On June 22, 2002 the first group of Cambodian refugees was removed from the United States and sent back to the place they fled from genocide. On the second anniversary of this event the Cambodian American Community Coalition of Washington (CACCOW) organized a public forum to oppose the ongoing deportation at Wat Thommachak Karam on Beacon Hill.

The forum held last month offered a report on what is happening to Cambodian Americans who have already been deported. It also presented information on the Cambodian and Refugee Enactment (CARE) bill, which is legislation being drafted to create fairer and more humane ways to treat all refugees who came to the United States as children, committed crimes as juveniles and have already paid back their debt to society.

Since its implementation, we have seen the terrible toll that the 1996 immigration law have taken on Cambodian American families. Parents and children have been torn apart by these laws, and many Cambodians are languishing in detention facilities across the country. Although these individuals have served their criminal sentence and would normally have their debt to society considered paid, because they have not yet gained citizenship status, they are subject to further punitive action by the government through deportation.

The government’s position is that it is treating Cambodians no differently than it treats other non-citizen groups who had problems with the law. However, prior to June 22, 2002, Cambodia was one of many countries in the world that did not accept deportees and is recognized as having one of the greatest genocides of the modern age. The Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge government wiped out one-third of the country’s population and over a four-year period the regime managed to restructure almost every single facet of Cambodian society. Documents no longer exist proving Cambodian birth, citizenship or nationality for those in danger of being deported. Many were not even born on Cambodian soil, but in refugee camps outside the country’s borders. It was only through nation building efforts in the early 1900s that an internationally recognized government was established. To date the perpetrators of the Khmer Rouge atrocity have not been bought to justice. In fact, it is known that a number current government officials in the highest positions of power have affiliations with the Khmer Rouge government responsible for the genocide. To send survivors back to the country that has no record of their existence, where they and their families fled genocide and where those responsible for this history still function in the government is a gross injustice.

Throughout the 80s and early 90s, the United States admitted Southeast Asian refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam in unprecedented numbers. Many Cambodian refugees came to the United States as young children, survivors of the Killing Fields despite the odds against them. They survived only to be taken out of refugee camps and inserted into urban American poverty. Where success stories tend to be exception, we must question what real opportunities these kids and their families had to obtain the American Dream. Arriving as small children and refugees, living most of their lives in the United States, many are more a product of America than Cambodia, and should not be deported.

The immigration laws continue to punish Cambodian refugees who deserve the chance to return to their U.S. based families. These laws have been applied retroactively. The fact that a person can be deported as many years as 30 years later for crimes that were not deportable offenses when they were committed is unjust. Further, lawmakers have made deportable offenses out of such minor violations as shoplifting and writing bad checks.

We support the restoration of common sense fairness and due process to our immigration laws and make compassion and forgiveness an option. We urge recognition of Cambodian refugee experience and the U.S. commitment to permanently resettle genocide survivors in America. The deportation of a survivors in America. The deportation of a Cambodian Killing Field survivor back to their place of persecution would be the ultimate failure of the resettlement process.

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