It’s been two weeks since the largest deportation of Khmer refugees in U.S. history

Pisith with his mother and sister in Stockton, California

At 4:45 pm on April 3, 2018, the single largest deportation flight of Khmer Americans departed from El Paso, Texas. Most of the 43 Khmer Americans on the flight had already been separated from their loved ones since October 2017, when ICE conducted mass raids on Cambodian refugee communities all over the country.

I started working as an immigrant rights staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus in May 2017 — five months before the raids began. I had heard from more experienced attorneys at the Caucus that ICE annually raided Khmer refugee communities. In the past, the raids were concentrated in certain parts of the country. Many Khmer refugees picked up in raids were eventually released because Cambodia has been reluctant to accept large groups of deportees. Still, since 2002, the U.S. has deported close to 500 refugees to Cambodia.

In October 2017, ICE unleashed its plan to deport an unprecedented number of Khmer refugees. ICE agents arrested approximately 100 refugees all over the country and booked them in immigration prisons. Phone calls for legal help flooded into our offices. The Caucus received calls from all over the country, including California, Washington, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida. I began making weekly, sometimes bi-weekly, trips to Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center (RCCC), a county jail outside of Sacramento where ICE was detaining Khmer refugees from California’s Central Valley.

I met Pisith during my first trip to RCCC. He is a single father of two children and the caretaker of his elderly father. He has lived in Stockton for over 30 years. Pisith has a light-hearted way of talking, even when sharing about really difficult experiences. In our first conversation, he told me that his family fled the Khmer Rouge when he was a baby. In the midst of the chaos of war and genocide, Pisith’s family was forced to leave one of his sisters in Cambodia. The rest of the family stayed at a refugee camp in Thailand until they were approved to enter the U.S. as refugees. Pisith and his family settled in Stockton, California when he was five years old. He has no memories of Cambodia or Thailand, but he has seen baby pictures of himself from the refugee camp. In the pictures, his belly is bulging from malnutrition.

U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War caused a huge wave of migration from Southeast Asia. During the war, the United States dropped nearly 3 million tons of bombs on Cambodia in the largest bombing campaign conducted by the U.S. military at the time. The instability caused by U.S. bombs paved the way for the Khmer Rouge, known for murdering more than 1 million Cambodians and disposing their bodies in mass graves. Cambodians fled to camps in surrounding countries before entering the United States as refugees. In the U.S., Southeast Asian refugees were placed in poor neighborhoods with no culturally-competent resources.

Pisith, like almost all Cambodian refugee children, grew up in the U.S during the 1990s — a decade marked by a proliferation of local and national “tough on crime” policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, the “war on drugs” and sentencing children as adults in criminal proceedings. In 1996, Congress passed an immigration bill that severely limited immigration relief for non-U.S. citizens with criminal convictions — including refugees and green card holders. By the time Pisith was a teenager, the school to prison to deportation pipeline was in full effect.

Growing up as a refugee in Stockton wasn’t easy. Pisith’s parents struggled to support their four children while living with the trauma of war and immeasurable loss. Pisith felt out of place, and never felt safe in his neighborhood. When he was young, Pisith made mistakes, which led to criminal convictions, and eventually, an order of deportation in 2010. Following his deportation order, Pisith was held in immigration prison for a few months while the U.S. attempted to deport him to Cambodia. Cambodia refused to take him back, and Pisith was released from ICE custody later that year. He returned to his life in Stockton of being a father, working hard to support his children.

On October 19, 2017, without warning, ICE came to Pisith’s home, arrested him, and booked him at RCCC.

We received phone calls, e-mails and text messages from Pisith’s sister, daughter and girlfriend, asking us to look into his case. His family members were right, and Pisith did have a legal claim to reverse his deportation order. In the process of filing Pisith’s claim for relief, his daughter told me that she will be the first to graduate from college in her family because of her father’s support. His sister shared with me that she, her parents, and siblings live minutes away from each other in Stockton, and have always been a close-knit family. They gathered letters of support, necessary legal documents, and made themselves available to talk to me at all hours of the day, to get Pisith’s claim filed. They were determined to keep their loved one in this country.

In January 2018, Pisith’s deportation order was reversed, and he was released from ICE prison. Pisith has, once again, returned to his loved ones and community in Stockton.

After the October raids, the U.S. placed significant pressure on Cambodia to rapidly repatriate more refugees than ever before. Cambodia eventually agreed, and a deportation flight was slated to depart a week before Christmas. Four days before the flight, a federal judge paused all deportations to Cambodia for two months to give people time to fight their deportation orders in court. Many people who could, fought their cases and won, requiring ICE to return them to their communities. Some are continuing to fight through the court system. On February 6th, the pause on deportations ended, and the U.S. made arrangements for the next flight.

The deportation flight carrying 43 Khmer Americans landed in Phnom Penh on April 5th at 8:00 am. Pisith was not on that flight because his family relentlessly fought for him, and because he qualified for one of the very few forms of immigration relief available to people with convictions.

Refugees on that flight either didn’t have access to an immigration attorney or, unlike Pisith, didn’t have a claim for immigration relief. Their stories are present in my mind, too. Their stories reveal a shameful history this country would rather forget. They remind me that the struggle to survive did not stop when they entered the U.S. because the cards continued to be stacked against them. Their stories include partners, daughters and sisters who fought to keep them here, but faced a legal system that was never designed to help them and never stopped punishing their loved ones. Their stories remind me that more Khmer women than ever before will bear the immense emotional and financial burdens caused by permanent separation from their loved ones.

For months, my phone had rung constantly with calls from people in detention and their partners, sisters, and mothers. I had gotten used to talking to them everyday. As the plane took off, my phone went eerily quiet. I couldn’t help but feel overwhelming sadness and despair for all the voices that had just been silenced.

What has let me keep hoping is the resilience of the Khmer community. They endured U.S. bombs, the loss of their country and escaped genocide only to be followed by violence in America. Despite all this, I witnessed them respond with unrelenting courage, love and solidarity over the past six months. I know that they will keep hoping and fighting and so will I.