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Jason Dzubow on Political Asylum

Cambodian Refugees Deported After Years in the US

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When I meet people who are going to be deported (or their family members), I sometimes tell them the story of Jimmy from South Philly.
In 2001, I traveled to a friend's home town in the Algerian Sahara. We were hanging out at his neighbor's house, when in walks a man in his early 30's. "Yo, waasup, homey" he says to me. This is Jimmy. I learn that he immigrated to the U.S. years ago. He had a green card, but then got into trouble with drugs, alcohol, and gambling. Finally, he was deported to Algeria. Back home, he cleaned himself up, used his English skills to get a good job with a natural gas company, and he married and had children. All in all, he was doing pretty well--very well compared to most Algerians. The deportation was probably the best thing that could have happened to him.
The fact is, some people can't make it in the U.S. Maybe they have difficulty adjusting to the new culture or the new language. Maybe they don't do well away from their support system. For whatever reason, some people are better off returning to their home countries. That was true for Jimmy, but I think his story would be cold comfort to a new--and growing--group of deportees: Cambodian refugees who have spent years in the United States and who are now being deported.
The Wichita Eagle reports that, starting in 2002 when Cambodia agreed to accept deportees from the United States, "hundreds of ethnically Cambodian men and women have been deported from the United States to Cambodia." "What started as a trickle of deportations has, in recent years, turned into a flood, with the number of deportees increasing dramatically since 2009 and the total number now estimated at around 400."
The returning refugees receive assistance from a Cambodian non-profit called RISC, the Return Integration Support Center. From the RISC website:
Deportation... often poses an enormous challenge. Individuals are separated from spouses, children, friends, communities and support groups. Most returnees left Cambodia as very young children, or were born in Thai refugee camps, and have little or no memory of Cambodia. Most have limited familiarity with the language, climate, and culture of Cambodia. Many have no known relatives or forms of support in Cambodia. Deportation is a traumatic experience that often leaves individuals feeling lost, rejected, and disoriented. Many barriers stand between returnees and stable, independent lifestyles.
In 2002, the year deportations began, RISC emerged to assist returnees overcome these barriers.... As deportations continue, and the returnee community continues to grow, RISC’s services continue to be an integral form of support for a unique group facing an extraordinary challenge.
As the law now stands, most (if not all) deportees will never be able to return to the U.S., even for a visit. As one deportee describes the situation, "Those who get sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. at least get to see their families at weekend visitations, and if someone dies they take you to the funeral. If my parents pass away I won’t even get to attend their funerals."
On one level, it is easy to dismiss these deported refugees. The U.S. brought them here, resettled them, and gave them a chance at a new life. They blew it by committing crimes, joining gangs, and using drugs. But on a deeper level, it seems to me that it is not so easy to justify deporting these people.
First, the U.S. was not completely innocent in creating the political situation that led to the refugee crisis in Cambodia. But that aside, we made a commitment to resettle refugees, who are--almost by definition--damaged people who have suffered severe trauma. When such people are brought to an alien country, integrated (or not) into poor urban neighborhoods, and left largely to fend for themselves, it is predictable that some will have difficulty. Given this situation, deporting them after they have been punished for their crimes is basically punishing them a second time for being refugees (i.e., not being U.S. citizens).
And what is to be gained by deporting these refugees? If the point is to protect our communities from criminals, then how do we justify sending these criminals to Cambodia, a country that really has no connection with them, and certainly is not responsible for creating the situation that led them to become criminals. Why should Cambodia have to deal with them?
Under some circumstances, there are defenses to removal available for refugees (and asylees) who commit crimes, even crimes that are aggravated felonies. One is the refugee waiver under INA § 209(c). Another is a request for withholding of removal under INA § 241(b)(3) or relief under the United Nations Convention Against Torture. It is often difficult to succeed with these defenses, but for the foreseeable future, they are the only options available to a refugee facing removal for an aggravated felony.
Originally posted on the Asylumist: www.Asylumist.com.

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