Deported to Their Parents’ Homeland, Cambodian Americans Start Anew
Refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge as children are being deported from the United States in record numbers—and are adapting as adults to life in a country most have never known.
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—It wasn’t until Sam Nak was in handcuffs and leg irons, 35,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, that reality finally sunk in: He might never get to go home.
Nak grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where his family had been resettled as refugees when he was 6 months old. His parents had fled Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Nak, now 41, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. While he was eligible after five years in the country, he never became a U.S. citizen: His family didn’t understand the process. Nak never gave the distinction much thought until he started having run-ins with the law. In 1999, after pleading guilty to selling marijuana to avoid prison time, Nak was given a deportation order. (U.S. immigration law states that noncitizens convicted of a wide range of crimes can be sent back to their native countries.) But Nak had no documents proving Cambodian citizenship, so he stayed in the United States for another 19 years.
In 2018, Nak was picked up on another drug charge and later transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during a national raid on the Cambodian American community. ICE shuffled him between immigrant detention facilities for three months and put him on a flight to Cambodia that August. “They sent me on a plane to a place I’d never been,” Nak said. He didn’t even get to pack a suitcase.
As asylum-seekers face pushback at the U.S.-Mexico border, the case of Cambodian Americans like Nak is a reminder that the United States has also turned its back on those it once offered refuge. In 2002, Washington and Phnom Penh signed a deal agreeing that Cambodia would accept repatriations. The policy has been used to deport Cambodian Americans over prior criminal convictions—some dating back decades. Since then, the United States has deported at least 998 individuals to Cambodia, according to ICE data compiled by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse and other sources.
Of those deported, 733 people—including just 16 women—were originally admitted as refugees, according to records from the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization (KVAO), which provides the new arrivals with temporary housing and helps ease their transition. During the two previous U.S. administrations, roughly three dozen people were deported each year on average. But the deportations—known officially as “removals”—have accelerated under President Donald Trump as part of a wider immigration crackdown.
In 2018, 126 Cambodian American refugees arrived in Phnom Penh, according to KVAO. The trend has continued this year: A flight carrying 37 deportees, the majority of them refugees, arrived last month. William Herod, the KVAO spokesperson who has worked with the deportee community since 2002, said ICE anticipates 200 deportations per year moving forward.
Cambodian Americans are in an unusually vulnerable position. Not only did most arrive as refugees, but many, like Nak, had never set foot in Cambodia before they were deported. Since arriving in Cambodia, some have found success running small businesses or teaching English. But the fact that they are here at all is a form of double punishment—and a betrayal of the protection the United States granted their families, who fled a conflict that was shaped in part by U.S. action.
“I admit that I did wrong,” said Nak. “But this is punishment on another level.”
The United States contributed to a crisis in Cambodia before most of the deportees were born. In 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon ordered a secret bombing campaign in Cambodia and Laos that lasted four years. After a 1970 coup orchestrated by Lon Nol—a U.S. ally—the Khmer Rouge gained increasing influence in the countryside. The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975 and forcibly relocated city residents, including many who had fled the U.S. bombings, to rural labor camps. By 1979, when a Vietnamese invasion forced the Khmer Rouge from power, nearly a quarter of Cambodia’s population had died from starvation, disease, and mass killings.
Many of those who survived fled to the Thailand-Cambodia border, where Nak was born in 1978. His family was resettled in the United States the following year. Between 1975 and 1990, more than 140,000 Cambodians were granted refugee status. But adjusting to life in the United States wasn’t easy. Many of those who had escaped the Khmer Rouge were peasant farmers and ended up in poor neighborhoods in cities like Long Beach, California, or Lowell, Massachusetts.
Nak’s generation had to navigate a dual existence: serving as interpreters for traumatized parents who spoke little English while struggling to fit in where gang culture was rife. Growing up in Providence’s West End neighborhood, Nak said he was sucked in by the crime around him, hardened by years of being picked on. He had a son at age 16, and selling drugs was a way to help support him.
Buck Billy (not his given name), 34, was deported to Cambodia in 2011. He described a similar experience growing up in Philadelphia. “We were in an urban community that was infested with drugs and gun violence,” he said. “At the same time, we had to protect ourselves. Those things graduate into getting in trouble.”
The United States was becoming less forgiving. The U.S. prison population swelled after the passage of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994. A 1996 law expanded the list of crimes for which noncitizens could be deported and made it harder for them to fight their cases. Before 2002, those ordered to return to Cambodia remained in the United States. But after the agreement signed that year, they trickled back to Cambodia, where many had few family members, lacked fluency in the Khmer language, and struggled to find work. Until recently, many had to track down distant relatives or pay bribes to receive the Cambodian identity card required to take a job or open a bank account.
Many of those deported to Cambodia hadn’t seen it coming. Some said court officials never told them they could be deported when they entered pleas. Later, when their deportation orders hadn’t been enforced for years, they figured they were safe. As the deportations increase, new arrivals now typically come in groups—a natural support structure that many who came earlier lacked. Still, Cambodian Americans often struggle in Phnom Penh. Herod of KVAO said many suffer from depression. Most say the hardest part is leaving family behind.
Sarath Kham, 35, arrived in Cambodia last December, three years after being sentenced to probation for purchasing a laptop that turned out to be stolen. He keeps in touch with his two young sons in Philadelphia via FaceTime. Overcoming the distance isn’t easy. “It’s hard to accept that I cannot be there to pick them up from school,” he said, adding that the initial adjustment was the toughest: “When I first got off that plane, I was so lost.”
With the recent increase, ICE maintains that it is simply clearing a backlog. Brendan Raedy, an ICE spokesman, said in an email that there are 1,773 nondetained Cambodian Americans who have been issued final orders of removal, including 1,287 convicted criminals. ICE prioritizes those who have been convicted, have pending criminal charges, or are considered a “national security or public safety threat,” Raedy said. He declined to specify how the agency chooses which orders to enforce—a process that deportees and their attorneys say is highly arbitrary.
While Nak spent two years in a U.S. immigration detention facility after the marijuana case that triggered his removal order, the authorities left him alone for nearly two decades—even after he spent time in federal prison for another drug conviction. That changed last year when he was arrested for a minor drug charge and later handed over to ICE. Kevin Lo, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus who has represented Cambodian Americans fighting deportation orders, said raids targeting the community nationwide have increased under the Trump administration. They now take place roughly every four months.
The raids disrupt entire families: Deportees are often the primary breadwinners, and relatives can lose cars or apartments once they’re gone. “Often the parents are the most afraid,” Lo said. “They’re the ones who fled Cambodia and never thought their kids would be sent back like this.”
Among Southeast Asian refugees of the Vietnam War period, Cambodian Americans are uniquely vulnerable. While there were at least 8,400 Vietnamese and 4,200 Laotians in the United States with final deportation orders as of 2018, the United States has no repatriation agreement with Laos. An agreement signed with Vietnam in 2008 only applies to individuals who arrived after 1995, excluding wartime refugees.
Treating Cambodian Americans like their Vietnamese counterparts would make sense, though a new policy seems highly unlikely. After pressure from U.S. and Cambodian advocacy groups, Cambodian authorities briefly suspended the existing agreement in 2017 but backed down after the Trump administration imposed visa sanctions against Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials. By contrast, Vietnam resisted pressure from the Trump administration last year to reinterpret their bilateral agreement to include those who had arrived before 1995.
The difference in response could be a consequence of geopolitics. Because Vietnam is a regional power and represents an important bulwark against China for the United States, it has the leverage to push back. Cambodia, which has frosty relations with Washington, does not. “Vietnam is in a much stronger position to resist pressure on any issue,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
While the situation for those with deportation orders might change under a new administration, their best bet now is to look to the courts. A 2017 ruling by a California federal judge on a lawsuit filed by the Asian Law Caucus has resulted in the suspension of one deportation flight and a new requirement that ICE provide at least two weeks’ written notice before detaining those it intends to deport.
The Asian Law Caucus has also helped two deportees return to the United States after legal developments affected their cases. One returned as a result of Sessions v. Dimaya, a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that changed what constitutes an aggravated felony. Another returned after California passed a law allowing individuals to seek to vacate convictions if a court did not convey the immigration consequences of a guilty plea. According to Lo, several deportees in Cambodia have cases they could reopen.
For now, Nak and others in Phnom Penh, where roughly half of deportees settle, are forging ahead with their new lives. Some have found unexpected opportunities. Back in the United States, criminal backgrounds foiled job prospects, but here their record is clean, and fluency in English is a valued asset.
Several work as teachers. Others have started restaurants that cater to the capital’s large expatriate population, which includes Western NGO workers and Chinese investors. Among other ventures, Billy runs a tour company, ZIN, with Kham and three other deportees. They organize trips for tourists and recently returned Cambodian Americans. (ZIN also leverages local connections to help other deportees find professional jobs in the city.) “I’ve transitioned from being a hustler to an entrepreneur,” Billy said.
After a year in Phnom Penh, Nak has similar ambitions. He has parlayed past IT experience into a real estate job and now has designs on opening a pub inspired by one of his favorite hangouts back in Providence. He admits that living in Cambodia, with its beaches, ancient temples, and vibrant nightlife, is better than he expected. But it’s no substitute for being back with family.
“Cambodia is beautiful,” Nak said. “But it’s not home.”
Jonathan W. Rosen is a freelance journalist. His reporting on international affairs has appeared in the Atlantic, National Geographic, and the New York Times. Twitter: @jw_rosen