Matt Driscoll

Deportation flight another sad chapter in lives of Cambodian refugees who fled to America

The flight took off Monday night from Dallas, according to immigration attorneys and advocates who tracked it.

Its ultimate destination: Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.

On it, according to the attorneys and advocates, roughly 40 people forced from the country they called home. Most had been in the United States since they were very young children, having fled genocide and civil war in Cambodia, a country they’ve never really known.

For the most part, they’d been detained since March, waiting to see what an uncertain future held.

Now, many will never see the United States again.

“The barriers to reopening a case after deportation are high,” said Kevin Lo, a staff attorney with the California-based Asian Law Caucus, which has represented a number of Cambodians facing deportation in recent years.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials would not comment on the flight, citing security concerns, before this column was first published. Since then, they said there were 37 people on the flight, 35 of them with criminal convictions, including murder, assault, child abuse and rape.

“(ICE) carries out its mission to remove aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety, as well as those who undermine the integrity of our immigration laws with the utmost professionalism on a daily basis and often in the face of adversity,” said Paige D. Hughes, ICE spokeswoman for the agency’s western region.

According to immigration attorneys and advocates, the flight marked the latest chapter in what has become a voluminous and politically charged book on the Trump administration’s hardline approach to immigration and deportation.

Since taking office, the Trump administration has worked to ratchet up the number of Cambodian refugees deported each year. As The News Tribune reported in a recent three-part series, so far the effort is having the desired effect — largely targeting people with active removal orders against them, often for crimes committed many years ago.

In fiscal year 2018, 110 people were deported to Cambodia, according to ICE. It represented a 279 percent increase over fiscal year 2017.

According to the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, a Cambodian nonprofit that works to integrate individuals deported from the United States, it was more deportations than any previous fiscal or calendar year total. It’s a trend they’ve been told will continue.

In previous statements provided to The News Tribune, ICE has contended that the deportations make communities safer and that many of the individuals targeted have been “convicted of the most heinous possible crimes.”

For the Cambodian (or Khmer) community — which today makes up less than 1 percent of the U.S. population — the story is far more complicated.

The increased deportations, often for crimes that happened more than two decades ago, feel like an attack, many say, and like a betrayal by a country that welcomed them in the wake of nearly unspeakable atrocities.

“It’s very detrimental to the community. It perpetuates this cycle of displacement and this cycle of breaking up families that has been going on since the Vietnam War and the conflicts (in Southeast Asia) that had U.S. involvement throughout the 1960s and 70s,” said Bunthay Cheam, a Cambodian refugee affiliated with the Khmer Anti-Deportation Advocacy Group, a local organization working to prevent Cambodian deportations.

“We’re still a community that’s suffering from the effects of that,” Cheam added of the increased deportations, noting the financial and emotional impact on families.

According to Lo and Cheam, Monday’s flight also represented a sliver of hope.

The people who weren’t on the plane, they said, serve as proof of the impact a growing advocacy effort and legal representation can make.

In California, the Asian Law Caucus represented six Cambodians targeted for deportation. Five have had their cases closed, avoiding deportation, Lo said, while the sixth is also still in the United States, his case pending.

These were not outliers, Lo contended.

“Out of the people that we manage to do legal consultations with, half — or even more — usually have a way to fight their deportations,” Lo said. “For a lot of these people, if they had full access to lawyers … it would mean that a lot of these deportations could be prevented.”

In Washington, according to Cheam, four people were detained in March and targeted for deportation. All of them managed to avoid it, he said.

One of them, 65-year-old Van Ham, was pardoned by Gov. Jay Inslee just two weeks ago, according to Taylor Wonhoff, Inslee’s deputy general counsel. It was not the first time Inslee’s pen has saved a Cambodian refugee from imminent deportation.

Ham’s case illustrates both the high stakes of the Trump administration’s policy and the complexity often involved.

In 1997, Ham pleaded guilty to a single charge of second-degree child molestation, having inappropriately touched the breast of two pre-teen girls, according to the “full and unconditional pardon” signed by Washington’s governor.

Since that time, Ham served his 15-month sentence, registered as a sex offender for 15 years as required by the court and today supports his family, including grandchildren.

Earlier this year the state Pardon and Clemency Review Board unanimously recommended Ham’s full pardon. The King County Prosecutor’s Office did not object, nor did Ham’s victims. One even wrote a statement in support.

“For petitions like these, we have to make a judgment about whether an individual remains a public safety risk. Here, Mr. Ham is 65 years old, (and) this is the only conviction on his record,” said Wonhoff, who advises the governor on pardon reviews.

“If Mr. Ham were a citizen, even with this offense on his record, he’d be here, contributing to his community and working,” Wonhoff concluded. “ But because he fled to America decades ago, even though he served his sentence, he instead faced removal to a country he was forced to escape decades ago.”

Ham managed to avoid that, by a matter of weeks. Some will say that’s a just outcome; others surely will not.

What we know for certain is that there are roughly 40 people currently en route to Cambodia who weren’t so lucky.

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Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.