“I was just bawling and just in shock,” says Betty Khakham, who learned of her husband’s deportation on Tuesday, after he’d boarded the plane.
A group of about 30 refugees is currently being deported to Cambodia ― the second group U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has sent back to the country this year. They are expected to arrive in Cambodia tomorrow.
Chhoy Nuon, of Savage, Minnesota, is among those being deported, after living in detention for the past four months. His attorney had filed an emergency stay, but Nuon’s family learned on Tuesday that the request was denied without explanation. Nuon’s wife, Betty Khakham, told HuffPost that the situation has been taxing on the couple and their two kids.
“We’re pretty devastated. When I found out [Nuon had boarded the plane], I was just bawling and just in shock,” she told HuffPost. “We’re just traumatized.”
This round of so-called repatriations follows the deportation in April of the largest group of Cambodians in U.S. history.
ICE typically allows families to drop off 40 pounds of luggage for loved ones who are set to be deported, but this time, several families have reported being barred from doing so, Anoop Prasad, staff attorney at civil rights nonprofit Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, told HuffPost.
“Many families are reporting that they were not allowed to drop off a bag, meaning people will be deported with just whatever they were wearing and had in their pockets when they were arrested,” Prasad told HuffPost. “ICE confiscates social security cards, drivers licenses, and photo ID from wallets prior to deportation. Meeting basic needs including shelter and clothing will be a challenge.”
ICE declined to comment on the deportations.
ICE confiscates social security cards, drivers licenses, and photo ID from wallets prior to deportation. Meeting basic needs including shelter and clothing will be a challenge.Anoop Prasad, Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus
These increased raids on the Southeast Asian community and subsequent deportations are likely a result of tension between the U.S. and Cambodia over repatriations, Katrina Dizon Mariategue, director of national policy at Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, or SEARAC, told HuffPost.
Cambodia began accepting a limited number of deportees in 2002 as part of a formal agreement with the U.S., but the government temporarily suspended repatriations for some time last year due to humanitarian concerns and protests in the Cambodian-American community.
In retaliation, the Trump administration slapped visa sanctions on the country, preventing high-ranking Cambodian officials and their families from traveling to the U.S. Within weeks, Cambodia reacted to the penalty, once again accepting a limited number of repatriations. And in April, the U.S. sent more than 40 Cambodians back to their country of origin.
Almost all of the deportees arrived in the U.S. following the Vietnam War to escape their war-torn countries. Many of them have a criminal record, but most have long avoided any contact with the criminal justice system and have been living new lives for decades, establishing families and careers.
“In the vast majority of cases, we are talking about people who came to the United States as children fleeing genocide with their families. These are individuals whose crimes were often equated with poverty and youth,” Quyen Dinh, executive director of SEARAC, previously told HuffPost. “To use their past served criminal sentences to justify punishing them again is inhumane and unjust.”
Nuon, for example, was convicted of armed robbery when he was a teen, but has not had contact with the criminal justice system since he was released from prison over 22 years ago, Khakham told HuffPost.
Though Nuon received a removal order following his conviction, he’d been released under orders of supervision and has been regularly checking in with ICE. While he initially only had to report to the agency once a year, the number of check-ins escalated under the Trump administration. Nuon was eventually checking in with ICE once a month, and during one such session, he was unexpectedly detained.
It’s sad that [ICE] can just take someone’s life and just … rip their families apart.Betty Khakham, whose husband, Chhoy Nuon, was deported this week
“[Nuon] has already paid his time over 22 years ago and since rehabilitated. This is a double jeopardy. He has strong roots embedded here and should not be punished more than once if he has already paid his time and dues,” Khakham told HuffPost.
She later added: “If my husband had his citizenship, he could’ve lived his life as normally as possible because he never recommitted. But because he doesn’t have that piece of paper … it’s sad that [ICE] can just take someone’s life and just … rip their families apart.”
Starting over in Cambodia has proven extremely difficult for past deportees. Most of them grew up identifying the U.S. as their home.
“As opposed to other deportations, very few people have family in Cambodia who survived the genocide,” Prasad told HuffPost. “Most people only speak English and cannot read or write Khmer. They’re trying to start over in what is effectively a foreign country with no family support.”
Between the increased deportations this year and the U.S.’s imposition of similar sanctions against Laos and Myanmar in July, the Southeast Asian community has been on high alert, Mariategue told HuffPost. More raids are likely to hit the Cambodian community in September.
“We know that deportations to Cambodia will hit a record high this year and there is no telling how much more bullying this President plans to do when it comes to forcing Laos and Vietnam to accept back more deportees,” she said.
Khakham says her family will try to visit her husband as often as they can. She’s toying with the possibility of moving to Cambodia, but for the time being, she says she’s trying to stay strong for her two children.
“I try to keep their lives as normal as possible and keep them in many activities ― just to keep their mind off things.”