A vigil was held outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on June 21 in solidarity with Cambodians facing deportation. • Courtesy Photo
A vigil was held outside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma on June 21 in solidarity with Cambodians facing deportation. • Courtesy Photo

By Dori Cahn & Many Uch
IE Special Guest Columnists

The handmade signs decorating the vigil outside the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington, carried strong messages: “Keep Our Families 2gether Not Apart,” “You Are Not Alone,” “Don’t Hurt our Family!” And then there was this one at a companion vigil in Stockton, California: “I am Only 6 Years Old. I Need My Dad.”

That 6-year-old’s father is Leach Chhoeun, a Cambodian refugee who came to the United States when he was four years old. Leach is in detention in Stockton, California, awaiting deportation for a crime he committed in 1996 when he was 18 years old. Leach has another daughter who is 14, a wife of 19 years, and an elderly mother who will be on their own if he is deported.

Families and supporters of detainees gathered at vigils in Tacoma and Stockton on June 21 to send a message to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Congress, and the Obama administration that family members are victims of deportation as much as their loved ones inside the building. The vigils were organized in response to ICE’s roundup of nearly 40 Cambodian men, including Chhoeun, at the NWDC earlier this spring. The vigils were also in conjunction with ongoing protests and actions by Not1More, an immigrant rights organization opposing the U.S. government’s deportation policies and practices.

Many of the Cambodians who were detained at NWDC have been returned to detention centers in their home cities to await their travel documents. But there are still a number of detainees in Tacoma waiting to be deported—their families outside not knowing what will happen. Our vigil stood in solidarity with them and others in the detention center.

We know that there has been a lot of pressure on the Obama administration to deport people with “serious criminal history.” But each case needs to have an immigration judge evaluate whether the individual’s story and circumstances warrant deportation. What public good is served by deporting someone who has not committed a crime in 18 years, is married and the father to two minor children, and sole caretaker for an ailing, elderly parent?

For Leach and others like him, coming to the United States as a refugee child in the 1980s was not easy. Most Americans had only heard about Cambodia in the news about the Vietnam War and didn’t readily accept the sudden influx of people unfamiliar to them. Children in particular faced teasing and bullying at school and in their neighborhoods. With parents traumatized from their past and socially isolated from their new environment, many children hung together for support in groups that would later become gangs as they got older. They found themselves caught inside the criminal justice system, and, if their parents had not naturalized as U.S. citizens, faced deportation.

More than 450 men and women have been sent to Cambodia since 2002, when the Cambodian government first agreed to accept former refugees living in the United States who were being deported. For many of them, Cambodia was a strange place that they had left when they were babies or young children; some were born in refugee camps in Thailand and had never even set foot in Cambodia. Nearly all left families behind in the United States.

The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act took away the power of immigration judges to review deportations and grant relief in particular cases.

Before 1996, U.S. immigration judges had discretion to look at a case and decide whether mitigating factors outweighed the government’s bid to deport someone. Factors such as ties to family and community, evidence of rehabilitation, and lack of connection to a home country all could be considered in cancelling an order of deportation. Those factors all describe Leach Chhoeun and many other Cambodians facing deportation today.

Uncertain futures

Rithy Yin, an advocate for immigration reform, also attended the vigil in Tacoma. Yin has recently become outspoken in telling his own story and advocating for others like him.

Yin came to the United States when he was almost 2 years old. He acknowledged youthful stupidity as the reason that led him to holding up a convenience store at gunpoint when he was 18. After serving his sentence in state prison, ICE ordered him deported when he was released in 2008. Today, he has a full time job, a wife and son, and the support of his family. But he still faces being deported some day, and he does not know when that might be.

Immigration enforcement has become unforgiving. There are many like Rithy and Leach facing deportation to countries around the world who deserve to have their cases reevaluated. Even some minor crimes such as shoplifting and possession of small amounts of drugs are now included in the list of offenses can lead to mandatory deportation. The 1996 laws also made the newly expanded definition of deportable crimes retroactive, so that anyone convicted of one of the listed crimes could now be deported, regardless of how long ago their conviction was. Many immigrants are caught up in a system where criminal justice falls disproportionately on people of color, and, if they are not citizens, deportation is mandatory.

Our communities suffer when families are broken apart, and children are separated from their parents. According to Human Rights Watch, nearly 700,000 legal immigrants were deported for criminal convictions between 1997 and 2007, leaving behind 1.6 million spouses and children. That number has only continued to rise with the increasing numbers of deportations under the Obama administration. In April, ICE reported to Congress more than 72,000 deportations in 2013 alone were parents who said they had U.S. born children. As the numbers of deportations increase, the numbers of damaged families skyrocket.

Our message at the vigil was clear: Don’t deport our fathers, mothers, wives, husbands, parents, children, co-workers, employees, bosses, friends. Keep our families and communities whole.

We will continue to make that message heard.

For more information on Leach Chhoeun, visit www.notonemoredeportation.com/portfolio/leach.

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