Writing Hope into Our History: Cambodian Deportation Defense Organizing
For as long as I can remember, anytime a narrative of Cambodia or Cambodian Americans came came up it was always was a narrative of despair and tragedy. From French colonization to U.S. carpet bombings in Cambodia to genocide to our resettlement in the United States to our incarceration and lastly, to our deportation, the Cambodian American community has been known for our misfortune and our tragic history. But with tragic history comes resilience and resistance that is never emphasized enough.
To date, we have lost over 700 Cambodian Americans to deportation. Many have never stepped foot in Cambodia. Many were born in refugee camps during their family’s resettlement process. Many only know the United States as home. There are many Cambodian Americans in the United States who still live their lives with the fear of deportation lingering over their heads.
In deportation defense work, it can be tasking at times to convince larger society why they have a stake and should be fighting for people who face deportation as a result of a criminal conviction. Trying to stop deportation as a result of a criminal conviction is where we lose a lot of supporters in this movement which has led to only a small handful of us organizing to end criminal deportations.
Up until recently…
On May 10th, 2019, a group of Cambodian elders made up of predominantly Cambodian mothers, aunties, and grandmothers attended the Mothers Against Deportation action in Sacramento. A bus of 40–50 elders came on a bus from Oakland to Sacramento to rally against Cambodian refugee deportations. They stormed the streets with signs that said, “when we fight, we win,” “Stop Separating families,” and “#PardonRefugees,” all in hopes of urging Governor Gavin Newsom to provide deportation relief to our community members.
This moment was the accumulation of months upon months of planning. This moment was also a build up of anti-deportation organizing since 2002.
In the early 2000s Cambodian deportations have mainly went under the radar with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and DREAMers taking center stage in the immigration discussion. Cambodian Americans who were fighting their removals saw very little support and their resistance to the U.S. deportation machine wasn’t captured until years later–as was for the case of Many Uch who was one of the first Cambodian Americans to fight against their deportation removal.
Since Many Uch, deportations of Cambodian Americans with criminal convictions has been growing, but so has the deportation defense movement.
Cambodian American deportations has occurred under every sitting president since 2002–George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Democrat and Republican alike, deportations have only increased president after president after president. With every sitting president making a career of deporting the “bad immigrants,” and protecting the “good immigrants,” the Cambodian American community has yet to experience a moment of rest from institutional and structural violence. With each passing year of violence, it only became a matter of time before the Cambodian community had enough.
When Donald Trump took office in 2016, immigrant and refugee communities in the U.S. understood that our communities would be attacked more so than we were previous years. ICE raids increased dramatically nationwide and families were being torn apart faster than anyone could have imagined. While liberals and progressives responded with protecting childhood arrivals and “good immigrants,” those of us who had family with criminal backgrounds knew our families would be first to be targeted for deportations.
In 2017, the Cambodian American community experienced the largest attack on our community by ICE. 100 Cambodians nationwide were rounded up by ICE and faced potential deportation to a country many have never stepped foot in. This shock to our community brought Cambodian deportations to the limelight and what kicked off the anti-deportation movement for the Cambodian American community and Asian America in the United States.
We, Cambodian Americans, are tired of losing our families. We are tired of seeing our people locked up. We are tired of losing our families to deportation. And we will fight tooth and nail to make sure we don’t lose anymore people thus began the freedom fight for Cambodian American refugees.
On January 2017, the #FreeNy campaign launched to fight against the removal of a Cambodian American woman who is a domestic violence survivor.
On November 9th, 2017 Ny was finally released from ICE detention after an immigration judge granted her bond in a packed courtroom full of community supporters.
On March 2017, #ReleaseMN8 began as a response to the roundup of eight Cambodian Minnesotans.
On September 22nd, 2017 Chamroeun Plan was one of three released from ICE detention as a result of community advocacy.
On November 2017, #BringPJHome/KeepPJHome took off in response to the direct transfer of a Cambodian American refugee from a California state prison to an ICE detention facility.
On May 10th, 2018, PJ was released from ICE and got to spend Mother’s Day with his mom after 22 years of being locked up.
On March 2019, #PardonRefugees became a campaign in response to an ICE roundup that hit the Bay Area community.
On May 13th, 2019, Governor Gavin Newsom Pardoned two Cambodian men who were apart of the Bay Area ICE roundup.
We know now, when we fight, we will win.
We have endured so much under U.S. imperialism, U.S. racism, U.S. capitalism, and U.S. xenophobia. Resiliency is as part of our history has tragedy. We have stories of resistance and we have stories of triumph. It is time to capture hope as a part of our history.
We understand now that there is no greater threat to injustice than when a tired community says, “no more!”
There is no greater power in this world than when parents, grandparents, elders, young folks, wage workers, attorneys, and children come together to demand freedom.
There is no greater reward in organizing than seeing people come home from prison or ICE detention.
To the Khmer elders, aunties, mothers, and grandmothers: you are the movement leaders we’ve been waiting for. Your grace and fierceness has not gone unnoticed. You are the freedom fighters we should all aspire to be. You all have a special place in my heart. I love more powerfully because of you.
To my fellow organizers in the movement: there is no heart bigger than yours, no courage stronger, and no tenderness more widespread. You all make me believe that we can overcome anything.
To the formerly incarcerated leaders of this movement who lost years of their lives behind bars and still commit yourselves everyday to uplifting your community: you are exemplary and your compassion for humanity is unmatched. If there are a group of people who will lead us towards liberation, it is you all.
Lastly, to all the folks still sitting inside prisons and ICE detentions, and to all the folks that have been deported, know we are still fighting for you, we are always thinking about you, we won’t stop fighting until you all are free.