If you had your documents, what laws or policies make you deportable?
A series of changes in the 1990s made us deportable. Two policies: Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRAIRA) 1996 signed into law by President Clinton and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) tightened immigration restrictions especially for foreign nationals with criminal convictions. Together these laws expanded categories of crimes that led to mandatory deportations. They also removed a judge’s ability to use judicial discretion when sentencing. The third piece of policy that had severe impacts on the Cambodian American refugee community is the US-Cambodia repatriation agreement in which under pressure of sanctions by the US government, Cambodia agreed to accept repatriated Cambodians from the US.
Can the ZIN team or other deportees return to the US?
At this time, there is only one case in which a community member has been permitted to return to the US. We will hold on to hope and work through our community advocacy group, 1Love Cambodia.
So, if their parents pass away in the US they cannot attend the funeral?
Right. There is no precedent for one of us to return to the US for events such as funerals or to see our children or to attend to the ill health of loved ones.
Can’t you just get married to a US citizen and return to the US?
No. We are essentially deported for life. So many of us see this as unjust because all of us have served out our sentences and have paid our debt to society but cannot return to the place we called home.
What happens when you arrive in Cambodia?
We have many different arrival stories. In the past, we were processed at the Immigration office near the airport. But a recent change made it so we are processed by an NGO and Cambodian officials meet us there. Also in a recent change, the Cambodian government has committed to getting us our necessary documentation on arrival. This process in the past took weeks, months and sometimes years for our community.
Are you allowed to bring anything with you on the flight?
Technically, yes, one small bag. However, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will sometimes move us so quickly between detention centers and without giving our loved ones notice. This results in our families not knowing where to send items or our packages going to the wrong facility. So, many of us arrive with only the clothes we have on our backs.
Is there anything good about deportation? Like is it a start of a new life?
There are good things about being in Cambodia and not having to watch our backs in the ways we used to. But there is nothing good about deportation.
How successful has the “DP” community been in Cambodia?
We can point to many success stories in our community. Two of our brothers run one of the most positive spaces for youth in the country. Some of our community members are leading viable businesses, others are top level management in local companies. We can count among us one of the top performing marketing professionals in the country. Our community helped launch one of the first harm reduction NGOs in Cambodia and before the formalization of that, our community was doing grassroots outreach to sex workers and those struggling with addiction. Still others are contributing hundreds of volunteer and paid hours to local NGOs. And we are very proud of the tens of thousands of hours our community members spend each year teaching Cambodian youth.
Even still this doesn’t mean that all is well. Our community struggles to maintain overall health and wellness. ZIN looks forward to creating community spaces that improve the overall wellness in our community.