A Lonely Road Home for Returnees From the US

In 1983, when he was 13, Chino left a Thai refugee camp on the Cambodian border and went to live in the U.S. with his grandmother, aunts and sisters. He never expected to see Cambodia again.

But six months ago, after serving 16 years in Michigan State Prison for attempted murder and spending an additional year and a half in an immigration detention center, he was deported back to Cambodia —one of more than 400 former refugees sent back for crimes or misdemeanors since a repatriation agreement was signed by Cambodia and the U.S. in 2002.

He arrived in Phnom Penh with no money and was sent by Cambodia’s immigration police to Poipet to live with his aging mother, who he hadn’t seen since they were separated when he was a child.

“My mom is old now and I don’t remember her much but they tried to help me out a little bit, her and my half-sister, but they are poor too, so it was hard,” said Chino, who declined to provide his given name for fear that his criminal record might scare off potential employers.

After two months trying to find work and desperate for money, he opted to follow many poor Cambodians illegally crossing the border to find work in Thailand.

“I paid people to take me there in a truck, kind of like they do on the Mexico border you know—what they call ‘coyotes.’ I paid 1,000 baht [about $32] to cross the border with a lot of poor people, farmer people, all packed in on top of each other.”

For a few months, Chino earned about $10 a day doing construction work in various provinces in Thailand until word spread in May that the Thai military government was preparing to crack down on illegal migrant workers. During the first two weeks of June, some 250,000 Cambodians fled back across the border.

“The military government started going around work places arresting people,” he said. “A lot of people started leaving and when I saw that, I knew I don’t want to end up back in jail for wanting to work for a living, so I paid somebody to take me back”

Chino has been back in Phnom Penh for two months now. He had not heard about the government’s efforts to return workers to Thailand legally, with reduced fees for passports and working papers. Although he has yet to find a job, he decided he wants to make it work in Cambodia.

First, he must fight against the discrimination felt by many returnees. He feels judged and excluded from jobs because of his tattoos, etched over most of his body during his teenage years moving between Chicago; Stockton, California and Holland, Michigan as part of the Bloods gang.

“Cambodians are quick to judge,” he said. “I mean, I heard it’s a lot different here than it was 10, 12 years ago—they got tattoo shops and all, but nobody else got tattoos like us so it’s still not easy just because the society is more modern—we still don’t fit in.”

Gang life provided Chino with a sense of belonging, as it did for many young refugees displaced to low-income neighborhoods in urban America.

“I’d been in gangs from 13 to about 20 years old but I pulled away from gang life when me and my girlfriend had our daughter,” he said.

“I had graduated high school, got a good job and had my family, but when I was 25 my cousin called me for help and I got into a fight. After that, I was arrested for assault and attempted murder,” he said. “I made a mistake at 25 years old but I paid for it. Now I’m 40-something, you know?”

Chino recently went back to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC) in Phnom Penh, a local NGO set up to help returnees orient themselves upon arriving at the Cambodian Immigration Department and find temporary shelter while trying to connect with their families or find jobs.

“RISC told me to try my best to find a job, I said ‘thanks’—that’s why I came to see you,” he said.

Like many of the returnees it seeks to assist, RISC is struggling. Since 2002, when Cambodia signed an agreement with the U.S. and first began accepting forced repatriations, 421 Cambodians have been sent back by the U.S, according to Kem Villa, a co-director of RISC.

“The deportation process has gotten out of hand,” he said, adding that a limited annual budget to deal with returnees is being spread ever thinner as their numbers continue to grow.

There were only four deportations of Cambodian convicts from the U.S. in 2013, compared to 51 in 2012 and 88 in 2011. But this year, 31 new returnees have already landed in Cambodia and 10 more are scheduled to arrive in the next few weeks.

The U.S. government—which spends about $23,000 on each person it deports, according to the National Immigration Forum—has reduced its annual funding of RISC to a total of about $20,000 annually, delivered through the East West Management Institute, Mr. Villa said.

Last year, the Mennonite Central Committee, a Christian NGO, provided a funding boost of $30,000, bringing RISC’s 2013 to 2014 budget to $50,000—more than double the previous year. But RISC must practice a sort of triage, prioritizing those who have no relatives in Cambodia and providing ongoing assistance to returnees with disabilities.

“We sponsor those with no family in Cambodia with food and housing for five or six months while we help them find them a job and cheap room,” said Keo Sarith, RISC’s co-director. “And we continually provide food, clothes, hygiene and medical care to those living with disabilities.”

In a cafe by Russian Market, a 39-year old returnee deported more than 10 years ago said she now relies on RISC for her most basic needs after rheumatoid arthritis left her unable to work and needing to use a walker.

“Because of my condition I don’t go anywhere, I just stay at home and sit on my balcony and watch people go back and forth,” she said, declining to have her name published because she didn’t want to draw attention to herself.

Deported from Long Beach, California, in 2003 after getting into gang-related trouble as a juvenile, she initially adapted to life in Cambodia with the help of fellow returnees and her extended family.

She held a number of jobs, most recently with the harm reduction NGO Korsang, which she said is one of the few organizations that employs disabled people and has previously hired a number of returnees. But she lost her job about a year ago when Korsang suffered a funding cut.

“About a year ago my condition made it too hard to work, or to be hired to work,” she said. “I am bored sh—less every day now, my life is not really happy anymore,” she said, adding that she would have a much better quality of life if she had access to U.S. health care.

“But I am here, so that’s the only way I can look at it. Nobody ever thought this would happen to us. America took us in as refugees nobody ever thought they would send us back again.”

With an estimated 2,000 Cambodian Americans either served deportation orders or held in detention centers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), that’s the reality facing many more unless there is a major shift in immigration policy.

Last month, a number of candle-light vigils were held in Long Beach and Stockton, California, in Seattle and in Lowell, Massachusetts—areas with large Cambodian-American populations and where ICE recently swept up dozens of people and sent them to detention centers for crimes they had already served time for.

ICE has become increasingly efficient at rounding up immigrants and former refugees without citizenship to fill its 34,000-bed quota at detention centers, where they can be held for months or even years, at a cost of about $156 per person per day, before they are deported. The most recent figures available show that in 2012, ICE detained almost 500,000 immigrants—double the number from a decade before.

Mari Quenemoen, policy manager for Washington-based advocacy group Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said that despite the surge in numbers, the deportation process remains opaque.

“Though ICE may have a plan, we don’t know or understand it. There is no annual repatriation date. We only know of roundups and deportations when families call us or our community partners saying that their family member was detained on a routine visit to ICE, or apprehended at home,” she said.

Usually, ICE rounds up several people at a time and consolidates them at a detention center, such as the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center in Washington state, where they are interviewed by the Cambodian consulate.

“We do not know what their criteria are for accepting or denying a person for repatriation,” Ms. Quenemoen said. “But almost everyone who is interviewed by the Cambodian consulate gets deported within weeks or months.”

What is certain is that once a deportation order is served, it is essentially unbeatable, said Anoop Prassad, an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus who assists immigrants facing deportation.

“The likelihood of challenging a removal order is very case specific, but…it is generally very, very difficult,” he said. “U.S. immigration laws have become extremely harsh and allow for very little discretion by immigration judges even for old or nonviolent crimes.”

Even in the most high-profile cases, the laws—passed under former U.S. President Bill Clinton—are unyielding.

Many Uch arrived in Washington state in 1984 as an 8-year-old refugee. Ten years later, he was served a deportation order after being imprisoned for his role as the getaway driver in a burglary. He spent four years in a detention center, but with Cambodia not yet accepting deportations, was released in 1999.

Now, he is a prominent Seattle-based immigration rights campaigner and community activist and in 2009, former Seattle Governor Christine Gregoire granted him an unconditional pardon for his crime in recognition of his public service.

But the threat of forced repatriation still hangs over him, as the pardon did not change his immigration status or remove his deportation order.

“It wasn’t much of a thought before 2002, but deportation has hung over my head since Cambodia started accepting returnees back in [the same year],” he said. “But since I got a pardon in 2010, my worries haven’t changed much, as my immigration case is not closed yet.”

Immigration is a hot-button issue in the U.S. and many are hopeful that President Barack Obama will push through reforms of the Immigration Law that would help protect those with legal residence detained for minor crimes or for crimes committed years ago.

But there is no going back for Chino, who says he never knew that he was supposed to go through the process to become an official citizen. Had he known, he might not be living today in Phnom Penh, effectively abandoned by the country that took him in 20 years ago.

“If you don’t have any support from back home you’re on your own. You literally arrive with nothing and it’s hard to start from there,” he said. Just a couple of hundred dollars in cash from the U.S., he added, would help returnees get on their feet and buy time to find a job and somewhere cheap to rent.

“The U.S. is my home, it’s all I know. But the U.S. government isn’t worried about whether we live or die—they break up families and they really don’t care about it, yet they go around the world preaching human rights,” he said.

“I know I did my crime, but I also did my time, right? Isn’t that the point?”

Even though he is struggling, Chino said he just has to look around to see that a lot of poor people are worse off than he is. He hopes RISC will help him become a qualified teacher, and that eventually he will be able to help others instead of seeking help himself.

“My daughter is 20 now and she’s studying physiotherapy at college so I’m proud of that and said she might come to visit me one day so I’d like to be doing alright,” he said.

“And I always try to look at it as positive as I can because in the end, this is freedom. I mean, it might be harder than it would have been in the States cause it’s a whole new world out here, but it’s still freedom.”

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