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Oakland protesters rally at State Capitol against deportation of Cambodian refugees

on November 6, 2019

Early on Friday morning, a group of 30 to 40 Cambodian elders, activists, and community advocates boarded a bus in Oakland bound for Sacramento, to rally for members of their community who are being targeted for deportation. They were headed to the north steps of the California State Capitol.

In recent years, Cambodian refugees with criminal convictions, sometimes decades old, have been increasingly targeted for deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials (ICE). Recent sweeps have hit Bay Area communities hard, particularly in Oakland.

Friday’s demonstration was organized by staff from the Center for Empowering Refugees & Immigrants (CERI), a mental health services nonprofit, and two other groups that provide support to incarcerated Asian people facing deportation. The rally was intended to draw attention to a few cases in particular, such as that of Saman Pho, a long-time Oakland resident who was detained by immigration authorities last month. Activists and family members are hoping to get a governmental pardon to vacate Pho’s deportation order.

The rally was also intended to highlight the cases of Tith Ton, a Cambodian refugee; Liyah Birru, an Ethiopian immigrant; and Charles Joseph, a Fijian immigrant, all three of whom have previously been convicted of crimes and could be deported under California’s current policy of having the staffs of state correctional facilities cooperate with ICE officials.

“There are a number of refugees who have been turned over to ICE by our California state prison system,” said Angela Chan, policy director and senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), a San Francisco legal and civil rights group that also helped organize the rally. These include, she said, “people who have earned their release from state prisons, served decades in state prison, and are wanting to come back home to their family members or community members.”

During the more than two hours on the bus, the demonstrators practiced their chants while enjoying doughnuts provided by CERI staff. Despite the group’s late start and the long travel time, Elijah Chhum, a community advocate with the organization, was in good spirits on the way over. Chhum said he was pleased that such a significant number of elders had shown up, and remarked that the group on the bus might be the most “intergenerational” yet to attend one of these rallies.

Chhum said that March, when several members of the Bay Area Cambodian community were detained by ICE, was a historic moment for these activist groups. He said recent ICE raids have reminded Cambodian elders of the trauma they went through under the Khmer Rouge, the brutal communist regime that held power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. An estimated 2 million people died from being executed or worked to death by the government. Others starved, or died from illness.

March, he said, was the first time that CERI came together with two other groups—the ALC and the Asian Prisoner Support Committee (APSC), an Oakland advocacy group and the third organizer of Friday’s event. “In the Cambodian community, we’ve been silent for so many years. It’s really hard. We have to practice being loud,” said Chhum. “March 13th was our first rally that CERI joined, and, you know, the chanting was very quiet. It was, like, soft. And then we continued to yell, continued to shout, continued to really feel the conviction of these words. Like, we’re here to liberate our people.”

After the March campaign, eleven people were released, said Chhum.

As Chhum translated, Katarina Siek, 60, a Cambodian refugee, said that she has been to five similar demonstrations since March because she wants to help, and she doesn’t want families to be separated.

By the time the group from CERI arrived in Sacramento a little after 11 a.m, the demonstration had already started. But the group decamped quickly in front of the Capitol, where they gathered with a crowd on the grass by the north steps, swelling their ranks to about 100 people, forming a circle and holding signs in support of the people facing deportation.

Maribel Bautista speaks at the rally in support of her husband Saman Pho, currently being held in ICE detention.

In between moving speeches by family members and friends, many voicing pleas for California Governor Gavin Newsom to prevent the deportations, members of Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, a social justice faith group based in Oakland, led blessings and songs. CERI outreach coordinator Rhummanee Hang and Nathaniel Tan, an anti-deportation organizer with the APSC also led chants, with Tan leading call and responses in English, and Hang often repeating the chants in the Cambodian language, Khmer:

“Keep families—” they said.

“Together!” the crowd responded.

 “When we fight—” they called out.

“We win!” the crowd called back.

Toward the end of the rally, Hang and Tan encouraged the group to dance.

“Dancing is an act of resistance,” said Hang to the crowd. She said that the last time they had visited Sacramento, in May, just as they finished the rally, “somebody put on music, and all of a sudden everybody was dancing.”

“There was so much joy. And I think that it’s okay to hold the fact that we are fighting for people’s freedom, and at the same time can still say, ‘You know what, we are going to overcome this,’” said Hang.

Music with a steady beat began playing from a speaker, and demonstrators filled the circle, waving their hands and posters to the beat. Tan encouraged people to participate, and Cambodian elders joined and the group began dancing single-file in a large circle.

The dance segued into the second purpose of Friday’s demonstration, which was to deliver a petition to a staffer in the governor’s office with over 40,000 signatures on behalf of Tith Ton. Ton is a substance abuse counselor at San Quentin State Prison. According to the petition, sponsored by the Daily Kos Liberation League, an online forum and blog focused on liberal politics, Ton is currently serving a 22-year sentence after being convicted as an adult at age 16 for killing a rival gang member. He is now up for parole, and could be turned over to ICE officials for deportation on his release date, which according to Hang is still unknown but could be as early as mid-November. The petition urges Newsom to end cooperation between the California state prison system and ICE officials.

After delivering the petition, the group dispersed, with some family members and advocates meeting with officials in the statehouse to lobby on behalf of their loved ones. This group included Maribel Bautista, Saman Pho’s wife.

Pho is a Cambodian refugee who has lived in Oakland for decades. According to a petition started by ALC staff, while at a party in 1995 Pho and a friend got into an altercation with some men, and Pho fired a gun at one of his attackers. Pho was convicted of attempted murder and given a 12-year sentence. According to the petition, after serving 11 years, Pho was detained by ICE officials and then released with a conditional status, which meant he could later be deported.

Pho was recently detained again in October and is currently at an ICE facility in Texas. The ALC is working on his case, and they hope that Newsom will grant him a pardon, which would remove the grounds for his deportation order.

“I don’t want to say that we were in denial, or disbelief—it just felt very much like we were very hopeful up until the moment he got detained,” said Bautista about the day Pho was detained last month. “Even though we understood the process, we were still just hoping for, I guess, a miracle.”

Bautista said hearing from Pho about his daily life in detention has been the most unexpected difficulty. “He did not imagine that he would be detained in a room with hundreds of people, and he’s watching all of this, other people go through this,” said Bautista. “He’s dealing with his case, but also having to watch other people go through it as well.”

Bautista said she was meeting with California Assemblymember Rob Bonta, who represents the 18th Assembly District, the central East Bay region of the Bay Area to help spread awareness about her husband’s case.

Bautista said she was hoping that the meetings would help convince Newsom to pardon Pho, and that she also came to the rally to show solidarity for other people who also have a family member facing deportation. She said one thing that stood out to her about the rally was the show of togetherness. “It’s a horrible time in our lives, but it’s also amazing to watch how the community and how family and friends have come together to support,” she said. “That has really helped us—is helping us get through this.”

On the bus ride back to Oakland, Siek said via Kanley Souet-Pich, one of Pho’s cousins, that this event felt stronger than the last demonstration she had attended. She said the crowd was louder and bigger. She also felt sure that all the people they had rallied for today would be released.

Last time, everyone came home, Siek said. So, she thought, this time they will, too.

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