ICYMI: The Atlantic: Cambodian Deportees Return to a ‘Home’ They’ve Never Known
January 16, 2019
By Charles Dunst
Between 1975 and 1994, the United States accepted around 150,000 Cambodian refugees, among them Sek and his family. But they were typically placed in poor urban communities with inadequate financial and mental-health support, leading some to drift toward criminality and, eventually, deportable convictions. More than 700 have been sent back to Cambodia since 2002, but the Donald Trump administration is now ramping up deportations of refugees, arguing that they are criminal nationals of Cambodia whom the Southeast Asian country is legally obliged to receive. In the process, officials are sending many back to a place from which they fled or in which they have never lived, raising questions of nationality for people who have spent most of their lives in one state, but are being tied to another. Now Sek must adjust to a country where he has never been, where the culture is wholly alien, and where people view him as a foreigner.
Growing up, Sek struggled to connect with his parents—a common phenomenon among children of Khmer Rouge survivors—and instead found “family” in gangs: the Crips and then the Asian Boyz. At 19, Sek and his friends unleashed a barrage of bullets on a Philadelphia bar whose patrons, he said, had previously bombarded them with beer bottles and racist slurs. He was arrested in 1997, found guilty of attempted murder the following year, and imprisoned until he got parole in May. Less than a month after getting out, though, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained him; by December, he was in Cambodia.
Each of the dozen or so deportees I spoke with told me a similar story: They grew up poor, joined gangs out of self-defense, and didn’t know they were once eligible to pursue American citizenship, prior to their criminal convictions. Those born in Cambodia remember only the Khmer Rouge; those born in Thai refugee camps consider Cambodia little more than an ancestral homeland. All these deportees are visibly American. Locals, citing their tattoos, attire, speech, and swagger, believe them to be monied barang—“foreigners”—or overseas Khmer tourists, rather than true Cambodians.
Anti-deportation advocates argue that American dereliction of duty regarding these Cambodian refugees is twofold: The U.S. bombed Cambodia, bolstering the Khmer Rouge’s rise and contributing to the creation of this refugee population, whom the U.S. then resettled through a defective program, subsequently priming them for poverty and criminality. (In 2000, 29.3 percent of Cambodian Americans lived in poverty, and the community remains among the poorest in the United States. Post-traumatic stress disorder is endemic.)
“The notion that the United States owed a debt to these refugees is not just metaphorical,” Eric Tang, the director of the Center for Asian American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto, told me. “It’s U.S. policy abroad, but also the absence of any real domestic policy.”
Refugees can be deported if they’re convicted of crimes—mostly aggravated felonies, which range from murder to obstruction of justice—that invalidate their permanent-residency status, or if they’re convicted of two misdemeanors. These refugees could, preconviction, have become American citizens, but they said that their sponsors didn’t emphasize the importance of naturalization. The U.S. sent citizenship-related paperwork in English, a language which the heads of most refugee households didn’t speak, let alone read. Many deportees also told me that their parents remained fearful of government and, citing their Khmer Rouge experience, avoided official interactions, even in the U.S., including those with naturalization-related authorities.