President Donald Trump’s demonization of Central American migrants took center stage ahead of the midterm elections. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s hard-line immigration policies continued to affect a diverse range of people, including Asian-Americans, who are often left out of the discussion.
Many who are targeted for deportation “came here as refugees,” said Katrina Dizon Mariategue, the director of national policy at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. “They’re legal permanent residents. They’re not undocumented. They’re being deported for old convictions. That’s why they’re more invisible when we’re talking about immigration issues.”
Somdeng Danny Thongsy has never been to Laos, the country his family fled as refugees during the Vietnam War. But that hasn’t stopped the U.S. government from attempting to deport him there.
“It’s hard to live with that fear of the unknown,” he said. “Every day I wake up with that.”
Thongsy, 39, is one of 16,000 Southeast Asians with permanent U.S. residency to receive final deportation orders. Many of these people committed crimes in their teens, served their sentences and turned their lives around, and are now in their 30s and 40s, said Anoop Prasad, staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus, a civil rights nonprofit in San Francisco that represents Thongsy and other refugees and immigrants.
“A lot of them are being deported for criminal convictions that are 20 or 30 years old,” Prasad said. “A lot of them have had no contact with law enforcement and no arrests for decades. …They moved on with their lives. They got married, they had kids, they bought houses, they had careers. And then suddenly, out of the blue one day, ICE just swoops into your house and cuffs you.”
While these types of deportations have taken place for decades, they increased in 2010 under the Obama administration and have skyrocketed recently under the Trump administration. Raids, detentions and deportations targeting Southeast Asian-American communities have surged since the fall of 2017, following the U.S. government’s placement of visa sanctions on Cambodia and three other countries.
Prasad estimates that three to four times as many Cambodian immigrants are now being swept up in ICE raids than in prior years. The San Francisco and Los Angeles chapters of Advancing Justice, together with the law firm Sidley Austin LLP, filed a federal class action lawsuit last year contending that the arrests are unlawful.
In October 2017, ICE carried out the biggest raid ever on Cambodian-American communities, advocates say, rounding up more than 100 people nationwide over the course of two weeks.
A few weeks later, ICE targeted Vietnamese refugees. Although a signed agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam restricts who can be deported — only those who arrived in the U.S. on or after July 12, 1995, the day after the normalization of relations between the two countries — about a dozen Vietnamese refugees who arrived before 1995 were deported last year, according to Mariategue.
“I definitely think a theme of this administration is to deport as many people as possible,” she said.
There have been similar raids on Somali, Haitian, Cuban and Iraqi Christian immigrant communities as well, Prasad said. “They’re using sanctions and threatening foreign aid in a way in which other administrations would have said, ‘This isn’t our biggest diplomatic issue with this other country. We’re not going to alienate this country over a fairly minor policy issue.’ But in the Trump administration, it seems like it’s inverted.”
There seems to be no rhyme or reason to who ICE arrests. It’s a mix of people with convictions that are a few years old and others that are decades old. It’s people with minor convictions and serious ones, people with families supporting children and those without.
“It really seems completely arbitrary. There is this heightened sense of fear now that people see the raids are picking up,” Prasad said.
Chamroeun Phan was detained at an ICE check-in in 2016 for an old crime he had served time for: breaking three windows at a bar. Phan’s family had fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. He was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and resettled in the United States when he was a child.
By the time of his detainment, he had a 4-year-old daughter. The family was given only five minutes to say their goodbyes while separated by a window, his sister Montha Chum recalled. She remembers her niece holding up her hand to her father’s against the window before they were forced to leave.
Chum and others started the #ReleaseMN8 campaign to advocate for Phan and seven other Minnesota men who were slated for deportation to Cambodia. After a year in detention, Phan was one of the few released. Five of the men were deported.
Phan’s detainment taxed the family emotionally and financially. “I’m still trying to pay off credit cards I used to support my brother while he was in detention,” Chum said in a report released by SEARAC on the effects of detention and deportation on women and families from Southeast Asia. Phone calls cost 45 cents a minute, she said, but she had to make them. “When you speak to them, it helps them keep their sanity, that they can hear their loved ones’ voices,” Chum explained.
The experience of fighting for Phan also re-traumatized their parents, bringing up painful memories of the genocide and family separation.
“We see a lot of parents who are survivors of genocide — and quite elderly — going through pronounced periods of depression and re-triggering of post-traumatic stress disorder,” Prasad said. “We see the children having really serious behavioral issues at school and starting to get in trouble. I know some of them have entered into the criminal system themselves after their parents were deported.”
“I definitely think a theme of this administration is to deport as many people as possible.”
This focus on deporting immigrants and refugees with past criminal convictions without considering their rehabilitation is “a simplistic approach” that “doesn’t look into the underlying issues about why certain communities have higher incarceration rates,” Prasad said. “It doesn’t look into the experience of refugee communities and mental health issues and poverty.”
Traumatized by war and resettled into impoverished communities with little understanding of American culture, many Southeast Asian refugees went down difficult paths. “For a lot of our community members who came as refugees, they resettled into the United States without a lot of adequate support. They fell through the cracks of the criminal justice system at young ages,” SEARAC’s Mariategue said.
Thongsy’s family was torn apart when the U.S. bombed Laos in what is considered one of the heaviest bombardments in history. His sister died from lack of medical care during the war. His mother and older brother fled, leaving behind his father, who had a mental illness and could not flee. Thongsy was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979. In 1981, his family was resettled in Stockton, California, in a neighborhood rife with violence, drugs and gang activity. Like other refugees, they got green cards, but lacking language skills and resources, they couldn’t navigate the complex process of obtaining U.S. citizenship.
Thongsy’s mother remarried. His stepfather was verbally and physically abusive. “Because of war trauma, he would drink,” Thongsy said of his stepfather. “And he didn’t know other ways to ask for help or to cope with it.”
Bullied by others, Thongsy started hanging out with other refugee kids from similarly dysfunctional families. At the age of 12, they were drinking, getting high and breaking into cars. When Thongsy was 17 years old, his older brother was shot in the head by gang members outside a convenience store and run over. The murder of his brother sent him into a downward spiral. “After his passing, I didn’t know how to deal with the trauma.”
One night, Thongsy and a friend ran into a group of three people on the street. Recognizing one of them as having fought with his brother, he opened fire, killing one of them and injuring the other two. A month later, he turned himself in. Thongsy took a plea bargain and was sentenced to 27 years to life.
While incarcerated, he started going to church and became a born-again Christian. He enrolled in classes, obtained his GED and then a college degree in social sciences, and began facilitating self-help groups and mentoring other prisoners. After 20 years, he was granted parole but was immediately transferred to immigration prison for deportation proceedings. After two months, in February 2017, he was released under an order of supervision with a regular check-in with ICE.
When HuffPost spoke to him, he had just had an ICE check-in three days earlier. “It’s a scary feeling because you don’t know if you’re going to come out from there or not, if you’re going to get detained and sent to a country where you don’t know the culture or language.” He has no family left in Laos.
Thongsy’s only hope now is to receive a pardon from California’s governor, which would allow him to ask for his deportation order to be re-opened. Advancing Justice - ALC is advocating for Thongsy and others in similar situations to receive pardons. The group recently co-sponsored a state bill, AB 2845, with Assemblymember Rob Bonta to improve the transparency of California’s pardon and commutation process. (Currently, petitioners who apply have no way of knowing if their request was received or reviewed.) Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed the legislation in September.
“The mistake I made was horrible. And no matter what I do, it will never make up for that terrible day,” Thongsy said. “However, I do believe a person can change a life around, and given the chance, resources, opportunities and support, a person can become a different person.”