuing travel documents, sanctions still remain in effect.
“Cambodian government spokespeople have consistently framed the deportations as violating human rights, but it’s unclear why they continue to issue travel documents for Cambodian-Americans,” Lo told HuffPost.
Starting over in Cambodia is no easy feat, either. Anoop Prasad, staff attorney at AAAJ-ALC previously explained to HuffPost that most of these deportees have only recognized the U.S. as home.
“As opposed to other deportations, very few people have family in Cambodia who survived the genocide,” Prasad explained. “Most people only speak English and cannot read or write Khmer. They’re trying to start over in what is effectively a foreign country with no family support.”
Currently AAAJ-ALC is spearheading a campaign, #StopOmni, calling on people to tweet at the company and halt the airline from cooperating with ICE in deportations.
“We’re hoping our #StopOmni action will at least force the company to face the fact that its profits are coming from the separation of refugee families who have lived in the US for decades,” Lo told HuffPost.