‘Being an American Is All She Knew’

Minor infractions are sending Cambodian refugees back to a land they hardly recognize -- and once fled in terror.

Chhan Touch
Chhan Touch

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Wearing no obvious make-up and bookish maroon glasses, Pich, 31, has an unassuming look. She dresses professionally in khaki and black with a hair tie kept handy on her left wrist. She has no visible tattoos. After three years living in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, she can almost blend in. Like many in the metropolis, she zips around the chaotic city on a small scooter and wears her hair long and straight in the traditional Cambodian style. But when she speaks Khmer, it is her Western accent that gives her away. Pich is an outsider.

A Cambodian born in a Thai refugee camp and raised mostly in California, Pich was a permanent resident, legally, of the United States until the government deported her to Cambodia in 2011. She was sent away after being arrested for credit card fraud in California. Until then, she had never set foot in Cambodia. "It’s funny because it’s like I’m in my own country," said Pich, who asked to be referred to by her nickname, which was given to her by a Cambodian fortune teller. "But America decided it was my country."

When U.S. President Barack Obama announced in March he would review deportation policy, most people assumed he was talking about undocumented migrants. Yet the review, which the administration has now postponed until after the November elections, may also include permanent residents — individuals who can legally live in the United States, but who are not citizens — who have broken the law. Legal permanent residents can drive, work, travel, own property, and otherwise live their lives very much the same as citizens do, minus the right to vote and a few other things. But when they break the law, they can find themselves not just facing the justice system, but also Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

According to a 2009 Human Rights Watch report, from 1997 to 2007 almost 10 percent of 897,099 people deported on criminal grounds were formerly legal permanent residents like Pich. According to the Immigration Policy Center (the research branch of the D.C. based American Immigration Council), the majority of these individuals are deported for minor, non-violent offenses.

After the ascendance of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that controlled Cambodia from 1975-1979, 120,000 Cambodian refugees came to the United States. Born amidst strife in Southeast Asia and raised in cities across the United States, some of the exiles are now being returned to the country their families fled. Almost all of the roughly 400 legal U.S. permanent residents of Cambodian heritage deported following criminal convictions are men. But around a dozen women, like Pich, have also been exiled.

The first Cambodian American deportees began arriving in Phnom Penh in 2002, the same year Cambodia agreed to accept them. According to activists in Phnom Penh, many were born in refugee camps after their families fled the Khmer Rouge. The regime forced millions from major cities to the countryside to work in agriculture in an effort to create a rural, classless society. During their reign, around 1.7 million people died from forced labor, starvation, and extrajudicial killings.

Pich’s mother fled Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge came to power, and raised her mostly in Long Beach, California. A citizen herself, Pich’s mother urged her daughter to apply for naturalization. But Pich kept postponing it, first because of the expense, then because she misplaced her green card and would need to apply for a new one.

"I didn’t take it as a priority because I didn’t know how serious it was," said Pich.

After high school, Pich started using methamphetamine and then became pregnant. In 2005, when her son was less than a year old, she was arrested for racking up approximately $3,000 in credit card fraud. She spent a year in prison and then roughly nine months in immigration detention, she said. In order to get out of detention, she signed papers allowing for her deportation, waiving her right to a hearing before an immigration judge and the chance to appeal their decision. She felt there was little risk — Cambodia, acquaintances told her, wasn’t taking their people back.

But in the United States, immigration officials can deport individuals years after they have served time in prison. If permanent residents who commit crimes sign deportation papers, they must regularly check in with ICE after they are released from detention. Sometimes it is years before they are sent away to countries where they hold or are eligible for citizenship as the countries work out the paperwork.

Four years after she left prison, Pich was deported. There was a knock on the door early in the morning October 2011 and an immigration agent took her away. Placed in immigration detention for another month, Pich was then flown to Cambodia, forced to leave her son behind in Long Beach.

Decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, Cambodia remains a difficult place to live. For more than three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen has used violence, corruption, and electoral manipulation to keep himself, and his Cambodia’s People’s Party, in power. Gross national income per capita is $950 in 2013, and millions of its citizens remain destitute with more than 20 percent of the population living below the poverty line in 2011 — the latest data available — according to World Bank.

For those who were unable to escape Khmer Rouge rule — and who have since lived under Hun Sen’s brutal and inept administration — the return of the descendants of those lucky enough to have made it to the United States is almost unfathomable. "They are thought of as criminals who did some terrible thing to have gotten kicked out of the golden land of America, a dream of all Cambodians," said Anida Yoeu Ali, a Cambodian American artist living in Phnom Penh voluntarily.

Pich says her family in Cambodia considers her a burden. "They’re kind of ashamed [of me]," she says, "because they feel like I had my chance in the States and I blew it."

But female deportees face additional stereotypes. There is a Cambodian saying, said Seattle social worker Tracy Harachi who works with the deportees in Cambodia: "Men are made of gold and women are made of white cloth." Gold, it is said, is solid forever. But a white cloth can be stained. And in Cambodia, there are many things that can tarnish a woman.

When Pich first was sent to Cambodia in 2011, she lived in the countryside with a distant aunt.  She learned to hide her cigarettes — smoking and drinking were not things "a lady" was supposed to do. Women are meant to be more submissive and less independent, according to Ali. They are judged on their ability to be a good Khmer wife.

Harachi said one female deportee from the US was locked in the house by relatives whenever they went out, believing they were protecting her from getting into trouble. "It is not pleasant being a woman of any kind here," she said.

But assimilating into a new society has been difficult for many of the deportees, regardless of gender.

The population of deportees suffers from high rates of substance abuse and emotional distress, according to Bill Herod, an advisor to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC), an organization that assists deported Cambodian-Americans transition back into Cambodian society. While reliable national statistics on mental and health and substance abuse are hard to come by, there is little doubt that the roughly 400 Cambodian-American deportees are struggling. Although most can speak Khmer, few can write it. Around a dozen are in prison — well above Cambodia’s estimated incarceration rate of .1 percent. "Perhaps 10 percent are doing okay," Herod said.

But to some who argue for stricter U.S. immigration policies, it would appear that this is not relevant. The deportees committed crimes and must suffer the consequences. Ira Mehlman, spokesperson for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative immigration advocacy organization, sees these deportations as the result of a broken agreement. "We allow you to come here and pursue life, liberty and happiness. In exchange, you commit to doing, or not doing, certain things," said Mehlman. "And like any other contract, if you don’t keep your end, there should be consequences."

Indeed some deportees have been convicted of serious crimes. According to ICE, legal residents have been sent to Cambodia after charges of felony crimes including homicide, rape, assault, burglary, robbery, larceny, drug offenses, and fraud. "ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens," said ICE spokeswoman Nicole Navas.

Yet some of these "criminal aliens" have been convicted of only basic offenses. For nearly half of the deportees, according to the 2009 Human Rights report, there is no available data on their crimes. But for the rest, marijuana and cocaine possession, and traffic offenses are some of the most common crimes for which people were deported.

Regardless of the charge, many immigration activists question the fairness of such policies. Harachi considers the deportations double jeopardy. Legal residents, she argues, are unfairly paying for the same crime twice.

"Being an American is all she knew," Pich’s brother, Ung, wrote in an email. "The culture, lifestyle, the beach, fireworks on the 4th of July, family dinner on Thanksgiving, our annual Christmas eve parties, the Southern California weather etc."

But she is no longer an American — Pich now needs a visa to visit the country she has always called home. But with a felony conviction on her record, getting the documentation to visit her family is unlikely. Meanwhile, though her mother made the trip to Cambodia in 2012, she is now on dialysis, making travel difficult. Pich still holds out hope that one day she will be able to visit her mother and son — who she sees only occasionally via Skype — in California.

"It’s easier for me to go visit them than it is for all of them to come visit me," she said. "I don’t know how, when — I just believe I will." 

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