The quiet deportation of Cambodian refugees you haven’t heard about

Almost 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans have received deportation orders since 1998.

Ched Nin (second from left) and Jenny Srey (second from right) with three of their children. CREDIT: Kiet Le Photography
Ched Nin (second from left) and Jenny Srey (second from right) with three of their children. CREDIT: Kiet Le Photography

Ched Nin is afraid he might be sent back to a country he’s never set foot in — one that his parents left behind to save their own lives.

Nin’s family fled Cambodia in 1979 to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide. They made their way to a refugee camp in Thailand — where Nin was born — and eventually sought refugee status in the United States. Nin has lived in Minnesota since he was six years old.

Nin is now a lawful permanent resident, more commonly known as a green-card holder. And ever since 2012, when he was released from prison after serving a two-year sentence, he has gone in for a routine check-in with the federal immigration agency every six months.

But when he showed up for his check-in this past August, he was arrested and placed in deportation proceedings. He’s now awaiting his fate in a detention facility in Jena, Louisiana.

Even though he’s lived in the country legally his whole life, Nin may get deported back to Cambodia thanks to a 1996 immigration law that broadened the scope of criminal convictions that make both undocumented and legal immigrants eligible for deportation.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) uses a broad definition for the kind of crimes that make people eligible for deportation — which include murder, rape, and ransom, as well as simple possession of of a controlled substance. That law also took away discretion from immigration judges to make individual assessments of cases.

In 2010, Nin pleaded guilty to assault, serving nearly two years in prison. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency detained him for 90 days before officials determined that he didn’t pose a threat to public safety. The agency released him back into the community at that time.

After his release, Nin met and fell in love with Jenny Srey, a U.S. citizen. Together, they have raised five teenagers from previous marriages, all of whom also have U.S. citizenship.

“He’s a really good dad — the kids really love him,” Srey tearfully said in a phone interview. “He’s really focused on sports too. When we had people write in support of him [to show the immigration judge], some of the kids wrote ‘he embarrasses us because he cheers so loud.’”

“He’s a really good dad — the kids really love him.”

Nin is one of about eight Cambodian refugees in Minnesota who are currently fighting their deportations because of old criminal convictions. And five other Southeast Asian refugees in California are in a similar situation, according to Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyer’s Guild.

In fact, the United States deports Cambodian refugees happens often enough that the Cambodian embassy regularly issues travel documents for people being returned to the region.

Mao said these deportations occur “by clockwork,” depending how quickly the Cambodian embassy can process these travel documents. The last flight to the region occurred around September 20, prompting advocates to worry that another flight will take place around October 20.

Little attention has been given to the nearly 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans who have received final orders of removal since 1998. More than 78 percent of those final orders were based on old criminal convictions, according to a Southeast Asian Resources Action Center (SEARAC) report recently released. Southeast Asian immigrants are the largest community of refugees ever resettled in the United States, so the issue of deportation is always a looming threat.

“When we talk about the issue of deportation, [we] focus on Latinos and individuals that don’t have proper documentation to live in the United States,” said Katrina Dizon Mariategue, immigration policy manager at SEARAC, which advocates for Southeast Asians. “But [we] don’t understand there’s a whole cohort of refugees who have a number of basic rights as lawful permanent residents in the United States.”

“It’s a really traumatic experience to the Southeast Asian community.”

“It’s a really traumatic experience to the Southeast Asian community. It’s quiet and people are scared because there’s so much stigma around the arrests,” Mao said. “But it does feel like suddenly Cambodians and Vietnamese are shuttled through the deportation process.”

In the national conversation on criminal justice reform, the Obama administration has emphasized the decision to give second chances to some inmates. As part of that commitment, President Obama has shortened the sentences of more federal inmates than any other president since Calvin Coolidge. When he granted pardons to 214 federal inmates in August, Obama called for a criminal justice system that “works for everyone,” particularly for “men and women [who] end up in a criminal justice system that serves up excessive punishments, especially for nonviolent drug offenses.”

Yet immigrants who serve their time in the criminal justice system are passed over to the civil justice sphere where they often do not get another chance.

“Ched Nin is a beautiful example of how somebody [was able to turn] their life around, become a member of the Carpenter’s Union, and buy a huge house to support his family,” Mao said. “But unfortunately in the immigration context, he’s considered Priority 1, and ICE doesn’t want to look at the other extremely compelling equities in his case. They’re moving forward with his deportation.”

Almost three years ago, Obama announced that his administration would focus its enforcement resources on going after “felons, not families,” releasing a memo instructing ICE officials to prioritize people with criminal convictions and recent border crossers. Immigrants who have committed crimes and are considered threats to national security, public safety, and border security are among those considered “Priority 1.”

But advocates for Nin say this category fails to account for other “equities” beyond criminal history, and understates his other worthy contributions as a legal U.S. worker and dedicated father.

“ICE focuses so much on the enforcement priorities that they often overlook the equities and fail to weigh them in contrast with the priorities,” said Dizon Mariategue. “They’re flagged as priorities and ICE finds it difficult to be sympathetic.”

Nin’s detention and potential deportation is wreaking havoc on his family, which depends on him as the breadwinner. His daughter and father have medical issues that require his help. There’s a chance that Nin’s two children, whom he shares custody of with his ex-wife, could end up in foster care. And all of his children have been suffering in school since he was removed from their home — a common consequence for children whose immigrant parents end up in detention centers.

“We’ve had to ask for extensions [on homework],” Srey said. “They’re usually good students, like A’s and B’s. But now it’s D’s and F’s.”

Nin’s family is hoping he may qualify for a 212(h) waiver, an immigration process made available for individuals who can show they would face “extreme hardship” if they get deported.

They are also asking the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for a stay of removal so he can reopen his case and get legal representation this time around. When Nin pleaded guilty in 2010, he didn’t have a lawyer — a right denied to people going through the immigration court system.

In the meantime, advocates are hoping for a fix to the 1996 federal immigration law, calling on lawmakers like Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) to amplify the issue.

“In this particular moment when we’re talking about criminal justice reform and mass criminalization, the story of Ched Nin should be one of celebration, not of punishment,” Mao said.