On December 10, 2018, three Khmer American men from the Seattle-Tacoma area were released from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody after being detained since September at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.
They were picked up as part of a nationwide sweep by ICE taking place during this past August and September in the Southeast (SE) Asian community, which included over 60 Khmer Americans across the U.S.
Locally, there were seven Khmer American community members, branded the “Washington 7” by families and community activists, that were apprehended and detained as part of the latest sweep.
All seven men arrived in the United States as displaced child refugees, some born in refugee camps in Thailand along the border, having never set foot in Cambodia itself.
Most had orders of removal that were based on offenses decades old with time served.
Of the three men, two were able to gain release through the work of a coalition comprised of legal volunteers and people in policy, including the Northwest Immigrants Right Project (NWIRP), Foster Pepper PLLC, Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (FIGHT), and the Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs (CAPAA) and the families of the men and community advocates who mobilized to form an ad hoc response group called the Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group of Washington (KhAAG).
In an extraordinary move, Governor Jay Inslee circumvented the normal pardons process to grant an emergency pardon that would undo the order of removal placed on one of the men, Mr. Roeuth An. This was the first time a Washington state governor has ever issued a pardon in this format since the establishment of the Washington State Pardons and Clemency Board. The pardon was issued this way in part due to the urgency around Mr. An’s case. ICE flights were scheduled to leave Washington state on December 11 and his hearing was scheduled on December 13.
The second man, Mr. Thuoy Phok, in the process of applying for a governor’s pardon, re-opened his case. Once there, he discovered a technicality in his case which ultimately led to his original plea decades ago being vacated.
While current national immigration headlines have focused on the southern border, the Trump administration has been quietly escalating its campaign on SE Asian communities.
Last year, the Trump administration stepped up enforcement against Khmer American communities nationwide. Prior to 2017, the average number of Khmer Americans deported was five per year.
Illustrating this escalation by ICE in its deportation campaigns, in July of this year, a single plane was packed with 43 Khmer Americans, marking the largest ever single deportation since the U.S. began re-displacing refugees back to Cambodia in 2002.
“When he [An] was five, the Khmer Rouge took him away from me, they don’t let you live with your parents anymore, ” said Ms. Lorng Raing, mother of Mr. Roeuth An. “When they [ICE] took him away, all those emotions came rushing back to me,” she added.
The issue has been especially retraumatizing for Ms. Jane Chan, Mr. Thuoy Phok’s niece; two years ago, her father was seized by ICE and last year he was deported to Cambodia.
“Being so far away from each other, it was already hard enough to fight for him [Ms. Chan’s father] to stay here,” said Ms. Chan. While Ms. Chan lives in Washington, her father resided in Minnesota. “It’s just tearing us up, we’re still heartbroken… I’m still heartbroken having to go through it twice.”
In a response to the sweep in August and September, the families of some of the men detained came together to assess how to help their loved ones.
They, along with community activists that included CAPAA Commissioner Sina Sam, F.I.G.H.T. co-founder Many Uch, and Tacoma Commision on Immigrant Refugee Affairs Commissioner Silong Chhun, organized a meeting in Tacoma to begin strategizing.
Tim Warden-Hertz, a directing attorney for the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and Joanne Kalas, an attorney for Foster Pepper PLLC, who represented some of the Washington 7, were also on deck to provide information and resources. Following the meeting, the group established a multi-pronged approach which included working with legal resources, leveraging relationships in policy, and applying public pressure when needed.
Ms. Jane Chan appeared on a segment of KING 5’s Take Five to raise awareness of not only her situation but how it’s affecting the Khmer American community as a whole. “Now that I have an uncle that’s in the process of being deported, it’s my chance to do everything… that I couldn’t do for my dad,” she said on the program.
Families affected by deportation in the Khmer American community often times opt to stay under the radar when a loved one is detained.
“There is shame because a lot of people believe that if someone is detained, addressed by authority or caught up in the criminal justice system… it must mean they have done something wrong. And this is just not true,” said Sam. “Fear comes from what will happen to their loved ones and also what will happen if people found out they were going through these issues.”
“Incarceration and deportation are issues that our [Khmer American] community really internalizes,” said Savannah Son, a FIGHT organizer. “From my own experience, my family just internalizing what it meant to have family members incarcerated, it was just something that they felt was a failure on their part as a family unit.”
“I have been talking with him [Mr. Roeuth An] since November  about filing a pardon; he was very skeptical, he had thought about it but never pursued it,” said Shelly Hem, who also went through the pardon process on behalf of her husband, Sophy Hem.
Mr. Hem was pardoned in July of this year.
“The hard thing is getting in front of these individuals who have removal orders, they don’t trust very many people,” said Mrs. Hem.
When the Hem family persisted, An finally decided to give it a try.
In conjunction with the pardon process and to create awareness for both An and Phok, a visit to the state capitol, and a calling campaign was launched to get the attention of Governor Inslee’s office due to his pardon power. “It was that kind of pressure and support from the community that I think really made a huge difference,” said Tim Warden-Hertz.
The push also helped galvanize some of the families into action. “There was this outpouring of support from the community that sort of was, you know, really standing up and explaining how important this was… for the whole community, and it was that kind of pressure and support from the community that I think really made a huge difference,” added Mr. Warden-Hertz.
Community support catalyzed some of the families to rally even harder. “Family members want that reassurance that they are not the only ones that have family members that had made poor choices in the past,” added Many Uch.
Eventually, the planning, strategizing, and hard work paid off, both men were released on December 10.
“Their [Ms. Chan’s] family chose to go public and fight back however they could. On her birthday, Jane spent it speaking out and sharing their family story on our local news. It is painful and can be re-traumatizing to have to be so vulnerable in front of the world, but she did it with all the love, courage and strength of a superhero,” said Sina Sam.
“Breathless. In shock. Overwhelmed. I don’t know. It’s hard to find words to how we felt, at least for me,” said Chan about her uncle’s release.
“I’m doing good, still in disbelief,” said Mr. Thuoy Phok, several days after his release from ICE detention.
At a KhAAG gathering to celebrate the release of the men, Ms. Lorng Raing was ecstatic as she thanked everyone for their help. “I’m just so happy he’s back with us, I spent many months of sleepless nights and lost my appetite,” said Raing through tears.
An ICE spokesperson declined to comment due to “privacy of the individuals and security concerns.” F.I.G.H.T. reports that on December 17, 2018, 46 Khmer Americans will be bound for Cambodia, marking this the highest amount of Khmer American deportees on one single flight and adding to the already record-setting year of deportations to Cambodia. Included on that flight will be four Khmer Americans from the Seattle-Tacoma area.
In collaboration with other anti-deportation advocacy groups across the nation including Asian Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (AAAJ-ALC) and SEARAC, FIGHT is helping to launch a campaign to try to disrupt the scheduled departure by calling out private charter company Omni Air who ICE contracts with for deportations to Cambodia.
“It’s a little out of the box to go after an airline when it comes to deportations, but we’ve seen a wave of efforts like these in the past few years with organizers and movements pressuring stakeholders to take a stance against aiding ICE or other businesses with problematic practices,” said Sam.
“It was Anoop Prasad at AAAJ-ALC that had the idea to target the Omni Air International in particular and national partners agreed that union families, including the pilots who will be flying these planes, should stop in collaboration of separating other union families.”
*Bunthay Cheam is an active volunteer for The Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group of Washington
SEARAIDS.org provides a hub for resources for those affected by ICE campaigns.
This resource hub was created by a coalition of advocacy groups including F.I.G.H.T., SEARAC, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, Khmer Girls in Action, and the Southeast Asian Freedom Network.
Legal help: Where to find legal help if you can’t afford an attorney or other resources
Know your rights: What are your rights? What are best practices when ICE arrives at your door?
Requesting your file: Once you receive an order of removal, one of the first things to do is to request a copy of your immigration file and criminal court records.
Northwest Immigration Rights Projgect (NWIRP) offers ways to be an ally.
Ms. Jane Chan and Ms. Sina Sam speak about deportation on King 5’s Take Five.