Cambodian-Americans Chanravy Proeung and Mia-lia Kiernan flew to Geneva this past week on a mission: stopping the U.S. practice of deporting Cambodians with criminal convictions.
Monday saw the U.N. Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of the U.S., during which 122 U.N. member states were given 65 seconds each to comment on human rights issues in the U.S. The session also gave civil rights organizations a chance to appeal to country delegates on the sidelines.
Ms. Proeung and Ms. Kiernan, representing the Southeast Asian Freedom Network (SEAFN), a coalition of grassroots organizations across the U.S., are calling for an immediate suspension of all U.S. deportations to Cambodia and an open review of the 2002 U.S.-Cambodia Repatriation Agreement, which they claim violates human rights including right to family unity and the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest, detention and exile.
Cambodia was not present during Monday’s review and the Cambodian deportation issue was not mentioned. However—amid grievances regarding racial discrimination in law enforcement, government surveillance and the death penalty in the U.S.—concerns about the detention and deportation of immigrants were raised by several countries, including Thailand, Brazil, Paraguay and Sweden.
“Immigration is a huge issue in the U.S. and very Latino-driven,” said Ms. Proeung, a national organizer for SEAFN who lives in Philadelphia, speaking from Geneva on Sunday. “But you don’t hear from Asian-American communities in the U.S., specifically not Cambodian communities—we’re invisibilized in that battle.”
Under U.S. law, non-U.S. citizens convicted of any “deportable offense”—a broad term that encompasses convictions under federal or state law—can be deported, even after serving their sentence.
In 2002, Washington and Phnom Penh signed a repatriation treaty that allowed the U.S. to deport Cambodian-Americans back to Cambodia, a country many had never seen.
Between 2002 and the end of 2014, a total of 467 Cambodians were deported from the U.S. to Cambodia, 97 percent of them male, according to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), a Phnom Penh-based nonprofit that helps deportees transition to life in Cambodia.
Of those, 279 were deported under U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, with 77 deported last year alone, according to RISC.
“There’s this kind of systemic separation of family that nobody has really labeled as a human rights violation,” Ms. Proeung said.
Ms. Proeung and Ms. Kiernan attribute the rise in deportation to Mr. Obama’s controversial efforts to enact reforms that benefit other immigrant communities.
“I think it can be confusing when you look at Obama’s immigration policies, because they have impacted communities in different ways,” Ms. Kiernan said.
“Under Obama, more people with past convictions have been deported than ever before. This is because if his administration was going to implement [his executive actions], then they had to come down hard on other people,” she added.
“When Obama announced his executive action on deportation last fall, he said ‘We are going to deport felons, not families. Gang members, not mothers.’”
This policy disproportionately affects Cambodian-American communities, advocates say.
“Cambodian Americans faced significant challenges upon coming to the U.S. as refugees,” Jacqueline Dan, an immigration attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said in an email.
The trauma of war and violence continues to haunt Cambodians in the U.S., which, coupled with high poverty rates in their communities, drive many of them to a life of crime from a young age, Ms. Dan said.
“Some were bullied to the point where they were physically attacked in school and joined or organized gangs for protection. Others turned to drugs to stave off recurring nightmares of loved ones being tortured and killed,” she said.
At the U.N. human rights review on Monday, Megan Mack, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security officer for civil rights and civil liberties, responded to concerns about deportation, saying: “Non-citizens who are present in the United States and are facing removal are afforded significant procedural protections.”
“For individuals who are detained, the United States ensures they are treated humanely and in a manner consistent with the U.S. Constitution, federal laws and policies, and applicable international obligations,” she added.
Ms. Dan, however, says the reality is more complex.
“A lawful permanent resident who was convicted of an aggravated felony after the 1996 laws took effect has very few defenses to removal,” she said. “They are barred from receiving cancellation of removal and can only stay if they can prove that they will be persecuted or tortured if removed from the U.S. This form of humanitarian relief is extremely difficult to win.”
While in Geneva, the SEAFN activists used the opportunity to raise the issue with country delegates, particularly nations who have similar repatriation agreements with the U.S.
“Instead of targeting the U.S. immigration laws, we’re targeting the agreement between the two countries,” Ms. Kiernan said.
Their aim is twofold: an immediate suspension of deportations and, for those who have been deported, the right to return to the U.S. by choice.
By highlighting the repatriation treaty, Ms. Kiernan said she hopes to shift the conversation from viewing immigration from a policy level to focusing on the human stories of individuals and families affected by government decisions.
“Being able to target the repatriation agreement allows us to talk about the specific experience of the Cambodian people,” Ms. Kiernan said. “Those specific things should be what guides policies.”