Approximately 40 Cambodians, some of whom have never set foot in Cambodia, were deported on Monday following targeted raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to immigration advocates.
These deportations have become routine in Cambodian communities across the country, as the Trump administration has ramped up its immigration enforcement. In fiscal year 2018, a record 110 Cambodians were deported, compared to just 29 and 74 in the two previous fiscal years.
ICE began consistently issuing final orders of removal for dozens of Cambodians across the country every four months beginning in 2017. The agency’s justification for targeting this group specifically is that many of them are “criminals” and their removal “[makes] our communities safer.”
“[T]here are still nearly 1,900 Cambodian nationals present in the United States with a final order of removal, of whom almost 1,400 are convicted criminals,” ICE wrote in a December press release announcing the deportation of 36 Cambodians. “This most recent removal flight took 34 criminals, many convicted of the most heinous possible crimes, off our streets and made our communities safer.”
Many of the “criminal” Cambodians did have a record — usually for crimes like burglaries — but the charges were decades old and their sentences were already completed.
“I did my time,” 39-year-old Cambodian Hay Hov, who served five years for solicitation of murder when he was 19, told the San Fransisco Chronicle in March. “It’s a choice I made when I was young, and now I’m paying for it. But it shouldn’t be like this.”
Kevin Lo, an attorney at the Asian Law Caucus, represents many Cambodians with final orders of removal, and says these operations are separating families with deep roots in the United States and causing them to struggle financially.
“Even though they committed these crimes in the 1990s, they fully served their prison sentences and have done everything they can to atone for it,” Lo told ThinkProgress. “When we’re talking about deporting these people now, they are no longer the 18 and 19-year-olds that have committed crimes, they’re usually dads in their thirties and forties who are now working a consistent job, they have their families to take care of, and often times, they are the main breadwinners for their family.”
“Even for the Cambodians that we successfully prevent their deportation, their families are impacted immediately,” Kevin added. “Their families lose their homes, lose their cars, all within the first month of being picked up by ICE.”
The irony in ICE targeting and deporting Cambodians is that many of them were brought to the United States as children by parents who were forced to flee Cambodia as a result of U.S. intervention in their home country. In the 1970s, the U.S. military conducted unauthorized, covert bombings in Cambodia and nearby Laos in order to cut off arms to the North Vietnamese army. Nearly 3 million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, at the time the largest carpet bombing conducted by the United States. The Cambodia bombings exceeded the amount of bombs dropped on Japan during World War II by more than 1 million tons. As a result, 30% of the population was displaced to neighboring countries and the United States, and a civil war ensued.
Cambodians arrived in the United States from refugee camps and resettled in urban areas prone to over-policing. Living in these neighborhoods while also quietly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the acts of war they experienced in Cambodia, many of the resettled refugees banded together in self-defense. This act of self-preservation resulted in many Cambodians being placed in gang databases.
“We were a bunch of guys in the neighborhood who wanted to feel safe after being beaten up so many times,” one unnamed Cambodian told The Nation. “We wanted to get each other’s backs. We weren’t intentionally trying to create a criminal organization.”
While the increase in Cambodian deportations is likely due to Trump’s crackdown on immigrants with criminal records, the administration is utilizing laws that have been on the books for decades. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act limited the ability of judges to decide whether documented immigrants and refugees with criminal histories should be deported. This set of immigration laws were passed in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, where 168 lives were taken — by domestic terrorists.