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ICE To Target Cambodian Communities For Deportations Starting This Month, Advocates Warn

A person in a bright yellow jumpsuit can be seen through the window of a closed door.  A padlocked door labeled ICE is in the foreground.
Immigrant advocates warn of impending arrests of Cambodians facing deportation.
(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)
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In the early years of the Trump administration, the deportation of Cambodian nationals skyrocketed. But when the pandemic struck, shutting down international borders, that rate fell sharply.

Cambodian immigrants who’ve been targeted for deportation because of past criminal convictions were hopeful that the lull would last so they could move on with their lives in a country many have called home since they were kids.

But immigrant rights advocates are warning that deportations are starting up again under a different administration.

Anoop Prasad, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus, said that at least one Cambodian has received written notice of arrest earlier this week, while several others are being told to do their regular check-in with immigration earlier than scheduled.

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Prasad called it disappointing that the Biden administration is pursuing deportations in a community where many fled U.S. military operations and the Khmer Rouge genocide as refugees.

“We have a community which was displaced by US carpet bombing [during the Vietnam War], that's survived a genocide, which then got resettled in the most violent, impoverished neighborhoods impacted by mass incarceration and the drug war in the U.S.,” Prasad said.

Organized Hotlines

The Asian Law Caucus and other organizations are urging Cambodians facing deportation to reach out through hotlines they've set up and the Southeast Asian Raids website.

The news of impending arrests is creating anxiety in cities with large Cambodian communities, including Lowell, Mass., East Oakland, Fresno, Stockton and the biggest one in Long Beach. Suely Saro, a Long Beach city councilmember, says the deportations break up families and lives that have been rebuilt after decades-old criminal convictions.

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“Many of them have shown that they are not where they were when they were a teenager,” said Saro, who worked in immigrant rights before becoming the city council’s first Cambodian American member. “It's really hard for the whole community because we're tired. We've been fighting this for so many years.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined an interview for this story, but in a statement a spokesperson said the agency prioritizes the removal of "noncitizens who pose a threat to national security, public safety, and border security."

Hundreds Of Deportations

Over the past two decades, ICE has deported hundreds of Cambodians, many of whom were infants or toddlers when they came to the U.S. as refugees. Cambodian households were often resettled in urban communities with failing schools and high rates of poverty and gang violence, and given little mental health support, leading to disproportionately high rates of incarceration, Prasad said.

“As this generation of refugee youth were hitting their teens in the mid-to-late ‘90s, it was also when states were passing the harshest sentencing laws,” Prasad said.

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They were given deportation orders but because Cambodia was refusing to issue travel documents. hundreds of people with past convictions, mostly men, lived in a legal limbo. But then the George W. Bush administration negotiated a 2002 memorandum of understanding with Cambodia, which allowed for deportations.

They continued under Obama and picked up steam after Trump entered office, going from 29 in fiscal year 2017 to 110 in FY 2018. By then, the Trump administration had imposed visa sanctions on Cambodian officials to pressure them to accept more deportees.

But then the pandemic hit and deportations dropped to 32 in fiscal year 2020.

During the Trump era, a federal class action suit filed on behalf of deportees, called Chhoeun vs. Marin, resulted in an injunction that requires ICE to give a class member written notice 14 days in advance of an arrest.

Matthew Toyama, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, which filed the suit, along with the Asian Law Caucus and Sidley Austin, LLP, said that the two weeks notice allows individuals to prepare for their deportation cases and alert their families.

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“ICE doesn't usually give a lot of heads up — that's kind of their move,” Toyama said. “The point of the class action is they need to — and the people have the right to — know about that before.”

For immigrant rights advocates, these two-week notices also have the effect of an alarm, letting others know that they may be next.

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.