A Legacy of 9/11: Forced Deportation of Cambodians from the USA
While the iron fisted approach in fighting and preventing so-called terrorism may be welcomed by the many survivors and family members of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, the legacy of this event has resulted in the suffering of Khmer Rouge refugees who have been facing deportation from the US after an extradition agreement was reached between Washington and Phnom Penh in 2002.
On the morning of September 11, 2011, I remembered very well the time 10 years ago when my brother turned on French Channel TV – at that time we did not have cable TV – and called upon us all to come see what had happened at the World Trade Center. That was the first time in my life that I started to learn the terminology of “terrorism” and world political propaganda.
This attack led president George W. Bush to call up the “War on Terror” as military operations, economic measures and political pressure were targeted against all groups accused of being terrorists as well as against those countries who supported this network. This resulted in the invasion of Iraq where the world started to think twice about the meaning of “terrorism,” and “democratization,” for world stability.
One of the untold tragedies of U.S. policy has been the forced repatriation of those young Cambodians, mainly men, who went to the United States as refugees after escaping the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s. Between 1985 and 1995, the United States took in 130,000 Cambodian refugees as a tacit acknowledgement of U.S. involvement in the destabilization of Cambodia in the early 1970s, according to Bruce Stokes’ report in the national journal “Between Two Nations”.
Although these Cambodians had obtained permanent resident status, they lost their right to remain in the United States after being convicted of a felony, despite having already served sentences of up to 10 years in prison. As a result, they are being sent back to a country where they were traumatized, with which they are unfamiliar having spent most of their lives in the United States, and where they have no family and little hope of escaping poverty.
Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, noncitizens who commit felonies must be deported. Previously, immediate deportation was enacted only for offences that could lead to five years or more in jail. This included crimes such as murder, terrorism or threatening the president. However, the 1996 law expanded the scope of crimes meriting deportation to include even minor offences such as shoplifting. In one case, a man was ordered to be deported after being convicted of urinating in public. Another example is that of a woman, whose children were born in the United States and are therefore citizens, who is facing deportation after serving three years in jail for disciplining her offspring with unlit incense sticks!
The 1996 law was applied retroactively to those convicted of deportable offenses, including some who had committed minor offences decades ago. In fact, Cambodian criminals were not deported and subjected to the law until an extradition agreement was reached between Washington and Phnom Penh in 2002. After that, Cambodians convicted of felonies were subject to deportation after finishing their prison terms in the United States.
It is a tough challenge for such returnees to communicate and make a living in Cambodia, where they carry the added burden of their criminal deportee status. It is even tougher for those who are separated from their parents, wives or children. They surely never expected to face such a deportation nightmare after setting foot in the United States, the fabled “land of opportunity.”