U.S. al­legedly tar­gets Cam­bo­dian refugees

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - NATION & WORLD - By Frank Shy­ong

LOS AN­GE­LES >> Nak Kim Ch­hoeun en­tered the fed­eral build­ing in down­town Los An­ge­les a few weeks ago for his im­mi­gra­tion check. He had been re­port­ing to im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties like this ev­ery year since be­ing con­victed of as­sault and un­law­ful gun pos­ses­sion in 1999. This time the Cam­bo­dian refugee never came out, said his cousin Posda Tuot, who drove him to his im­mi­gra­tion ap­point­ment. More than a hun­dred peo­ple of Cam­bo­dian de­scent have been de­tained in a sim­i­lar fash­ion over the last month as the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion steps up its ef­forts to per­suade re­sis­tant coun­tries to ac­cept de­por­tees, ad­vo­cates say.

The San Fran­cisco and Los An­ge­les chap­ters of Asian Amer­i­cans Ad­vanc­ing Jus­tice have filed suit against the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to stop the de­ten­tions, call­ing them il­le­gal and de­mand­ing the de­tainees be re­leased.

“There was no process, no hear­ing, no ev­i­dence, no cause to sup­port the de­ten­tion of these peo­ple,” said Anoop Prasad, an at­tor­ney with the San Fran­cisco chap­ter. Im­mi­grants de­tained for de­por­ta­tion must be re­leased af­ter six months if au­thor­i­ties can­not prove they are a flight risk or dan­ger to so­ci­ety, said Laboni Hoq, lit­i­ga­tion di­rec­tor for the L.A. of­fice of Asian Amer­i­cans Ad­vanc­ing Jus­tice, or AAAJ. On Oct. 24, Los An­ge­les County Su­per­vi­sor Jan­ice Hahn wrote a let­ter warn­ing fed­eral of­fi­cials against us­ing the de­tainees as “bar­gain­ing chips” to com­pel Cam­bo­dia to ac­cept more de­por­tees.

“My res­i­dents and their fam­i­lies can­not be used as pawns,” Hahn said. Im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties say they are en­forc­ing fed­eral law and that their ac­tions are sup­ported by in­ter­na­tional laws that re­quire coun­tries to ac­cept the re­turn of their cit­i­zens when asked. Cam­bo­dia was one of the four na­tions hit with visa sanc­tions in Septem­ber af­ter they re­fused to co­op­er­ate with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­por­ta­tion ef­forts, said Lori Ha­ley, a spokes­woman for Im­mi­gra­tion Cus­toms and En­force­ment. Visa re­stric­tions have also been placed on cer­tain trav­el­ers from Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone.

“The United States con­tin­ues to work with the Gov­ern­ment of Cam­bo­dia to es­tab­lish a re­li­able process for the is­suance of travel doc­u­ments and their ac­cep­tance of the prompt, law­ful re­turn of Cam­bo­dian na­tion­als who are sub­ject to re­moval from the United States,” Ha­ley said in a state­ment.

But it’s not clear whether au­thor­i­ties in Cam­bo­dia or any of the other coun­tries have de­cided to ac­cept all the new de­tainees. Chan­noch Vong, first sec­re­tary of the Cam­bo­dian Em­bassy in Washington, said that U.S. and Cam­bo­dian of­fi­cials dis­cussed the is­sue in early Oc­to­ber, but there is no sched­ule for de­por­ta­tions yet.

Of­fi­cials at the Cam­bo­dian con­sulate in Long Beach said they have not been in­structed to pre­pare any travel doc­u­ments for the re­cent de­tainees. The suit also ar­gues that de­tainees should not be de­ported be­cause they are ef­fec­tively Amer­i­can. Many were born in refugee camps and have never set foot in Cam­bo­dia. They have Cam­bo­dian na­tion­al­ity be­cause of their par­ents but lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence of the coun­try’s cul­ture and lan­guage. Cam­bo­dia has re­fused to is­sue travel doc­u­ments to such in­di­vid­u­als in the past in part be­cause they strug­gle to func­tion in a coun­try that is un­fa­mil­iar to them. Cam­bo­dian of­fi­cials have ac­cepted only about 500 peo­ple for repa­tri­a­tion since 2002, an av­er­age of 35 a year.

Ch­hoeun, who came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was 6 years old, was con­victed on one charge of ag­gra­vated felony in 1999. Af­ter prison he was a dif­fer­ent per­son, Tuot said. Sud­denly he re­fused to vi­o­late cross­walk sig­nals or drive over the speed limit, Tuot said. Ch­hoeun, who was like an older brother to Tuot, con­stantly told him to stay out of trou­ble.

“He did his time and came out changed,” Tuot said. “Yet Amer­ica de­ports him for some­thing he did early in his life.” Ch­hoeun, 42, has worked as an AT&T tech­ni­cian for 14 years. He never got mar­ried and never had chil­dren, Tout said, know­ing that his time in Amer­ica was lim­ited. He was born in Cam­bo­dia in 1975, the year the Kh­mer Rouge launched a four-year cam­paign of ter­ror and geno­cide that left nearly 2 mil­lion Cam­bo­di­ans dead. He spent most of his child­hood in a Thai refugee camp and doesn’t re­mem­ber Cam­bo­dia at all, Tout said. Across the coun­try, more than 1,900 peo­ple of Cam­bo­dian de­scent are sub­ject to im­me­di­ate de­ten­tion and de­por­ta­tion, said ICE of­fi­cials, though there are no plans to de­tain all of them. More than 1,400 have crim­i­nal con­vic­tions, ac­cord­ing to ICE fig­ures. Com­mu­nity ad­vo­cates say the crim­i­nal records of many de­por­tees are a side ef­fect of the neigh­bor­hoods that their par­ents, mostly im­pov­er­ished refugees, were forced to set­tle in. “A lot of these peo­ple have records be­cause they grew up in poverty-stricken, high-crime neigh­bor­hoods,” said Su­sana Sngiem, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the United Cam­bo­dian Com­mu­nity non­profit in Long Beach. “Now they have fam­i­lies and full-time jobs that they stand to lose.”

LOS AN­GE­LES TIMES

Cam­bo­dian refugee Posda Tuot, cousin of de­tainee Nak Kim “Rickie” Ch­hoeun, said his cousin was a dif­fer­ent per­son af­ter serv­ing time for his 1999 felony con­vic­tion. “Yet Amer­ica de­ports him for some­thing he did early in his life,” Tuot said.

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