U.S. Deports The Latest Group Of Cambodian Immigrants
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
A plane left the United States on Monday destined for Cambodia. On this plane were 36 Cambodians, many who came to the U.S. as refugees. And they were being removed from the U.S. by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE says 34 of the people on this plane are criminals and that the agency's acting lawfully. But advocates say these are people who are being sent to a place they have never known. Attorney Melanie Kim is with the Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Asian Law Caucus (ph). She represents Cambodians fighting to stay in the U.S., including one on this flight. And she spoke with Steve Inskeep.
MELANIE KIM: All the folks who are being deported came here as refugees when they were either infants or really young children fleeing the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge genocide.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Let's remember. Cambodia is right next to Vietnam. And to say the least, the war in which the United States was involved spilled over into Cambodia with catastrophic consequences for decades afterward.
KIM: The U.S., basically, carpet-bombed Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. It's believed that the bombings destabilized the country, enabling the Khmer Rouge to take power and for the Khmer Rouge genocide to occur.
INSKEEP: Then some people escaped and, eventually, ended up in the United States.
KIM: Right. Mostly in the '70s and '80s, they were settled into neighborhoods in the United States - poor neighborhoods with no resources.
INSKEEP: So some committed crimes over time - were convicted of crimes, anyway.
KIM: That's right. They were placed in neighborhoods that were overpoliced and grew up at a time where the United States was passing tough-on-crime policies. And so these children were interacting with law enforcement, being convicted of crimes, facing really harsh criminal punishments, finishing their sentences and then being placed in immigration proceedings where they didn't have forms of relief available to them. And so they were ordered deported.
INSKEEP: Meaning that once you finish your prison sentence, you're gone.
KIM: Right. In the case of a lot of Southeast Asian folks, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos have been reluctant to accept folks for repatriation. Cambodia and the United States did not have a repatriation agreement until 2002.
INSKEEP: Is the Trump administration doing anything different than previous administrations given that it's been possible since 2002 to send Cambodians back?
KIM: This administration has placed a lot of pressure on Southeast Asian countries and other countries as well, such as Iraq and Somalia, to accept more people for deportation. And these populations largely came to this country as refugees.
INSKEEP: So people have been sent back under George W. Bush, under Barack Obama. But it's happening more frequently now. Is that it?
KIM: Right. This administration has placed a lot of pressure on Cambodia through visa sanctions for them to accept more and more people for deportation. So this past April, Cambodia accepted about 43 refugees on a flight. And that was thought to be the largest deportation flight of Cambodians in U.S. history.
INSKEEP: And this week's flight is around 40. Are all of these people convicted of crimes, so far as you know?
KIM: As far as I know, yes. Their convictions run the gamut of the penal code. What they do have in common is that these convictions are really old. Everyone on that flight has completed their sentences.
INSKEEP: Can't the administration say, they committed a crime, this is what the law says should be done?
KIM: I would argue that this country is doing it in a coercive way. They are bullying countries, not just Southeast Asian countries but other countries as well.
INSKEEP: How many of the 40 are your clients?
KIM: We represented six folks who were slated to be deported. Five of them are not on that plane.
INSKEEP: But one is.
KIM: Right. Sena Khan (ph) - we are waiting for a pardon for him.
INSKEEP: What's his story?
KIM: So he came to this country as a young person. In 1998 at the age of 21, Sena was involved in the theft of a vehicle. He didn't steal the vehicle himself. And after this conviction, he's a changed person and has stayed out of trouble.
INSKEEP: Does your client have some connection still to Cambodia? Is he going to know anybody there?
KIM: He doesn't. He doesn't have family in Cambodia. Like most of the people who are deported, they largely consider themselves Americans. So when they are deported, it's a huge culture shock.
INSKEEP: You said that your client was seeking a pardon. But does it matter if he gets pardoned after the fact?
KIM: We're not giving up on folks who have been deported. We're still pushing for them to come home.
INSKEEP: Melanie Kim, thanks so much.
KIM: Thank you.
GREENE: Steve was talking to attorney Melanie Kim. She represents Cambodians facing deportation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.