Nobel Laureate Obama should put lens on Agony of repatriated Khmer Rouge Refugees

Sopheap Chak
Posted December 19, 2009 from Cambodia


p style="text-align: right;">“I wish you would try to stop this deportation. I am one of the deportees waiting my turn and I live in fear everyday because I do not want it to be my turn. I have one daughter and another child on the way and I want to grow old with my kids. The mistake I made in my past haunts me but I got to move forward with my life and think positive. I been out of this gang life and now is a family man[...],” an appeal of a refugee who is waiting for his turn to be deported from United State. Notably, most U.S. immigration laws enacted in the past 20 years were introduced during periodic episodes of anti-immigrant hysteria. Immigration has been a major political issue during presidential election campaigns as well. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was signed under Clinton administration in September, shortly before the election in November that year. Also, the 2002 extradition agreement between the United States and Cambodia was signed after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.

The current US President, Barack Obama, was not different from his former since the migration policy had been one of his presidential election campaign that captures a large majority of immigrants vote. His promise of "comprehensive immigration reform," have contributed much to his election victory. Through his current positive engagement with many countries where human rights respect is questioned, there is much hope that he can brought about much changes for global order, that is resulted to his recent recipient of Nobel Peace Prize.

Regardless there have been much controversy on his Nobel Peace Award, Obama humbly accepted and acknowledge that the prize is more likely “an call to action.” Hence, there is hope that the award will become an alert message for him to strengthen the US’s role in promoting the human rights respect by starting from his own nation through the immigration policy reform and improvement.

While appealing much human rights abuse and misconduct of rule of law to many so-called democratic states and military ruled regimes in Asia or elsewhere, the Nobel Laureate Obama should also review the legality of the US’s immigration reform which has hugely affected many refugees and immigrants’ lives whose hope are to reside in the land of opportunity.

For example, under the US’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, noncitizens who commit felonies must be deported. Previously, immediate deportation was enacted only for offences that could lead to five years or more in jail. This included crimes such as murder, terrorism or threatening the president. However, the 1996 law expanded the scope of crimes meriting deportation to include even minor crimes such as shoplifting.

The 1996 law was applied retroactively to those convicted of deportable offenses, including some who had committed minor offences decades ago. Moreover, the act stripped judges of nearly all discretion in determining whether permanent residents should be deported. There are limits on litigation that prevent individuals or groups from suing the government or appealing decisions by the Immigration Department or lower courts.

Under the expansion of this law, about 189 Cambodian refugees had been already deported by November 2008, according to a New York Times report. Another 2,000 Cambodians are in the deportation pipeline waiting their turn. This is one of the untold tragedies of U.S. policy that has forcibly repatriated many young Cambodians who went to the United States as refugees after escaping the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. The United States took in 130,000 Cambodian refugees between 1985 and 1995 as tacit acknowledgement of U.S. involvement in the destabilization of Cambodia in the early 1970s, according to a report in the National Journal, “Between Two Nations,” by Bruce Stokes.

In fact, Cambodian criminals were not deported until an extradition agreement was reached between Washington and Phnom Penh in 2002; after that, Cambodians convicted of felonies were subject to deportation after finishing their prison terms in the United States.

Although these Cambodians had obtained permanent resident status, they lost the right to remain in the United States after being convicted of a felony, despite having already served sentences of up to 10 years in prison. As a result, they are being sent back to a country where they were traumatized, with which they are unfamiliar after spending most of their life in the United States, where they have no family and little hope of escaping poverty.

It should be also noted that a thorough understanding on the nature of these refugees to become a part of gangsters and criminals should be undertaken. In his book “Deporting Our Souls,” Bill Ong Hing, professor of law and Asian American studies at the University of California in Davis, offers explanations by criminologists, social scientists, parents and criminals themselves as to why there has been a relatively high level of criminality in the Cambodian refugee community in the United States.

First, he cites the refugee camp experience, with few activities or opportunities to be productive. The crowded camp life easily led to violence and crime. Many parents who survived the Khmer Rouge’s inhuman genocide suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and their mental health was affected by long periods of malnutrition.

In addition, once they arrived in the United States the difficulties of language and cultural assimilation strained the relationship between parents and children. Many were resettled in low income neighborhoods where poverty and poor academic performance were common. Young men tended to band together in gangs, which they viewed as family. Those who ended up committing crimes and serving jail time are now being doubly punished by being deported to their home country. Older refugees are still traumatized by the inhuman acts of the Khmer Rouge and may be terrified of returning. As for those who came to the United States as children, they have adapted to American life and culture. Most cannot speak, read or write Khmer, the Cambodian language.

It is a tough challenge for such returnees to communicate and make a living in Cambodia, where they carry the added burden of their criminal deportee status. It is even tougher for those who are separated from their parents, wives or children. They surely never expected to face this deportation nightmare after setting foot in the United States, the “land of opportunity.”

As young refugees these people were legally accepted into the United States and are essentially the product of that country. Thus it would seem the U.S. government should take responsibility for them, rather than sending them back to a land they hardly know. The deportation of convicted refugees should be reexamined and their right to appeal should be granted.

Most of all, U.S. policy-makers should not take advantage of the plight of immigrants for their own political benefit at the expense of the refugees’ lives and their families’ happiness. Owing much hope from his voters and the current status as Nobel Laureate, Obama should play significant role in promoting more human rights respect and migration rights to be realized.

Read more: the Agony of Repatriated Khmer Rouge Refugees

Comments 1

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  • JaniceW
    Dec 20, 2009
    Dec 20, 2009

    Welcome Sopheap, It is a joy to have you as a member of our online community. This is an important issue which unfortunately does not have any easy solutions. As an immigrant myself, I see both sides of this issue. I empathize with the Cambodian immigrants who as youths, may have lacked good judgment in their past or felt pressured to act against the law to fit into a new community. On the other hand, I see the logistical nightmare of weighing up the circumstances of every individual subject to deportation, as well as the outcries of every immigrant group if one is given special consideration over another.

    This is a controversial issue and must be looked at more deeply rather than painting the issue with a broad stroke of policies. Thank you for bringing this to our attention and I look forward to reading more from you. Janice