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Cambodian refugee community in Oakland targeted in rising ICE sweeps

on October 31, 2019

They are the 1.5 generation.

That’s how Rhummanee Hang, an outreach coordinator with the Center for Empowering Refugees & Immigrants (CERI), a mental health services nonprofit for Southeast Asian refugees in Oakland, refers to the generation of Cambodians who were born in the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that held power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. During those four years, an estimated 2 million people died. Many were executed or worked to death by the regime; droves also succumbed to starvation and disease. The term 1.5 generation refers to the children born during and soon after this time period, either in Cambodia or in refugee camps, and then raised in the United States.

Hang said these children immigrated with their families as infants and toddlers, so young that they do not remember their home country or the atrocities their relatives endured. But growing up in a new country, with parents who were suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression, while learning English and adjusting to a new culture, meant that as teenagers and young adults, many Cambodian refugee children got tangled in criminal activity, such as joining gangs. Their convictions range from more minor crimes like drug sales or auto theft to serious ones like attempted murder.

“You come here as a kid, who doesn’t speak any English, or really know or understand what your parents have gone through,” said Hang. “But you’re here, in the 80s, in Oakland.”

Thanks to their earlier criminal records, today, as adults, these same people have been targeted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials (ICE) for deportation. Under the Trump administration, ICE raids within the Cambodian community have increased in recent years, specifically targeting people with decades-old criminal convictions. This uptick is part of a broader effort by the administration to prioritize deportations.

According to Anoop Prasad, an immigrants’ rights staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), a San Francisco-based legal and civil rights organization, people with these convictions are first given final deportation orders, then detained by ICE officers, often during sweeps. During their detention, people are often bounced between facilities around the country. The detainees are taken to be interviewed by Cambodian officials, because often people born during the genocide are without birth certificates or passports, so the Cambodian government doesn’t have records of them. Prasad said government officials insist on meeting people face to face to determine if they are Cambodian citizens before they are deported.

The Cambodians facing deportations are largely—but not entirely—refugees and permanent residents with criminal convictions, not people who are undocumented and living in the U.S., said Prasad.

“Southeast Asian refugee communities have exceptionally high incarceration rates,” said Prasad, noting that his conclusion is based on his group’s work in the Bay Area’s Cambodian community. But, he pointed out, it is hard to get specific figures because state and Federal Bureau of Investigation incarceration data lumps people from different Asian demographics together, so it is hard to isolate statistics on any one group.

“The reason that the incarceration rates are high are due to a number of factors, which aren’t unique to these communities,” Prasad continued. “Partially it’s trauma, and the families. Almost every Cambodian family lost, if not most, a good chunk of their family in the genocide.”

Prasad said these families were resettled by the U.S. government in some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country, while at the same time former President Ronald Reagan’s administration was cutting welfare programs designed to help low-income people. “There wasn’t a lot of desire to set them up to succeed,” said Prasad.

For young Cambodians who grew up in cities like Oakland, “a lot of them ended up joining gangs or forming gangs,” said Prasad, “often because that was just the culture outside their front door, but also just for safety and protection.”

And because these young gang members were in their teens during the 1990s, a tough-on-crime period in California and elsewhere in the country when more government money was being funneled into policing and prison systems, “it was sort of this perfect storm for them,” said Prasad. These factors made it more likely for them to become convicted of crimes, including gang-related activities like drug dealing.

In 1996, Congress passed two immigration laws that expanded deportation grounds based on criminal convictions, including allowing retroactive deportations: The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigrant Responsibility and Immigration Reform Act. But at the time, the U.S. didn’t have a repatriation agreement with Cambodia, so many offenders wound up sitting in detention waiting to be deported, sometimes for years. Some of them ended up being released to continue living in the U.S. But they still had their deportation orders and had to check back in with ICE officials periodically, so they were stuck in a kind of limbo, said Prasad.

In the meantime, they got on with their lives. “People grew up, they matured out of gang activity, started families, got jobs,” said Prasad.

A wave of these deportations began in 2002, when an agreement was established between the United States under the Bush administration and the Royal Government of Cambodia, which agreed the country would accept deportees—Cambodian immigrants who had been convicted of felonies and had not become U.S. citizens. Prasad said in the last couple of years, the Trump administration has placed more pressure on countries like Cambodia to accept people for deportation, which has resulted in more ICE sweeps.

Prasad said that most politicians across the political spectrum agree that people with criminal convictions should be deported. But, he said, under the Trump administration, deportations have been moved higher on the list of foreign relations priorities, ahead of promoting democracy, civil rights or trade. “The Trump administration is willing to, sort of, bully and alienate countries to get them to issue travel documents and accept people for deportation, even when diplomatically or geopolitically it may not be in the U.S. interest,” said Prasad.

He said there has been an ongoing economic struggle for influence in Southeast Asia between China and the U.S., especially with developing economies such as Cambodia, and that it was more important to prior administrations to build that relationship. “I think that has been the big shift,” he said.

According to an October press release by the ALC, Cambodian deportations have increased 279 percent under the Trump administration. “Oakland has been hit particularly hard the last couple of raids,” said Prasad.

For the Cambodians who spent years, sometimes decades, in legal limbo, this change in policy means that their time in the US may be coming to an end. “A lot of us fall into this kind of pipeline. Because of our refugee status, our noncitizen status, when we commit crimes we give up our right to stay in the United States. It becomes a U.S. immigration policy,” said Nathaniel Tan, an anti-deportation organizer at the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC), an Oakland organization that supports and educates incarcerated Asian people.

Tan said his group often works in tandem with the ALC and CERI to help Cambodian deportees and their families. “When there’s an ICE raid that specifically hits the Bay Area,” said Tan, “CERI provides the health services, Asian Law Caucus provides the legal aspect of it, and then Asian Prisoner Support Committee does a lot of the ground organizing, hosting the rallies and events, getting people to show up.” Tan said they also help launch GoFundMe campaigns to raise funds for families that are affected.

Roeun Pich turned himself in to ICE on March 13. He had seen the deportation order coming.

Pich is a Cambodian refugee, born in 1976. He said he served a year at Santa Rita Jail in 1996 following a conviction for grand theft auto and joyriding. He said he was released after he finished his jail time without being detained by ICE. But starting in 1998, he began having to periodically report his status, more frequently at first, around once a month, then stretching to every three months, to six months, to once a year. Then last September, the frequency of his check-ins ramped back up to once-a-month reports to a deportation officer.

In March he was ordered to turn himself, so he reported to an immigration law office in San Francisco and was detained. Once in custody, he said, he was moved through several facilities in several states with a group of about 20 other Cambodians before winding up in Texas. He said ICE officials told them they would be detained a few weeks, but, in total, he was detained for about three months. “I did time in county,” Pich said, comparing this detention to the time he previously served in jail. “They treat us way differently. They treat us like with more respect. But when we got to ICE detention they just like, we don’t exist. We ain’t nobody.”

Pich’s wife, Kanley Souet-Pich, is 10 years younger than her husband and was born in the U.S. She said she worked with an attorney at ALC on his case while he was detained, while also working and taking care of their kids. According to Jenny Zhao, the ALC attorney who handled Pich’s case, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office ultimately agreed to vacate his conviction, which means the court system will essentially void it.

Zhao said she couldn’t speak to the reasoning in Pich’s case specifically, but that in general the District Attorney considers a variety of factors when making these decisions: the person’s character qualities, length of residence in the U.S., family and community ties in the U.S., their age and the circumstances of their conviction, proof of rehabilitation, and their employment history. For this reason, she said, letters of support are often important in requesting that a conviction be vacated. The District Attorney also considers whether there is a legal reason to vacate the conviction, such as if the person’s constitutional rights were violated in the original court proceedings.

Souet-Pich said she found out that her husband was coming home about a week before his release on May 30. “That was the happiest moment ever,” she said. “I had been stressed about his deportation since I’ve been with him, and I’ve been with him for 10 years. Like, I don’t have to worry about him anymore.”

“I was relieved to be back with my family,” Pich said. “It’s like a thousand pounds just came off my shoulders.”

But Souet-Pich says she is still keeping track of deportation activity in Oakland—she still has family members who have the same removal orders, including her cousin Saman Pho, who is currently in ICE custody.

According to a petition started by ALC staff, Pho was 6 years old when he arrived in the United States with his family in 1982 and settled in Oakland. According to the petition, while at a party in 1995 a group of young men began an altercation with Pho and a friend. Pho had been drinking and wound up firing a gun at the men. Pho was convicted of attempted murder and given a 12-year sentence. According to the petition, after serving 11 years, Pho was picked up from prison by immigration officers and spent an additional 4 months in detention, before being released with a conditional status that meant he could later be deported.

According to the petition, after his release Pho returned to Oakland, where he became a mason and is now married with four children.  

Pho was recently detained again in October and is currently at an ICE facility in Texas. Prasad said the ALC is working on his case, and they hope that Governor Gavin Newsom will grant him a pardon. Getting pardoned, said Prasad, basically removes the grounds for the deportation order, and allows a person to go back into immigration court and ask a judge to reopen their deportation case.

“A pardon is kind of the big ask, kind of the big protection for people facing deportation,” agreed Tan.

Prasad said pardons have been a strategy used to help members of the Cambodian community, especially since former California Governor Jerry Brown, once Oakland’s mayor, led the revitalization of the use of pardons and clemency in the state. “He granted more pardons and more commutations than the past several governors combined,” said Prasad, pointing out that Brown granted many for immigrants facing deportations, particularly Southeast Asian refugees. “So far, it seems like Governor Newsom has sort of wanted to continue that tradition,” said Prasad.

Oakland city officials have also thrown their support behind Pho and other Cambodians facing deportation. “The targeting of refugees, especially those who have experienced trauma and rehabilitation, is unconscionable and exceedingly cruel. Attacks on immigrant communities are attacks on us all,” wrote District 2 Councilmember Nikki Fortunato Bas in a newsletter her office released in October. Bas has been advocating for the governor to pardon Pho, and sent a letter to him on September 27, which was also signed by Mayor Libby Schaaf, Councilmember At-Large Rebecca Kaplan, Councilmember Loren Taylor of District 6, and Councilmember Sheng Thao of District 4.

In an interview, Bas said that immigrants’ rights are close to her heart personally, professionally and politically. She said Pho’s case is especially important to her because his daughter has gone to school with her own daughter for the past five years. “I need to follow up with the governor’s office and see if there has been any news,” said Bas. “But the last I heard, after we sent our letter was that the governor’s office was expediting his case for review.”

But not everyone can get a pardon. In those cases, advocates have tried other strategies, such as challenging deportation orders that were actually invalid. Prasad said that back in 1996, some immigration judges were confused about how to implement and interpret the new laws, and issued incorrect orders. Prasad said the ALC has been returning to immigration court and reopening those particular cases, but it can be difficult in a time crunch.  

And as in Pich’s case, another strategy is vacating a person’s criminal conviction by getting a local District Attorney’s Office to review the case and wipe the person’s record clean. This strategy may be used if advocates can show that there was a problem with the person’s original trial or legal counsel. For example, Prasad said that often the 1990s people and their public defenders did not quite understand that a criminal conviction for someone who had a green card could lead to deportation. “Most people were not told when they pled, ‘You’ll be doing this much time, plus you’ll get deported,'” said Prasad. “So a lot of people are going back into criminal court and asking to vacate their pleas because they weren’t given accurate advisals about what the actual sentence was.”

As for Rhummanee Hang, who has a background in anti-deportation work, she had been working at CERI as an immigration advocate for more than a year before getting involved in deportation issues with the organization in February, “when my brother actually received a notice from ICE, saying that they wanted him to essentially turn himself in,” she said.

Hang’s brother is a member of the 1.5 generation who immigrated to Oakland with her family in the 1980s. According to Hang, he served less than a year in jail more than a decade ago following a drug sales conviction. He was picked up by ICE officers following his release. But, Hang said, Cambodia wasn’t allowing people to be deported there at the time.

Twelve years passed, and then early this year, he was ordered by ICE officials to turn himself in for deportation in the same sweep that targeted Pich.

Hang reached out to CERI and other anti-deportation organizers for help, thinking that her brother was the only person being asked to turn himself in. But she soon learned that two other people with ties to CERI had received the orders as well. “There’s a consensus amongst the community that if one of us is affected by this, then it’s like, it’s as if this person is my son, or my nephew, or grandchild,” she said.

Hang said that subjecting people to the uncertainty of deportation is cruel. “We have to question why this is still happening. Why they are being sent to a place they have no relation with, that they know nothing about?” asked Hang. “They basically are Americans except for the fact they were not born here. That’s all that they’ve ever known.”

Hang said her brother was detained for about two months, in the same Texas facility as Pich. The family began working with an Alameda County public defender, hoping to get her brother’s criminal conviction vacated or reduced to something that wouldn’t warrant deportation. (Hang said that for most drug convictions, a pardon isn’t possible.) Ultimately, Hang said, the District Attorney’s Office agreed to wipe the charge from his record—she thinks perhaps because her brother’s crime happened a long time ago, and there was a network of people willing to vouch for him.

Hang said her brother came home in early this summer. She was happy to get her brother back. “His home is here. He’s built his life here. This is all he’s ever known,” she said. “So, when it comes time for him to actually see Cambodia, then it should be on his own terms.”

She hopes the families of the other detainees will have a similar outcome. “I’m hopeful because I have to be. I feel like that’s what keeps us going,” she said. “We have to imagine what it’s going to be like for everybody to come back, in order for us to work towards it.”

This story was updated on November 5. 2019 to correct the date when Rhummanee Hang began working on anti-deportation issues at CERI.


  1. […] targeted for deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials (ICE). Recent sweeps have hit Bay Area communities hard, particularly in […]

  2. […] leading to a mistrial, and acquitted creative director Max Harris on identical charges. We covered immigration sweeps directed against Cambodian refugees in Oakland, and problems inmates at Santa Rita Jail have had resuming their Medi-Cal benefits after release. […]

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