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Deported 11 Years Ago, Cambodian Woman Gets Rare Chance To Return Home To Long Beach

A 40-year-old Cambodian American woman in glasses wearing a black shirt and three beaded necklace strands faintly smiles as she stands in a park with trees and waterfront in the background.
Sophea Phea has returned to Long Beach, where her Cambodian refugee family had set down roots when she was a child.
(Josie Huang
LAist )
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Sophea Phea didn’t tell anyone she was coming home last month after being deported to Cambodia 11 years ago — except for her youngest brother. She wanted him to help her surprise their family. He got everyone together for a gathering in their sister’s yard in Long Beach and took video as Phea, fresh off a flight from Cambodia, gingerly walked toward them.

It took only seconds before she was noticed. Screams of joy broke out, as Phea was nearly toppled with hugs and kisses.

Standing on the periphery was her son, whom Phea had been forced to leave behind when he was 8. He’s 19 now. The years apart had made them grow distant but for the moment, Sophea stretched out her arms with a shy smile and drew his taller frame close.

“For me, it’s like everything I asked for, you know?” Phea said of the reunion. “In my eyes, he’s still my little boy.”

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Phea is among thousands of non-citizens who have been deported in recent decades because of criminal records. A conviction for credit card fraud when she was 23 had thrust Phea, a green card-holder, into a deportation pipeline upon her release from prison that she thought she wouldn’t ever escape.

It is difficult to fight a removal order and even harder to come back to the U.S. once deported. Phea is one of only a handful out of hundreds deported to Cambodia over the last 20 years who have successfully won the right to return to the U.S. While others went through the courts to reopen their cases, Phea, now 40, is the first to come home on a pardon, hers issued by Gov. Gavin Newsom. The news has fired up up other deportees seeking clemency from abroad.

“It has given folks a sense of what it means to fight for the long term,” said Nancy Nguyen, campaign director of the Southeast Asian Freedom Network, which supports people facing deportation to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. “She's the first, but she won't be the last. That's what we're pushing for.”

From Thailand To Texas To California — And Then, Cambodia

In the weeks she’s been back, Phea has been visiting old friends and favorite spots like Signal Hill Park in Long Beach where she gazes over a skyline that’s stayed largely unchanged since she was deported. [Note: Phea is the last name she's been known by in news coverage of her case to protect her privacy.]

The only things I've heard about Cambodia were about war, about all the killing. I knew that my grandparents were slaughtered and thrown in a ditch.
— Sophea Phea

Long Beach, home to the largest Cambodian community in the U.S., is where Phea’s refugee family set down roots. After fleeing Cambodia, where about 2 million people were killed under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970’s, her family landed first in a refugee camp in Thailand, where she was born.

“The only things I've heard about Cambodia were about war, about all the killing,” Phea said. “I knew that my grandparents were slaughtered and thrown in a ditch.”

Phea and her mother traveled together to the U.S. where they got green cards, which grant legal permanent residency, but like many other refugees, they stopped short of applying for the citizenship that would have guarded Phea against deportation.

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The two initially settled in Texas, where her mother worked at a factory sewing buttons onto jeans and met another Cambodian immigrant whom Phea would come to see as her father. He had his own children, and the blended family moved to Fresno, and then Long Beach when Phea was in the fifth grade. By then there were eight children, and Phea’s mom took care of the household while her partner worked in construction.

Two women of Asian descent, both wear black, pose together at a park with a harbor as a backdrop.
Since returning from Cambodia, Sophea Phea has been visiting old haunts in Long Beach and spending time with family; here she is with her youngest sibling Angela (r).
(Josie Huang

Phea grew in the 90’s feeling American: watching "Saved By the Bell" and dancing to Monica and Brandy. Life's milestones came in quick succession — graduation from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, and at 20, having her son.

Then at 23, Phea had upended her life. She was convicted of credit card fraud — about $4,000 worth, she said — and served a year in prison.

“I just took the sentence,” Phea said. “I just wanted to do my time and pay the consequences.”

But the laws had changed so that Phea could not return to normalcy after prison. Ten years earlier, President Bill Clinton had signed the Illegal Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 which expanded the range of offenses for which non-citizens could be deported.

The law had a disproportionately high impact on Cambodian and other Southeast Asian communities that saw refugees settle in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods, while carrying the trauma of war. Some younger immigrants in search of protection and escape fell into gang life and crime. The law also swept up immigrants convicted of non-violent crimes like Phea.

Upon her release in 2007, she was placed in immigration detention about 50 miles outside of Tuscon, Ariz. for about nine months while her deportation to Cambodia was being processed. But the travel documents from Cambodia never came through and Phea was released with instructions to check in quarterly with immigration officials in Los Angeles.

The next several years were quiet. Phea took community college classes, worked at a local mini-mart and TJ Maxx, and spent as much time as she could with her son, who was living with his father. But the specter of deportation never went away, and in Oct. 2011, immigration officers showed up at her door.

“It was 6 o'clock in the morning,” Phea said. “They came knocking. And I was like, ‘Oh shoot, they’re here for me.’”

Building A Life In An Unfamiliar Land

Her family hired a lawyer to fight her deportation. But after a month in immigration detention in Santa Ana, Phea was put on a plane to Cambodia without warning, or any of her belongings. Relatives in the Cambodian countryside took her in.

“It was like going back in time, where there's no running water, no stove, no refrigerator,” Phea said.

Decidedly not a “country girl,” Phea made her way to the capital, Phnom Penh, where she befriended Americans who had moved there to teach English. Phea, who said she spoke Khmer like a foreigner, eventually became an English teacher herself, educating Cambodian schoolchildren who reminded her of how she wished she was raising her own son.

She later met a local Cambodian man who ran a bar; they married in 2020. She also found a deportee community, more than 700-strong, many from California. One of her new deportee friends was Chandara Tep, who managed a tattoo shop where Phea went to have a phoenix and lotus flower inked on her shoulder blades.

Tep is from Modesto, where he had multiple run-ins with the law, including a conviction for assaulting a police officer. A parent himself, he watched Phea struggle being so far from her son and mom, who despite battling a debilitating case of diabetes was able to visit her daughter once in Cambodia.

“When her mama passed, she was devastated,” Tep said. “I told her, ‘You're not alone.’ Like I watched my dad's funeral from here. Just make the best out of it.’”

The friends became core members of a group fighting for deportees’ right to return home, called 1Love Cambodia. It was a spin-off of the 1Love Movement, a group based in Philadelphia that was trying to stop deportations to Cambodia.

A woman of Asian descent wearing glasses leads a meeting. She stands in front of a projector screen and next to a table where four men are seated.
Sophea Phea (r) addresses a 2016 1Love meeting in Phnom Penh.
(Courtesy 1Love)

“All this work was going on in America and we realized, ‘Hey, how come none of this is happening in Cambodia?'“ Phea said. “I thought that the Cambodian government needed to know that deportations are not right, because if nobody said anything, then they’ll think it's OK.”

Advocating For Deportees

The deportees’ group studied the 2002 repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the U.S. and crafted proposed revisions. Support came from the expat community in Phnom Penh as well as advocates in the U.S. Mia-lia Kiernan, who co-founded 1Love in Philadelphia, became close friends with Phea on her regular visits to Cambodia.

Two women of Asian descent pose on a rooftop with a cityscape in the background.
Sophea Phea and Mia-lia Kiernan worked together to stop deportations with 1Love and reconnected in the U.S. upon Phea's return.
(Courtesy Mia-Lia Kiernan)

“I just really appreciated and respected her leadership and ability to see beyond herself and really throw down for what could be possible in terms of building a community movement in Cambodia,” Kiernan said.

In 2016, 1Love got its wish and won an audience with Cambodian officials. Kevin Lo, an attorney with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, was visiting Cambodia at the time to provide legal aid to deportees and attended the meeting.

As Phea and others testified, “there were these high officials from these ministries in Cambodia who were just discreetly wiping away tears,” Lo recalled.

“She just speaks really powerfully,” said Kiernan, who was also present for Phea’s testimony. “It was definitely felt by everyone in the room. You could hear a pin drop.”

Cambodian officials the next year announced they would stop accepting deportations from the U.S., but the pause was short-lived. Donald Trump had taken office and his administration threatened Cambodia with visa sanctions — the deportations resumed.

A photo of people sitting at a long table with about dozen on each side. On one side are uniformed officials with the Cambodian government. The other side is made up of people in casual wear.
In 2016, Cambodian government officials took testimony from advocates on deportations and the resulting family separations.
( Courtesy 1Love)

“The number of people that were deported during the Trump years definitely skyrocketed,” Lo said. “There were flights of almost 50 people at a time sometimes.”

Lo, who had befriended Phea, persuaded her to find another way home. Other deportees had been able to return after laws changed and their offenses were no longer deportable or because legal errors were uncovered in their cases. But Lo said Phea’s case didn’t check those boxes.

He urged her to seek a pardon and helped her apply. Her first attempt was denied by Gov. Jerry Brown, but then came a text from Lo one day in June 2020 that Governor Newsom had granted her a pardon, one of about 30 that year. (The governor's office does not comment on individual cases.)

Phea, who said she drank too much in Cambodia to blunt the pain of being apart from loved ones, decided that day she would no longer touch alcohol. She said she has been sober ever since.

After delays caused by the global pandemic and immigration bureaucracy, she returned in early August.

Repairing Relationships Back In Long Beach

Now that she is back in the U.S., Phea has been preparing for the next phase of her life. On her to-do list is earning a bachelor’s degree in education and obtaining U.S. citizenship — a process that will take five years. Her husband will stay in Cambodia for now, with plans for them to visit each other as much as their budgets will allow.

Phea will also continue to speak out against deportations in Southeast Asian communities, in which at least 16,000 people are estimated to be facing removal, mostly because of old criminal records.

Phea was disappointed to see a bill known as the VISION Act fail in the state Legislaturelast month that would have barred California prisons from transferring most non-citizens to immigration officials upon the completion of their sentences.

She and other advocates see the need to make more sweeping changes at a national level. Phea has a trip to D.C. planned for later this month to help the Southeast Asian Freedom Network promote federal legislationthat would establish a five-year statute of limitations for removals and give deportees a pathway to return.

For Phea, the most important and difficult thing to do now is make up for lost time with her son, although she also wants to give him the space he needs.

“Our relationship has been crippled,” she said, holding back tears. “It’s not where I want it to be. But that's the impact of deportation.”

Phea said she’s about one-quarter of the way through writing a memoir that she plans to dedicate to both her son and her late mother. She said her son will be able to read the things she wishes she could tell him.

Three men and one woman of Asian descent work at a table.
Sophea Phea (in pink vest), Chandara Tep (seated, far right), and two other 1Love organizers.
(Courtesy of Chandara Tep)

Meanwhile in Cambodia, Phea’s friend Chandara Tep said the deportee community is abuzz about her return to the U.S. Tep is celebrating for her even as he sees a pardon for himself as out of reach because of the nature of his infractions.

“I don't care if I don't get to go back,” Tep said. “For people here, I want them to go. They shouldn't be here, you know? They should have a choice.”

He was in touch with Phea recently and had one request: Eat a Big Mac for him. Phea obliged by getting a burger at In-N-Out. She snapped a picture to send him. “That’s more California!” she joked.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.