By Chak Sopheap
Guest Commentary, Published on UPI Asia
Niigata, Japan — One of the untold tragedies of U.S. policy has been the forced repatriation of young Cambodians, mainly men, who went to the United States as refugees after escaping the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. The United States took in 130,000 Cambodian refugees between 1985 and 1995 as tacit acknowledgement of U.S. involvement in the destabilization of Cambodia in the early 1970s, according to a report in the National Journal, “Between Two Nations,” by Bruce Stokes.
By November 2008 about 189 refugees had been deported to Cambodia under a law that mandates deportation for noncitizens who commit felonies, according to a New York Times report. Another 2,000 Cambodians are in the deportation pipeline waiting their turn.
Although these Cambodians had obtained permanent resident status, they lost the right to remain in the United States after being convicted of a felony, despite having already served sentences of up to 10 years in prison.
As a result, they are being sent back to a country where they were traumatized, with which they are unfamiliar after spending most of their life in the United States, where they have no family and little hope of escaping poverty.
Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, noncitizens who commit felonies must be deported. Previously, immediate deportation was enacted only for offences that could lead to five years or more in jail. This included crimes such as murder, terrorism or threatening the president. However, the 1996 law expanded the scope of crimes meriting deportation to include even minor crimes such as shoplifting.
In one case, a man was ordered to be deported after being convicted for urinating in public. Another example is that of a woman, whose children were born in the United States and are therefore citizens, facing deportation after serving three years in jail for disciplining her children with unlit incense sticks.
The 1996 law was applied retroactively to those convicted of deportable offenses, including some who had committed minor offences decades ago. Moreover, the act stripped judges of nearly all discretion in determining whether permanent residents should be deported. There are limits on litigation that prevent individuals or groups from suing the government or appealing decisions by the Immigration Department or lower courts.
In fact, Cambodian criminals were not deported until an extradition agreement was reached between Washington and Phnom Penh in 2002; after that, Cambodians convicted of felonies were subject to deportation after finishing their prison terms in the United States.
Cambodians who had not applied for U.S. citizenship suddenly found themselves liable to be deported even for committing misdemeanors. This included those with green cards or married to U.S. citizens. It seems that many missed the opportunity to apply for citizenship either because they didn’t think it necessary, or they didn’t understand the process due to lack of information in the Cambodian Language.
Most U.S. immigration laws enacted in the past 20 years were introduced during periodic episodes of anti-immigrant hysteria. Immigration has been a major political issue during presidential election campaigns as well. The 1996 law was signed under Clinton administration in September, shortly before the election in November that year. Also, the 2002 extradition agreement between the United States and Cambodia was signed after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.
In his book “Deporting Our Souls,” Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and Asian American studies at the University of California in Davis, offers explanations by criminologists, social scientists, parents and criminals themselves as to why there has been a relatively high level of criminality in the Cambodian refugee community in the United States.
First, he cites the refugee camp experience, with few activities or opportunities to be productive. The crowded camp life easily led to violence and crime. Many parents who survived the Khmer Rouge’s inhuman genocide suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and their mental health was affected by long periods of malnutrition.
In addition, once they arrived in the United States the difficulties of language and cultural assimilation strained the relationship between parents and children. Many were resettled in low income neighborhoods where poverty and poor academic performance were common. Young men tended to band together in gangs, which they viewed as family.
Those who ended up committing crimes and serving jail time are now being doubly punished by being deported to their home country. Older refugees are still traumatized by the inhuman acts of the Khmer Rouge and may be terrified of returning. As for those who came to the United States as children, they have adapted to American life and culture. Most cannot speak, read or write Khmer, the Cambodian language.
It is a tough challenge for such returnees to communicate and make a living in Cambodia, where they carry the added burden of their criminal deportee status. It is even tougher for those who are separated from their parents, wives or children. They surely never expected to face this deportation nightmare after setting foot in the United States, the “land of opportunity.”
As young refugees these people were legally accepted into the United States and are essentially the product of that country. Thus it would seem the U.S. government should take responsibility for them, rather than sending them back to a land they hardly know. The deportation of convicted refugees should be reexamined and their right to appeal should be granted.
Most of all, U.S. policymakers should not take advantage of the plight of immigrants for their own political benefit at the expense of the refugees’ lives and their families’ happiness.
(Chak Sopheap is a graduate student of peace studies at the International University of Japan. She runs a blog, www.sopheapfocus.com, in which she shares her impressions of both Japan and her homeland, Cambodia. She was previously advocacy officer of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.)