“You are from where you were raised, where you have your roots, where you have your memories.”
I am sitting in a tiny front room of a house on the borderline between the West Kensington and Fairhill sections of Philadelphia. A laptop is on the table in front of me, and on its screen, the image of a Latino man in his late twenties or early thirties freezes and unfreezes according to Skype’s whim.
César (not his real name) is seated in front of a ochre-painted wall, big orangey-red flowers tumbling out of container behind him. He’s in Oaxaca, a southern state on the Pacific coast of Mexico where labor and educational reform protests in the past years have been answered by violent suppression from the government.
César himself has a second job teaching English at the university and at schools in Oaxaca, but we aren’t talking about the Mexican teacher protests or the over-the-top federal police responses to them.
We’re talking about Philadelphia.
Throughout our long conversation César has been dispassionately recounting the details of his deportation and his life during the subsequent six years, but he chokes up when he speaks about his family in Philly.
He is haunted by the fact he was unable to say goodbye.
“The first thing I’d do [upon return] is to hug my family,” he says. “I’d take them out to eat, spend time with them … I’ve missed so much. One of the biggest things is I missed the birth of my first nephew.”
In fact, there are now three children in his brother’s family he hasn’t met; and during his absence, his parents have become community leaders in their West Kensington neighborhood.
The years apart have been long and tough ones for him and stoicism notwithstanding, César’s desire to come home is so palpable it reaches through Skype, across the miles, and lands like a gut-punch in Philly.
And how not? César was 3 years old when his parents brought him to the United States, and most adults remember little from before their third or fourth birthday. César is an American in everything but paperwork. To imagine his deportation’s devastating impact, try thinking of being deposited at the closest port of entry in Poland, Ireland, Germany (or whatever other country holds your strongest ancestral ties) and being told you cannot come home.
Depending on the specific circumstances of the deportation, deportees may be barred from returning to the United States for five, 10 or 20 years. Sometimes the bar on return is permanent.
While I’m interviewing César, we are both operating under the assumption his prohibition will be for 10 years, which would leave him another four to go before he can see his family again. But before we complete the back and forth of the multi-part, long-distance interview (facilitated byNicole Kligerman, who at the time was part of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia), that understanding will, in fact, change.
The conversation with Mout Iv doesn’t take place via Skype, but his words emailed from Cambodia land the same way as César’s: hard and full of longing.
Mia-Lia Kiernan, the co-founder of the 1Love Movement in Philadelphia, introduces me via remote to Mout, and cites a Southeast Asia Resource Action Center report from 2015 stating that since 1996, 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans from Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have been given deportation orders that threaten to return them to the countries they had escaped from, often as children. Many of those who have been deported have no real hope, under current policy, to ever be reunited with the family they left behind.
Mout was deported from Philadelphia in 2011. At the time he was the owner of the “Touch Up Barbershop” in Olney, and had had his legal permanent resident status (a “green-card”) since the age of 7 — after his family moved from the Khao Dang Refugee Camp in Thailand to the United States.
Like César, Mout was unable to say goodbye to his loved ones, or to the city he considered home.
He jokes with me that the reason the Phillies won the World Series in 2008 is that he was still in the city to cheer them on. He tells me he’d like to go to a Phillies game again. He would like to taste a warm Philly soft pretzel again. He’d like to get a cheesesteak at Old English Pizza on North 5th and Champlost Street.
But number one on Mout’s wish-list? He’d like to be with his family again.
Life in Cambodia since deportation has been better for Mout than it has been in Mexico for César, but better is a relative term. Mout’s removal separated him from his newborn daughter, and he’s had to watch her grow up via Skype. His relationship with her, he says, has been traumatized by the deportation.
And then there is his mother, whose health he worries about. “To this day, my greatest fear is for my mom,” Mout says. “If she gets sick or something tragic happens to her … what am I going to do if I can’t be there?”
Video calling and messaging apps are certainly a godsend for both men but they are a cold make-do. For hearts torn apart by deportation, distance cannot be bridged by mere words.
Good immigrant, bad immigrant, no immigrant
It is much too early in President Donald Trump’s administration to have hard numbers on his aggressive immigration priorities (though during the week Feb. 6 alone, some 600 people were arrested for deportation), but his administration’s efforts will build on an already escalated deportation machine.
President Barack Obama’s administration deported more people than any other administration — more than 2.5 million people were deported, and as Fusion reported in January of this year, the administration was “on track to deport more people than the sum of all 19 presidents who governed the United States from 1892–2000.”
The majority of those deportations, the Obama Administration claimed, were undocumented people with “serious” criminal convictions.
Anti-immigrant discourse, on a personal and public level, often focuses criminal convictions to create a moralistic binary between recent immigrants — for the most part viewed as “bad” — and the earlier immigrants who are the antecedents of the majority of Americans and therefore largely viewed as “good immigrants.”
Criminal deportations were indeed less common during the years when many Americans’ ancestors arrived at Ellis Island, but not because those immigrants were necessarily “better” people. The timeline below uses quotes from American Journal of Sociology article “Employment and Exile: U.S. Criminal Deportations 1908–2005” to trace the changes to the basis for criminal deportation up to about 1996 (when an even more drastic change to policy would be enacted).
The number of deportations now, according to Caitlin Barry, a clinical professor at Villanova law, reflects “multiple shifts in immigration and criminal laws that started in the 1980s, moving resources away from assisting people in applying for immigration status towards punitive detention and deportation policies (going hand-in-hand with the birth of the private prison industry).”
“Prior to 1988, there was no mandatory immigrant detention,” Barry adds. “People in deportation proceedings could apply for bond, and if it were granted, could live at home in their communities where they could have access to legal resources, gather evidence and witnesses for their cases.”
Further radical changes were first instituted in 1996, under President Bill Clinton, and are widely held to have laid the foundation for the detention and deportation machine in place today.
“President Bill Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, known as AEDPA, on April 24, 1996. The legislation, passed in the aftermath of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, greatly expanded the grounds for detaining and deporting immigrants, including long-term legal residents. It was the first U.S. law to authorize certain now-widely-used fast-track deportation procedures,” states a Human Rights Watch report from April of last year.
The report adds, “The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), signed in September 1996, made further sweeping changes to immigration laws. It eliminated key defenses against deportation […] IIRIRA defined a greatly expanded range of criminal convictions — including relatively minor, nonviolent ones — for which legal permanent residents could be automatically deported.”
And: “The laws have also helped perpetuate a system of unnecessarily widespread immigration detention. They include provisions authorizing mandatory, sometimes prolonged detention during deportation proceedings for thousands of immigrants who have already served their criminal sentences for drugs or other crimes.”
Human Rights Watch has called on Congress to repeal both laws, calling them abusive — a view shared by many advocates who say that these laws have directly tied the mass incarceration and mass deportation machines.
“These systems work together to remove people from our communities and break families apart.” — Mia-lia Kiernan
While unauthorized immigrants are almost always characterized by politicians as “border crossing” Mexicans, and deportation is popularly seen as a primarily Latinx concern, the reality is far more complex.
First, the immigration rate from Mexico has been in decline (falling by 80 percent between 2000 and 2012, according to a 2014 article at the Journal on Migration and Human Security). While immigration from other regions has risen, the overall number of immigrants with irregular status in the nation has held steady since 2009, according Pew Research from 2016:
Among unauthorized immigrants, a decline from Mexico but rise from elsewhere since 2009
Graphic: Among unauthorized immigrants, a decline from Mexico but rise from elsewhere since 2009
Further, according to the report from the Center for Migration Studies of New York cited in the Journal on Migration and Human Security article, the number of immigrants who overstay the period authorized by temporary visas “exceeded the number who entered across the southern land border without inspection (EWIs) in each year from 2008 to 2012.” Looking at a recent Pew Research breakdown of foreign visitors who overstay visas paints a significantly different picture.
Foreign visitor overstays by birth region
Graphic: Foreign visitor overstays by birth region
Though the numbers (compiled by Pew from Department of Homeland Security data) indicate that Europeans are overstaying their visas more than any other foreign nationals (123,729 Europeans in fiscal 2015, compared to 93,073 South Americans and 93,035 Canadians; and far outstripping the 56,674 Asian, 42,114 Mexican, 22,137 Caribbean and 15,597 African immigrants), it is largely not Europeans who face rocket docket deportations, nor whose due process rights under the Fifth Amendment are being violated in the process.
“The laws have increasingly targeted people from marginalized backgrounds,” Barry says, “through an emphasis on ‘crime,’ similar to the ways in which anti-Black racism in the U.S. has moved from Jim Crow-era discriminatory policies towards mass incarceration that disproportionately targets poor Black and people of color.”
Opal Tometi, the executive director of Black Alliance for Just Immigration, says that “the deportation rate of undocumented Black immigrants is five times their numbers in the undocumented population, which is similar to the overrepresentation of African Americans in the criminal justice system.”
Likewise, Southeast Asians — largely legally residing populations — have one of the highest incarceration rates in proportion to their total population, and are “3–5 times more likely to be deported on the basis of an old criminal conviction compared with other immigrant communities,” according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.
In fact, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, says Anoop Prasad of the Asian Law Caucus, “are deported for criminal convictions at five times the rate of other immigrants.”
Thus many non-citizens of color who have been incarcerated and paid their debt to society (and turned their lives around in prison, learned a skill, started a business and made positive contributions to their community) are slated for deportation in what immigration reform advocates consider policy-based double jeopardy.
Mout’s story: Profiling, community support and resilience
Mout had no memory of Cambodia (which he left to go to a refugee camp in Thailand when he was 1 year old) when he was deported to that country in 2011.
The memories of his life before Philadelphia are all of the Khao Dang Refugee Camp. “I remember sugarcane fields, hut homes, with the palm leaves for the roof, bamboo mats,” he says. “And me being a kid and enjoying life. We would eat ‘borbor,’ which is Cambodian rice porridge, because it saves well. We ate rice that was given to us by the camp workers, and my mom would make us rice porridge, with fish, and put water in the rice. Mostly we ate rice and fish.”
His mother, Kout Iv, and his stepfather never talked to Mout about the genocide in Cambodia which took his father’s life, and drove the family to the refugee camp.
“The only thing they told me about was when I was born,” he says. “They told me about the struggle, the lack of food, and how malnourished I was. I was born during the Khmer Rouge regime, so my mom had to survive herself, but then she also had to make sure I survived. The very little she had, she shared with me. My mom would tell me how sick a baby I was, and what a hard time she had making sure all of us survived. I had three siblings. One of them died during the Khmer Rouge, and the other two are in Philly.”
The family was so malnourished and had so little food, according to Mout’s mother, that they were sponsored to come to the U.S. They started out in Vermont — living with farmworkers in that state for three months — until they could join family members in Philadelphia, where the community included many refugees from their same village in Cambodia.
For 7-year-old Mout, Philadelphia’s wonders outweighed any challenges.
“I remember feeling safe and thinking ‘I’m in America,’” he recounts. “I remember having chocolate for the first time. When I arrived, I knew … Philly was home now.”
They moved to a one-bedroom apartment near the Logan train station, which they shared with cousins and other relatives — 15 people living together. Most of them didn’t speak English, and jobs were a challenge.
His stepfather got a job picking blueberries and strawberries in New Jersey. His mother, on the other hand, wasn’t able to find work right away, which is why, Mout says, they lived with their relatives.
“Eventually she connected with some other factory workers, and she started doing sewing at home for the factory,” he says. “In order to live you need to be able to speak and you need to be able to work. Our community struggled, but we were alive, we survived.”
Their status as refugees accorded them Legal Permanent Resident status, but also prompted confusion about what that meant — something which has serious repercussions for the Cambodian community in Philadelphia even now.
“We all had green-cards,” Mout says. “But many people didn’t know the difference between ‘Permanent Resident’ and ‘Citizen.’ So I would guess about 60 percent of our community in Philly still doesn’t have citizenship. And if you happen to have a criminal record, they take that status away from you and you get deported. I would guess about 50 or more Cambodian people in Philly have deportation orders [currently].”
Genocide trauma still affects older Cambodians — 62 percent of Cambodian American adults show signs of Post Traumatic Stress disorder — and the community as a whole is deeply impacted by poverty. Asian Americans Advancing Justice reports that 41 percent of Cambodians in Philadelphia live below the poverty line. Nationwide, 34 percent of Cambodian, Laotian and Hmong students do not complete high school.
There is also a real generation gap in the community, according to Mout, with his parents‘ generation trying to maintain Cambodian culture and traditions alive, and younger members of the community so adapted to American society that they’ve, in essence, “lost their roots.” (The Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia has tried to address this with The Legacy Project, which brought together elders and teenagers to create a cookbook).
Mout’s mother worked multiple jobs housekeeping, sewing, as a cashier and a home health aide, sometimes getting as little as two hours of sleep in order to provide for the family. And even though he loved Philadelphia, life was hard for Mout — his mother says he was bullied, and when he was 12, he was attacked while he was riding his bicycle and spent three months in a cast that prevented him from walking.
Still he developed a tight group of friends. “We got into trouble sometimes, we would get into fights with whites or Puerto Ricans or Blacks,” he says. “It was just how society was back then. We were all split up by race … [but] I also had a lot of close friends of all races.”
The police practice of racial profiling young men of color in low-income communities, coupled with subpar legal representation, fear of court bias and bad judgement all played a part in what eventually got him into real trouble, Mout recounts.
“Me and a couple of my friends were hanging out on Old York Road in Logan. It was 1996,” he tells me. “We were drinking some beer, eating, and minding our business. Then a man came over and started making trouble with us. He was acting tough and calling us names, and he started getting into my friends’ face and making threats. That’s how the fight started. My friend pushed him away across the street and my two friends jumped him. I was across the street but I could see the whole thing.”
“After they jumped him, they ran away, and I was the last one left around,” he adds. “So I left to [go to] my friend’s house nearby. I was eating my food on my friend’s porch and about 10 minutes later a police car came with the man who my friends had jumped in it. He pointed me out as the one that hurt him. Then two other Cambodians walked by on the street, and he pointed them out also as the ones that jumped him. So all three of us who got charged for jumping him had nothing to do with it.”
“The police just needed three Cambodians, so they took us in and charged us with Aggravated Assault, Criminal Conspiracy, and Reckless Endangerment.” — Mout Iv
Mout hired a lawyer, but because he didn’t have money, he believes the legal counsel he received was grudging and inadequate. He was found guilty the charges, but when the time came for him to show of up for sentencing, he didn’t. “I never went because I was afraid of being locked up for something I didn’t do.”
“But the other two who were charged went for sentencing, and they were put on house arrest with ankle monitors. About a year later I was pulled over and caught and brought back in front of the judge who sentenced me to 3.5 to 7 years in prison,” he says. “So if I had gone to sentencing I think I would of been okay. But I was young and dumb, and afraid, so I didn’t show up. In the end, I served time and got deported for something I didn’t even do. But I was racially profiled, and then got scared of being put away, and made it worse for myself.”
Mout got his GED at SCI Rockview at Bellefonte, Pa., went to Bible study and AA, and got his barber’s license. He says he was committed to making amends for the mistakes he made as a teenager, and he was paroled in 2002, after serving six years of his sentence.
As soon as he was paroled, he was picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and was detained for another year while they put him through deportation proceedings. Then, when travel papers from Cambodia were slow in arriving, they released him under both immigration and parole supervision, on Jan. 14, 2004.
“At first I was checking in with ICE every month, then every 3 months,” he recounts. “At the same time, I was checking in with my parole officer too. And then, after about three years of [that level of] immigration supervision, it became once every six months.”
During that time Mout built a life.
“When I came home, I transitioned right back into my community,” he says. “I connected right away with a Cambodian woman who ran a beauty salon in the area. I told her, ‘You know my situation, I just got out. Do you have any work?’ She let me cut hair in her shop for commission, and she paid me weekly. So I got a job right away through the support of my community. I got out on January 14th, and I was working a week later.”
“After I started working, I started gaining clientele. One person told another person, then that person told another person. It was all word of mouth. People were impressed with my skills and my drive. So I was blessed from the beginning with a strong and loyal clientele.”
He met a girl, CJ, that year, and they eventually moved in together and bought their first home.
“On the ground floor of our home was a business — it was a barber shop run by a guy called Charlie the Chopper,” Mout says. “When we bought our house, Charlie told me he wanted to retire. So CJ and I worked to refinance our home so we could buy the business from him. After about six months, we did it. I bought the barbershop from Charlie, he retired, and I had my own shop. It was a really classic shop, with antique chairs and everything. And I decorated it with all my sports stuff. It felt like home.”
“I was doing what I love,” he remembers, “and the community loved me. People would come sit in my chair, and they loved it because they felt comfortable, they knew they were safe, and they knew once they got out of the chair they would look really good. It was my small gift, my contribution to my community. It was how I gave back. And my barbershop became a place where kids would come hang out after school so they weren’t on the streets getting in trouble. My shop became a safe haven in the neighborhood, somewhere people would come and connect with each other.”
He and CJ had a newborn and were living their dream in the breast of a community that Mout says “taught me about forgiveness and loyalty, and true support and love for each other.”
But on September 21, 2010 Mout was called and told to report to the ICE office at 16th and Callowhill the next morning. When he arrived there, he was told he was going to be fingerprinted and photographed to begin the process of getting the travel documents to be deported to Cambodia, but would be released later that day. There were still interviews with Cambodian Consulate to take place, a charter flight to be scheduled, and under standard detention and removal proceedings, two weeks for him to prepare for deportation and make any financial arrangements for the family he’d be leaving behind.
Well, that’s what he was told, anyway.
Mout was detained for deportation right after the fingerprints and photos were taken. No goodbyes, only loved ones left waiting for his return in their cars downstairs.
“He had nothing but the clothes he was wearing,” Kout Iv described in testimony at a Philadelphia City Council hearing June 14, 2016 asking for passage of a resolution in support of rolling back the 1996 Immigration Laws.
“They sent him [to Cambodia] with nothing.” — Kout Iv
“It’s not a day that goes by since they deported him that I don’t cry worrying about his welfare and if he can eat. I miss my son. I miss that every time I cook I would always call him to come eat and he would always look forward to it. I miss him eating my food. Every time I walk by his old barber shop, I cry.”
“His daughter was just 3 months when he left … It’s a void and emptiness that will never be filled until he returns to us,” she added. “I want him to come back so we can be whole again as a family or just a visit, even if it’s just for a month. Just to see his face. I’m getting older and I want him to be near to me before my death. My family is ripped apart because of this and other families too, it’s wrong to do this to people. The laws must change to stop another family or parent from being ripped apart from their children.”
Five years after deportation, Mout has adjusted to life in Cambodia where, he says, he felt welcomed when he arrived. He works as a filmmaker now, and has traveled across the nation witnessing the lasting impact of the Khmer Rouge genocide — persistent poverty, the many homeless children and land-mine amputees — something that before he only knew from TV films.
He’s married now, and his second child, a baby boy named Abel, was born recently.
“I’m a good man,” he says. “The [U.S.] government might say different, but I’m a good man. I’m a father and a husband. I’m a good neighbor. I’m a trustworthy employee … I have a lot of love and respect for others. I’m not a perfect person, but I always try, no matter what.”
And despite the new life he’s managed to create, Mout works with other deportees in Cambodia’s 1LoveMovement, to change the laws that made him pay twice for the mistake of not going to his sentencing hearing when he was a young and frightened teenager.
He believes that his deportation from Philadelphia was a crueler and more devastating punishment than the years of incarceration were.
“When I was incarcerated, I knew there was an end date, I knew I was coming home,” he says. “With deportation, there’s no end to this, we’re permanently deported out here. It doesn’t end. For me, it’s definitely been worse being deported.”
But, he says, he believes that the Cambodians who have been deported from Philadelphia will eventually find justice.
“And our freedom,” he says, “will come again.”
César’s story: No maps, no recourse, only the siren call of family
César was even younger than Mout —3 years old — when his family came to the United States in the 1980s from a small village near Guerrero, in the Mexican state of Puebla. César says his father made the decision to emigrate for economic reasons — he wanted his children to have a chance at a better life.
Though it’s now commonplace for those who want to limit immigration to disparage economic reasons for migration, it is good to remember that much of our nation’s history was shaped by wave after wave of immigrants who emigrated for exactly that reason.
Years ago, a different undocumented immigrant described it quite simply to me: “You can’t get a loan to eat.” So you take your children where you can work to make enough money to feed them. Because the processes for authorized immigration are significantly impacted by what country you come from, as well as your existing financial resources, skills and educational level, it means that often the poorest and hungriest have no choice but to make that journey without authorizing papers.
This 2008 graphic by the Reason Foundation and the National Foundation for American Policy makes clear that under current procedures, many of the ancestors of Americans wouldn’t have cleared the bar to citizenship.
César’s family settled in New York, first in Queens and later in Brooklyn. César went to high school and was on the honor roll until the 10th grade, when he started working at McDonalds, at construction jobs and at restaurants to help his family. “I spoke perfect English, and I did everything I could, but it was really big deception” to understand he would not be able to further his studies — he had nurtured hopes of becoming an architect or a psychologist.
“I lost a lot of drive to make something of my life then, to be the professional person I dreamed of being.” — César
And then attacks of 9/11 happened.
César’s father was the assistant to a chef in a restaurant in lower Manhattan, eight blocks from the World Trade Center. On that day, the young César walked from his school in Brooklyn to Canal Street to see if his father was alive. He was, but the restaurant César’s father worked at never reopened, and without that job, the family was forced to move from the house they rented to a one-bedroom apartment.
“It was a rough transitional period,” César says. “My father couldn’t find stable work.”
Though his father eventually found work as a maintenance person in an apartment complex, the family decided to move to Philadelphia, where one of César’s aunts lived, in 2006.
The decision was made not so much for economic reasons as for emotional ones. “Family is like our central nervous system,” César says.
But family or no family, the move proved to be tough for César, who was just barely out of his teens.
“It was really hard for me to get into the whole economic system in Philly. It was hard for me to adapt,” he says. “Kids in Philly don’t have anything to distract them, they just have the streets.” And those streets, he says, were too often the only recourse for young people hoping to make some money.
Still, César’s mom became active at Visitation B.V.M. church in Kensington, and César soon found community there as well. “Eventually I started working in gardening,” he says, “and I found a job as a cashier in a pizza shop.”
But even as he seemed to be getting his life in order, he self-sabotaged it.
The 20-year-old entered into a brief relationship with a 17-year-old girl who, he says, he later found out wasn’t really 17 but 15. He asserts that the relationship was consensual, but the girl’s parents pressed charges.
He doesn’t like talking about it and refuses to elaborate on the charges and conviction, after which he served 18 months in county jail.
After serving his time, César wasn’t paroled but sent immediately to York County Prison (which has a separate wing for immigration detainees) for an additional two years while he waited to be deported.
“I was just collected,” he says. “I never got to say goodbye. It haunted me.”
The details of his deportation are hard to hear. “After York they fly you to Texas,” César says. “During transport you are shackled hand to waist, and waist to ankles. Your feet have shackles and during the flight, you are shackled to the floor.”
In Texas, he says, he was held in county jail for more than a month, then was taken to a bridge to walk across into Mexico — a country César hadn’t been in since he was 3.
“I look Mexican,” he says, “but my Spanish was horrible. I sat in the immigration office [in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico] with 50 other deportees, with $5 to my name,” he recounts. “One of the guys I had gotten to know passed me a $20 to make phone calls. I didn’t know where to go, I didn’t know anybody, I was really scared. I feared for my life.”
The assumption, he says, is that if you have been deported, you are a criminal, and “everyone is looking for a way to hustle you.”
He chanced to overhear a couple of people talking about sanctuaries where those who had been deported might be able to find food and lodging in exchange for work, and found his way to one that offered one day’s food and one night’s lodging in exchange for day laborer work.
“It was really hard, at night they lock you in. And a lot of these guys [at the sanctuary] are ex-convicts and don’t have anything.”
The next morning César went to the Western Union office. His family hadn’t been told he had been deported, and for three days didn’t know where he was, or if he even if he was still alive, until a priest at Visitation found out for them. César had had no way to contact them.
But at Western Union, César realized that since he didn’t have any ID to present, he wouldn’t be able pick up the money his family was wiring to him.
He was desperate. Desperate enough to stop a random man on the street and ask him to present his ID to claim the money. He says that after his jail experience, and his “Philly streets” experience, he was scared the guy would just walk away with it.
But the man turned the money over to him, and César boarded a bus for Mexico City. Sixteen sleepless hours later, he arrived at his grandmother’s house.
“It was a matter of luck,” he says. “I had no map. I had to ask about everything.”
César’s mom called him, every day, crying, and he would say to her, “At least I’m alive. At least I’m out [of detention].”
“I definitely know that the suffering my mother went through wasn’t right. People will criticize and condemn. It is really sad, and maybe [they] shouldn’t be so hard on people who made a mistake.”
When I ask him what’s the first thing he wants to do when he gets back to Philly, he chokes up before he tells me about the imagined family hug.
It’s been six years. “I’ve missed a lot. I’ve missed so much,” he says.
His mother echoes that. “He’s missed out on seeing the victories and what we have accomplished here in the community,” she says. “He hasn’t seen his nieces and nephews be born and grow up … I have seen him across distances, but it is not the same … someday I hope to have him at our side again.”
But during the span days during which my interview with him is finalized, I learn that César (who has been hoping that after the mandatory 10-year bar on re-entry he’ll be able to reunite with his family) is told by his lawyer that there is likely no legal way to do so.
His longing to be back with those he loves, in the country he loves, is so strong, however, he may at some point attempt to re-enter illegally.
“It is so hard for a person to be pulled away from family,” he says, “harder yet to be pulled away from what you are, from yourself … I identify with the United States. You are from where you were raised, where you have your roots, where you have your memories.”
Backward and forward in time
“I think it’s important to consider that prior to the 1980s, the deportation system, which is civil, operated much more independently from the criminal legal system and deportation was usually not an instant consequence of a criminal conviction.” — Caitlin Barry
If we could jump back and forth in time, the outcomes for both men might have been drastically different.
Before passage of the onerous 1996 laws that Human Right Watch has urged Congress to repeal, Barry says Mout, “would have been eligible to apply for a 212(c) waiver, which would have allowed him to present evidence of his refugee experience, his family ties, his community leadership, etc.”
“It was still a hurdle that some people could not overcome, and I still believe it was burdensome and unfair, but it was vastly better than what we have today (which is no relief, period),” she adds.
Moving forward in time, if Mout’s story had taken place before 2002, he would also still be in Philadelphia, raising his daughter and running his barbershop. That’s because the U.S. and Cambodia didn’t have a repatriation agreement until that year.
Moving to the present, Kiernan believes that Philadelphia’s “sanctuary city policy, and the community organizing behind it, has shifted public opinion around incarceration, re-entry, and deportation. So there would be much more public and government support in the city for people like Mout.”
César’s case is more complicated, and even rolling time backward isn’t a guarantee that he wouldn’t have ended up deported. But it would have offered him both options and hope.
“I don’t know that there would be any clear path to relief that would have benefited César,” Barry tells me, “but there may have been some creative ways to fight his deportation. Have you looked into Judicial Recommendations Against Deportation (JRADs)?”
“Prior to 1990, the judge presiding in a criminal case could make a binding recommendation as to whether a criminal conviction could be used as a basis for deportation,” she says, “so the judge in Cesar’s criminal case could have heard evidence about his ties to the community, his family’s dependence on him, etc. If he had obtained a JRAD, it may have assisted him in fighting his deportation, and if I was representing him I would have fought for it.”
So, in this first quarter of 2017, after a presidential campaign filled with incendiary anti-immigrant rhetoric and a presidency that from its earliest days has promised to deport as many immigrants as it can, is there any hope for deportees like Mout and César to come back back to the country and people they love?
It keeps law professors like Barry monitoring the national conversation about prisons, which “is beginning to question whether they actually make us safer, or whether those resources would be better invested in education, jobs, health care and housing that could more effectively prevent violence and addiction. I sincerely hope that these lessons are also applied to the immigration system, which is effectively operating as a system of secondary incarceration and punishment for immigrants who are facing permanent exile from their families and communities.”
It keeps deportees who have made the best out of excruciatingly difficult circumstances, like Mout has in Phnom Penh, participating in grassroots actions and urging restoration of the rights non-citizens in the U.S. had before 1996.
And it keeps deportees who will not abandon their identity as Americans, like César, weighing faded hopes against the vivid memory of family and home.
It is more than 900 miles from Oaxaca to the closest U.S. border bridge … to cross over and come home again, or not?