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Fighting to Stay

Cambodian American youth are often caught between their parents' respect for authority and a growing number of lawmakers who want to see them sent -- often for the first time -- to Cambodia.
 
 
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Theary Voeul says her big brother, Sok, has always been a “really fun brother.” Every day, he would pick her up and dump her, giggling, on her bed, and challenge her to wrestling matches. They would go sledding in the winter and play football in the spring. He is also like a sister in some ways. “He has so much to say, gossip and stuff. He would talk about girls to me,” says Theary, 19.
Sok, 21, whose full name is Bunsok Cham Chhorm, was arrested when he was 19, following an incident where he fired an illegal handgun into the air. While out on bail, Sok stayed home and stayed out of trouble. He was a hardworking employee at a pool company, he joined an organization for Southeast Asian youth, and he helped the organization to paint colorful murals around town. So, when he went before the judge again, she could see he was trying. Instead of sending him to prison, she sentenced him to a three-year suspended sentence. “She didn’t want to lock him up,” recalls Theary. “She wanted him to go back to school, keep doing good.” But the judge had no control over the officers from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (formerly the INS), who were waiting to take Sok away.
Theary and her mom didn’t hear from him for weeks. They didn’t even know where he was until an immigration lawyer did them a favor and made some phone calls. They found out he is being held in a detention center in Louisiana, some 1600 miles from his home in Providence, Rhode Island, facing an order of deportation to Cambodia. Sok has never set foot in Cambodia – he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand before settling with his family in the US. He doesn’t speak Cambodian. In fact, ethnically, he is not even Cambodian. His family is from the Brao tribe, an ethnic minority from the highlands of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. Theary says being Brao will make Sok a target if he is sent back.
Sok is one of the 1200 to 1500 legal American residents who have been ordered deported to Cambodia, subject to ever-tightening laws regarding who may stay in the United States, and who must go.
The generation of Cambodians who were born in Southeast Asia and raised in the U.S. (often called the “1.5 generation”), who are now in their 20s and 30s, are subject to a unique set of circumstances. Whereas their children – even their younger siblings – were born here and are U.S. citizens, 1.5-ers are permanent residents, or green card holders. That is, they are here legally, but they are not citizens. They grew up first in refugee camps, then in poor urban neighborhoods, sharing homes with relatives or sponsors and negotiating a foreign language and foreign schools where they were made to feel like outcasts. “Think two or three people sharing a mattress in the worst part of town,” says Porthira Chhim, Director of Programs at Cambodian Community Development, based in Oakland, California.
The parents of the 1.5 generation, speaking little or no English and raised in Cambodian culture which teaches respect for authority, are largely deferent to the law and timid in the face of American bureaucracy. The older generation is also haunted by their experiences in Southeast Asia – by family members that were killed by the Khmer Rouge, by the time they might have spent in brutal “re-education camps,” by the villages where they grew up having been burned, razed, or bombed. As such, many suffer from alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression, which make them somewhat emotionally unavailable to their children. So, says Chhim, the 1.5-ers “gang together, out of survival, and the system punishes them for just trying to survive.” As a result, Cambodian young people are being deported in large numbers to a country that they fled for their lives before they were old enough to remember.
Chhim says this system amounts to a “criminalization of young people.” The good news is that young people are fighting back. Some of the same attributes that put them at risk for deportation – being part of the fabric of their communities here, not being intimidated by the system – make them excellent advocates. Youth-run organizations all over the country are working to stop deportation, and they have a long fight ahead of them.

It used to be that most permanent residents convicted of a deportable crime were entitled to a hearing, called a 212(c). At a 212(c), says Joren Lyons, Staff Attorney at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, “the judge would consider what age they immigrated here, where their family is, their employment history, their community ties, whether they were fluent in their home country’s language,” before issuing a deportation order. But two events changed that equation.
In 1996, Congress broadened the definition of an aggravated felony. Previously, aggravated felonies – felonies which are deportable – were limited to serious crimes such as murder or drug trafficking. With the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the list of aggravated felonies grew to include anyone who serves more than a year in prison for theft or violent crime. Simultaneously, Congress decided that aggravated felons were no longer eligible for 212(c) hearings.
Under these new circumstances, says Lyons, it no longer matters whether your probation officer says you made every meeting, whether you’ve lived here since you were two, or whether what family you had in Cambodia has been killed. Without a 212(c), there was no forum to even explain these things. “Boom,” says Lyons. “Off you go.”
What’s more, these rules were retroactive. That is to say, it does not matter if you’ve committed a crime that is considered an aggravated felony under the new rules, but was not an aggravated felony when you committed it. You’re an aggravated felon now, and you’re eligible for deportation. The Washington DC-based Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, known as SEARAC, in a recent publication called “Concerns About the Deportation of Southeast Asians in the United States to Southeast Asia,” asserts that “some Southeast Asians in the U.S…pled guilty to charges before 1996 because they could not have known about the deportation consequences and because their lawyers encouraged them to plead guilty.”
Further, before 2002, accepting a deportation order in exchange for, say, a lesser sentence, would have made good practical sense because Cambodia and the United States did not have a repatriation agreement. In other words, the order was just an unenforceable piece of paper since the U.S. could not send people to a country that would not formally accept them. Then, in March of 2002, the US-Cambodia Repatriation Agreement was signed in Phnom Penh. Critics say the Cambodian government was “strong-armed” into signing the agreement. Three months after the agreement was signed, the first flight of deportees left for Cambodian.
Since that time, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement – known as ICE – reports that 127 residents of the U.S. have been deported to Cambodia. Sin Yen Ling, Staff Attorney with the New York-based Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, says most of her clients facing deportation are in their 20s and 30s. A survey of individuals facing deportation conducted by SEARAC in 2002 found that the average age of the detainees at the time they entered the U.S. was nine years old, and that the average time detainees have lived in the U.S. is 20 years. That is, more than half of their lives.
There have been some high-profile cases of people who were deported for minor crimes. For instance, earlier this year the Seattle-based newspaper, The International Examiner, ran a story about Sor Vann, a Houston man in his early 30s who was arrested for indecent exposure after urinating at the construction site where he worked. Indecent exposure is considered a crime of moral turpitude, which is deportable. After four years in detention, Vann, who fled the Khmer Rouge when he was 11 years old, was sent back to Cambodia. “Don’t pee in public,” read the Examiner headline. “Petty crimes can get immigrants deported.”
Certainly, to deport a refugee for such a minor infraction is outrageous. However, to be outraged only by stories like Vann’s is missing the point, says Porthira Chhim. Chhim says that we should be outraged by the fact of deportation itself, even if the people being deported did commit serious crimes. “We’re talking about the fundamental fairness of sending anyone who’s already served their time back,” says Chhim. “How different is someone…who came here when they were two, from a person who was born here?”
Opponents say deportation is especially galling because of the role the U.S. played in the displacement of Cambodian refugees. During the Vietnam War, the U.S. illegally dropped over 500,000 tons of bombs in Cambodia, targeting Vietcong army bases along the Vietnamese border. Simultaneously, President Nixon backed a coup by Cambodian General Lon Nol because of Nol’s opposition the North Vietnamese’s communist leadership. When the Khmer Rouge ultimately defeated Nol and came to power in 1975, they systematically targeted those people who were thought to have supported the U.S. Ultimately, about 1.5 million people – 20% of Cambodia’s population at the time – were killed or starved to death by the Khmer Rouge.

Sok’s father, Chhorm, watched his four sisters die under the Khmer Rouge. He was fleeing Cambodia and carrying his father on his back, when his father died.
His doctor thinks that those memories are why, when Chhorm fell off a ladder while working as a carpenter in Providence and hit his head, it all started to unravel. Chhorm thinks he hears himself on the radio. He thinks he is president of the United States. He stays up all night drinking and raving about the things he hears and sees. “We wouldn’t get any sleep,” recalls Theary, “and we’d have to go to school the next day. I think that’s one of the reasons my brother joined a gang and dropped out of school, so he’d have some place to be that was out of the house. Thank God I had a job,” says Theary, “because otherwise I’d be psychotic, too, listening to that all day.”
Sok was a member of the Cambodian Nasty Boys, or the CNB, one of Providence’s 15 or so Southeast Asian gangs. The gangs are often a source of violence, but just as often, they are a refuge where alienated youth who grew up as immigrants in poor neighborhoods can find comfort in each other’s shared experience. “We’re Asian,” says Theary. “There’s a lot of people that hates on Asian people, that look down on Asian people. Of course people are going to want to be with people who appreciate you, who got your back.” Theary doesn’t recall her big brother’s gang being violent or causing trouble. The night Sok got in trouble was “the first incident I’ve ever heard where it got that deep,” she says. “All my cousins was in it. They were just a hanging crew. They hung out in a garage.”
On the night that was to change Sok’s life forever, he and his friends got in a fight with members of another gang in nearby Fall River, Massachusetts. According to Theary, Sok and his friends were talking to some girls from Fall River, and the gang from Fall River didn’t like that. Kids from that gang were taunting Sok and his friends, circling around their car, knocking on their windows. Sok pulled out a gun and fired into the air as a warning. The other kids scattered, and Sok and his friends drove back home to Rhode Island. They were pulled over on the way back, and Sok was ultimately convicted of criminal possession of a firearm.
Theary is not pretending her brother, or others in his situation, are angels. “Yeah, they committed a crime,” she says. “But they didn’t learn that stuff in Cambodia. They were taught to be bad here. People around them [in Providence] taught them all this stuff.” That is, the circumstances of their lives in the country that they call home bred the kind of behavior that will ultimately cause that same country to kick them out.

Proponents of deportation say that the youth were given a chance, and they blew it. Paula Greenier, a public affairs officer with ICE, says, “These individuals pose a threat to our community. They have committed a criminal act that makes them subject to removal from the US.”
Many members of the older generation of Cambodian refugees agree. Sarath Suong, 24, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Revere, Massachusetts, so it is with a deep personal knowledge when he says, “a lot of older folks say, ‘send them back, they’re criminals. They were given a chance.’” Sarath says that when the older generation came here, they expected to find the American dream. Many continue to cling to that expectation, even as they struggle. “Older folks say, ‘you work really hard, you make your money, you live your life’,” says Suong. “Deportation totally messes up their idea of what America is, what America offers us. Refugees don’t want to believe the American dream is a lie.”
As a result, young people are uniquely positioned to make a difference. “We understand how hard it is to grow up here. We understand the unfairness of it. We’re not scared of questioning the American dream, of being confrontational with the government.” As such, Suong was one of the founders of the Providence Youth Student Movement, a grass-roots, multiracial youth activist organization in Rhode Island.
The Providence Youth Student Movement, known as PrYSM, has done extensive outreach to the community about deportation. They organized several large-scale protests in front of the INS offices in 2002, when the deportations began.
Attorney Sin Yen Ling can’t say enough about how meaningful PrYSM’s outreach work has been. Ling has run legal clinics in Providence, Philadelphia, and Lowell, Massachusetts. In other cities, Ling said, she had trouble even locating people to attend her clinics. “In those communities, there is no sense that there are socioeconomic, political reasons why you’re in this particular situation. People facing deportation are living in silence, because they see it as shameful.” In Providence, on the other hand, Ling jokes that she “couldn’t get them to shut up!” She credits this openness, this need to communicate, with PrYSM’s education campaign.
PrYSM is part of a nationwide, grassroots movement working to address 2002’s repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia. The Southeast Asian Freedom Network has seven member organizations, in California, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and New York. Most of the organizations, such as the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Islander Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership, and the Long Beach, California-based Khmer Girls in Action, are youth-run. “It’s been the youth-led, youth-based organizations that have led the campaign against Cambodian repatriation,” says Ling. “It’s not really an issue of whether young people should or shouldn’t. They have to. They’re living this reality every day.”

Beth Schwartzapfel, 25, is a freelance journalist based in Rhode Island. She lives in Providence with her partner and her hound dog.