Strangers in a strange land

The Trump Administration is ramping up its deportation of Southeast Asian immigrants, despite the devastation to families and communities left behind

Sally Tyler

Government and governance, Law, Arts, culture & society | Southeast Asia, The World

2 January 2019

Many Cambodian immigrants who came to the USA as refugees are being sent back to “homelands” they have never known, Sally Tyler writes.

Most international attention surrounding the Trump Administration’s rhetoric-fueled immigration policy has focused on its constitutionally dubious travel ban for certain Muslim majority nations and its failure to achieve funding for the long-discussed wall along the US border with Mexico. Escaping broad attention has been its accelerated deportation of Southeast Asian immigrants, most of whom came to America decades ago as refugees.

A 19 December charter flight from Texas to Phnom Penh forcibly repatriated 36 Cambodians, making 2018 a record-breaking year for Cambodian deportations. Though attempts to deport Cambodian refugees who committed crimes in the US began in 2002 under George W Bush and were continued under the Obama Administration, Cambodia routinely refused to accept the detainees and the US did not press its case, perhaps in tacit acknowledgement of the role its covert bombing of Cambodia played in allowing the proliferation of the Khmer Rouge, the scourge from which most refugees had fled.

The Trump Administration, however, not known to be burdened by a long view of history; decided to prioritise the deportations and refused admission to the US of high-level Cambodian diplomats and their families in 2017 until the Cambodian government relented and began accepting detainees.

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The nations of Vietnam and Laos had also been classified by the US State Department as “recalcitrant” because of their similar refusal to accept detainees, but an earlier diplomatic agreement which provided protection for those who had arrived from Vietnam prior to 1995 made it unlikely that those detainees would face deportation. The Trump Administration met with Vietnamese officials last month to pressure them into reinterpreting the agreement to allow for the commencement of large-scale deportations, making thousands more individuals at risk.

The circumstances of those being deported underscore the senseless nature of the policy. Though most of the detainees were convicted of a felony in the US, many committed their crime as teens and did not receive a trial, agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence, not realising that a plea would make them automatically eligible for removal to their home country under US law.

After completing their sentences, most set out to build productive lives, the threat of deportation vague and distant due to Cambodia’s refusal to accept repatriation. Most became employed, raised families and became economic mainstays for parents and older relatives.

Now, the looming specter of deportation creates both economic and emotional hardship in Cambodian communities throughout the US.

Another layer of tragic irony is how utterly unprepared these individuals are for re-entry to Cambodia. Having grown up considering themselves American; few speak, read or write Khmer. Many have literally never set foot on Cambodian soil, being born in Thai refugee camps before their migration to the US. Most of the detainees no longer have family members in the country, as relatives who remained in Cambodia did not survive the era of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

Without knowledge of the language or culture, and without families to help them, their plight is bleak. A shoestring organisation has been formed by an American protestant minister with the goal of assisting their assimilation and relocation, but deportees report to their families in the US that they are isolated and adrift. A handful have succumbed to drugs or suicide.

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There has been pushback to the deportations, with the governors of the states of California and Washington issuing pardons to nullify some of the offenses on which the deportations are based. Still, these isolated political manoeuvers continue to face legal hurdles and are dwarfed by the enhanced deportation machine of the reinvigorated Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency under Trump.

The final irony for the detainees is that the conditions which gave rise to their refugee status have also made them particularly vulnerable to deportation.

Many Cambodians who survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge understandably became wary of any government and shunned political participation as a one-way ticket to persecution. They instilled the same belief in their children, so most current detainees did not attempt to become US citizens when they were eligible. As non-citizens they have little recourse to fight deportation and as non-voters they may not attract the support of elected officials who could champion their cause.

This political detachment is gradually eroding, however, as a new generation of Cambodian-Americans is helping to educate their communities about the importance of civic engagement.

Perhaps, greater political participation will allow affected individuals to advocate for themselves more effectively and cease being treated as pawns in a high-stakes game of chess among nations to accept responsibility for the world’s refugees.

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