Civil Rights Groups File Lawsuit Against ICE For Detaining Cambodian Refugees

A series of recent detentions by the Trump administration has placed in limbo the future of hundreds of people who have lived in the U.S. for years.

Civil rights groups have launched a class action lawsuit against federal immigration authorities after a series of recent raids led to the detention of more than 100 Cambodian refugees who could now face deportation.

The lawsuit, launched last Friday by a number of Asian-American nonprofits, argues that the recent arrests of Cambodian-Americans across the country by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials has been illegal. The detentions occurred in the past month amid U.S. government tensions with Cambodia over repatriation policies.

The organizations argue that the raids, which they called the largest to ever target the Cambodian community, were abrupt and arbitrary. 

“The lawsuit is attempting to stop this indiscriminate style of raids,” said Anoop Prasad, a lawyer on the case on behalf of the plaintiffs. “This style of raids put people in this constant state of fear.” 

ICE declined HuffPost’s request for comment on the case. 

Nonprofits Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, and law firm Sidley Austin LLP filed the suit on behalf of Nak Kim Chhoeun, Mony Neth and other individuals who were detained in the raids.

Many Cambodians who came to the U.S. as children have only ever known one home, but nearly 2,000 people are currently subject to deportation orders by federal immigration authorities. Because the Cambodian government has in the past refused to accept individuals slated for deportation from the U.S., many have lived for years as lawful permanent residents.

Advocates say that most of these Cambodian refugees did receive final orders of removal in the past and had been detained for their criminal records, many as teenagers. But the vast majority were released years ago on orders of supervision, required to annually check in with authorities but otherwise free to live in the U.S.. Many of those who’ve been rounded up had moved forward with their lives, staying out of crime for decades, Prasad explained.

The sudden urgency by the U.S. government to pursue detention again has confounded advocates.

According to Prasad, it’s legal for ICE to detain these individuals in certain cases when there are relevant changes in circumstances, including if ICE has acquired travel documents for them, or if the Cambodian government has indicated that they’re willing to take specific people back.

But Prasad said those conditions have not been met with the raids. In fact, most individuals have been routinely checking in with ICE for some time but were unexpectedly detained at recent check-ins, Prasad said.

He told HuffPost that he believes ICE is using these legal, documented refugee immigrants as pawns during a time of strained U.S. relations with Cambodia, and that raids are probably a response to the Cambodian government’s pushback on the U.S. deportation of refugees who have few or no ties to their home country. 

Even though Cambodia has demonstrated cooperation with repatriation efforts, the Trump administration continued with the large-scale roundups, likely to put pressure on the country in hopes it will take in more people in the coming year, Quyen Dinh, executive director of nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, or SEARAC, previously told HuffPost.

Prior to the roundups, the Trump administration had already in September imposed visa sanctions on Cambodia, preventing high-ranking officials and their families from traveling to the U.S. 

The raids have created a stressful environment for the families of those who have been picked up, and the situation has stirred up many emotions in the community. 

“Especially for older generations ― the parents of a lot of people being picked up ― they’re feeling this trauma of being separated from their families again,” Prasad said. “Almost all of them lost relatives in the genocide. Almost all of them were separated from family members when they were fleeing and were never able to find their family members again. I think the experience of now losing another generation to deportation is definitely traumatizing to the Cambodian community.”

The groups who filed the lawsuit are currently awaiting ICE’s response to the litigation. But for now, they’re calling on people to sign a petition in opposition to the ICE raids.