Cambodian-Americans Decry Deportation Plan

Seiha Srey’s journey to Cam­bodia began in a police car. A teen-ager who fled the rice paddies and former killing fields more than 12 years ago with his family to live in the relative safety of Portland, in the US state of Maine, Seiha Srey, 19, found a turbulent life in his newfound US home.

Four years ago, he was suspected of stabbing someone to death. The case later was dropped due to a lack of evidence.

Late last year, he was arrested for burglary and assault and saw his chances of success in the US smothered under the weight of numerous criminal charges.

Now the country that welcomed his family plans to send him back to Cambodia—rejecting him for his crimes and his nationality—due to an agreement reached two months ago between the US and the Cambodian government.

His deportation, and that of nearly 1,400 other convicted felons, has sparked an outcry in Cambodian communities around the US where community leaders fear that young men will be sent back to a land they still view as dangerous beyond belief.

A parent of one likely deportee told a US newspaper that his son probably will be shot the moment he steps off of the airplane in Phnom Penh.

A Washington rights group has rallied to support the US’ Cam­bodian community, while others say they will fight the order be­fore it tears the heart out of the Cam­­bodian-American community.

“Cambodians risked their lives moving to this country for freedom and a better life. They’ve already lost so much. Forced deportation would be devastating for them, their children and their families who stay here [in the US],” wrote Cambodian-American rights advocate Samkhann Khoeun in a statement released by the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, a rights group based in Washington DC that has argued against the deportations on humanitarian grounds.

Samkhann Khoeun serves as executive director of the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association in Lowell, in the US state of Massachusetts. Lowell has the US’ second largest Cambodian-American population.

Seiha Srey could have prevented his pending deportation, despite his criminal record, if he had bothered to fill out the paperwork to become a full US citizen. As both a convicted felon and a resident alien—the status conferred on persons allowed to live in the US but not allowed to vote until they become full citizens—he qualifies for deportation under the agreement reached in March.

As if that’s not enough reason to worry, it’s likely that he will be put in the overcrowded, disease-ridden Prey Sar prison when he arrives in Cambodia, probably next fall, when he completes his prison sentence in the US. Prime Minister Hun Sen announced last week that he would imprison the deportees.

There are 100 Cambodians imprisoned in the US who will be among the first sent back. No dates have been announced for their arrival in Phnom Penh. There are another 1,391 people who have served their time and have been set free but will still face a deportation hearing before a US Immigration and Naturalization Service judge, according to the Boston Globe.

Cambodian community leaders in the town of Lowell have expressed dismay over the deportations, saying many of those scheduled to return are productive citizens who have turned their lives around since committing crimes during their turbulent youth.

Chan “Rithy” Uong, a city councilor and guidance counselor at Lowell High School, told the Boston Globe he knows many youth who are likely targets of the deportation order who had troubled teen years but have since become fathers and husbands who attend church and work full-time.

“People are frantic,” local attorney Jim Dragon told the Boston Globe. “This is the big bogeyman for these people. This is what they were scared to death would happen. There’s a lot of confusion. People don’t know if they shouldn’t go home because INS may be waiting for them.”

Driving the confusion was the recent announcement that an agreement had been reached to deport the felons.

Cambodia does not have a repatriation agreement with the US, and until recently the government would not accept the returning Cambodians, forcing the US to keep them in detention in US prisons beyond the sentences meted out for their crimes.

Last July, the US Supreme Court ruled that the prolonged detentions were a violation of the US Constitution, prompting a review of the cases and additional pressure from the US Justice Department to have the Cambodians returned.

An agreement was signed in Phnom Penh in March after US officials threatened to stop issuing visas to Cambodians.

The deportation order extends to resident and illegal aliens convicted of an aggravated felony, a category of crime that includes driving while intoxicated and marijuana possession, among others.

The Cambodian community has found a stalwart lobbyist in the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

“Most of the people who would be deported have families and children in the States, but no one to turn to in Southeast Asia. Since many of them left Asia as children they can’t speak Cambodian well and don’t know how to make a living in Cambodia,” said Ka Ying Yang, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

Yang said in a statement that it’s unfair to punish people for offenses that occurred, in some cases, years before the deportation policies were announced. They are unfair as well, he argued, because the potential deportees have already paid their debt to society by serving time in prison.

Others say they are innocent of the charges against them, did not have sufficient legal representation during their trials, or were forced to accept the deportation order in exchange for release from indefinite detention, he argued.

A Searac survey of those facing deportation found that, on average, the Cambodians were 9 years-old when they fled their war-torn home and have lived in the US for more than 20 years.

More than half of the respondents’ to the survey said they were their family’s primary source of income, according to Searac.

The organization has called for a hold on all deportations to Cambodia until the cases can be reviewed by the INS to ensure fairness. The US Congress is also debating legislation that would cancel some deportations on humanitarian grounds.

One such bill, the Family Reunification Act of 2001, would change laws that currently make it impossible to appeal expulsion from the US.

Under the proposed law, an immigration judge could waive the deportation order for people who have lived in the US for seven years, have five years of legal permanent resident status, or were sentenced to less than five years in prison.

The relief act would allow an immigration judge to cancel the deportation if there were significant family reasons to keep someone in the US, or if there were mitigating reasons based on the nature of the offense, family ties, length of residency, employment history or military service.

The legislation has not yet been passed into law.

Not everyone in the Cambodian-American community has found reason for alarm in the deportation order.

“How many millions of Cambodians would not trade places with the chance [now squandered] given these hundreds of convicts—indeed the privilege—to come to America and make an honest living?” wrote Sophal Ear, the director of a public e-mail discussion list on Cambodia.

(Additional reporting by The Associated Press)


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