Three dozen Cambodians – one of the largest groups of Southeast Asian refugees to be deported from the United States to date – arrived in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. They were removed from their final detention center in El Paso, Texas, and put on a Cambodia-bound flight chartered by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Forty-six refugees were scheduled to be flown to Cambodia. However, thanks to lawyers, civil rights organizations and a US governor, the plane had 10 empty seats. Had all 46 been deported, it would have been the largest batch in US history. In April, a record 43 Cambodians were deported in one batch.

Deals and laws underlying deportation

Of the 10 refugees who did not have to fly to Cambodia, five were clients of the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said staff attorney Kevin Lo. One refugee had already boarded the plane when he was granted an emergency stay.

Under the US Immigration and Nationality Act, non-US citizens who are in the country legally may be deported to their country of origin due to “violation of the law.” The Cambodians liable for deportation have either been convicted of crimes or have overstayed their visas.

In 2002, Cambodia and the US signed an agreement in which Cambodia agreed to accept criminals of Cambodian origin. Since then, Cambodia has taken in 566 deportees.

In 2002, Cambodia and the US signed an agreement in which Cambodia agreed to accept criminals of Cambodian origin. Since then, Cambodia has taken in 566 deportees

Last year, Cambodia suspended the repatriation agreement with the US because of criticism by Cambodian communities both in Cambodia and the United States, Chum Sounry, a spokesman for Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry, told The Straits Times.

Back in 2016, Lo flew to Phnom Penh to meet with Cambodian officials, who had convened a task force to address concerns about Cambodian families being torn apart and draft a new repatriation agreement that would be kinder to refugees.

The meeting included three major arms of the Cambodian government, and several teary-eyed deportees gave poignant statements. The Cambodian officials agreed to pause the repatriation process and review what they believed was an unfair, inhumane process.

Things were looking up for Lo and his clients. He thought the Cambodian government would stand up to the US and repatriations would slow down. Then the Trump administration retaliated by imposing visa sanctions on a limited echelon of Cambodian officials and families and orchestrating mass raids. In February, Cambodia began to accept refugees again.

US in violation of international law

Anoop Prasad, a senior attorney with Asian Law Caucus, took to Twitter to denounce these deportations. “No international treaty or doctrine requires countries to accept people for deportation. The long-standing rule has been the exact opposite – countries have no such obligation,” he said, citing a Fordham Law Review entry.

He continued, “The party in actual violation of international law is the United States. As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the United States may only deport refugees in very limited circumstances. The UN issued a letter finding that America’s deportation laws violate its obligations to refugees under the convention.

“On December 17, the United States will carry out the biggest deportation of Southeast Asian refugees in history. The deportations will be in violation of international law and will devastate an entire community.”

The deportation process

Lo said the Asian Law Caucus gets to know most of the Cambodians who face deportation.

Most Cambodians being redetained would have to check in with ICE every six months or so, but if they’re told to check in in a matter of days, deviating from their usual schedule, that raises a red flag, hinting to Lo that they’re about to be deported.

Raids are carried out every four months and 50 to 100 people are picked up, said Lo. Then his team has two or three weeks to work with them as they are shuffled around the ICE detention system before they re-emerge in rural detention centers. They then have two months to help the refugees file for options. For many refugees, their option is an emergency stay or a pardon.

Success stories

Cambodian refugee Sear Un was on a plane from Arizona to Texas when an ICE officer approached him and told him he had been granted an emergency stay.

Lo, the attorney representing him, realized he was no longer deportable: Sear Un has a 1997 conviction for residential burglary in California, and the Supreme Court has made it clear that it is not a deportable offense. Lo helped him to file a motion to reopen his case and a motion to be re-detained.

Even if they are granted a motion to stay, it’s not always guaranteed it will get through before the refugees are put on a plane. Given that Sear Un’s case was strong, Lo filed a federal lawsuit with the Southern District of California; he said he was even prepared to travel by air to visit the court in person to get a federal judge to agree to his stay.

Thankfully, it didn’t come down to that. He was granted an emergency stay by the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) in Virginia. Among the factors working in his favor, Lo said, was that “his deportation officer is the friendliest one I’ve ever met. He and I have coordinated every day since Sear’s case. He’s even called the BIA every day on Sear’s behalf to check in on the emergency stay.” 

Sear was transported from Arizona back to San Diego on Wednesday.

If Lo manages to get a pardon for Sear Un next week, his non-deportable conviction will cease to exist. He will be even safer.

Another client, Sene Sem, had his case reopened and now he has a chance to apply for immigration release in May. He has to wear an ICE ankle monitor on him, but he is back with his wife in Rhode Island.

Cambodia, a foreign land

Many of the refugees deported to Cambodia are leaving their family members behind in the US and are going to a country where they don’t speak the language and, in many instances, do not have family or friends.

When they arrive in Phnom Penh, Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization and 1LoveCambodia, two aid and advocacy groups, will help them obtain limited housing and identification documents.

Future raids targeting refugees

Last week the United States announced that it would start to deport Vietnamese refugees. Since 2017, Lo reported that only 11 Vietnamese people have been deported.

“There’s certainly a risk, but until Vietnam definitively agrees, the US knows it cannot do that,” said Lo. “In the course of our class action lawsuit with Vietnam, the government even admitted they cannot deport people before 1995 to the judge.”

Cambodian refugees are still at risk. Lo warns that more raids will be carried out as soon as this week, or by early January at the latest, in line with ICE’s four-month cycle. He just hopes it is after Christmas, to give them more time with their families.

American officials have said that Cambodia should “prepare to receive 200 new arrivals each year for the next several years,” or, as Lo puts it, ”until the community is gone.”

For now, he urges Cambodians with a removal order to request their conviction records and immigration court documents as soon as possible.