Photos by Keeley Smith.
The last time Stephanie Sim saw her brother was in 2012.
Sim, the youngest of nine children in a Cambodian family and a junior in high school, was one of the few among her siblings born in the U.S. The rest were born in refugee camps set up in the wake of the fall of the Khmer Rouge.
That year, despite being released from prison for stealing car parts, finding a job and with a baby on the way, her brother had received notice that he would be deported.
“I called my mom right away,” said Sim, through tears, sitting on a stage in a Long Beach auditorium. “We were trying to figure out what was going on and what we could do to help, how we could help him.”
Sim’s brother Rob is one of the 500 Cambodians across the U.S. who have been deported to Cambodia. This despite few, if any, family members living in the country, and a lifetime of being in the U.S.
“He basically had to start all over [in Cambodia],” said Sim. “I’m committed to doing whatever I can in helping my brother and bringing him home.”
Sim was speaking as a member of a panel for an event titled “Not Home for the Holidays,” a community forum geared toward spreading awareness around the deportations of Southeast Asians, hosted on a stage beneath muted lights and white ceiling tiles in the California Recreation Center at McBride Park.
Hosted by Khmer Girls in Action, the event attracted elected official including councilmembers Dee Andrews and Daryl Supernaw, Assemblymember Patrick O’ Donnell, representatives from Rep. Alan Lowenthal and Ricardo Lara’s offices, and Kathy Ko Chin, a commission member of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (WHIAAPI).
The forum centered around a call to action to change the U.S. repatriation agreements with Cambodia and Laos, as a response to years of deportations that have torn apart families—many of them former refugees—living in the U.S.
“The current U.S. repatriation with Cambodia, signed without community consent in 2002, in combination with the 1996 Antiterrorism Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), have institutionalized double punishment for the survivors of genocide and their family members who have already served time,” stated a release issued by Khmer Girls in Action stated.
It’s a lot for a population that experiences high levels of poverty within the U.S.—18 percent and 14 percent for Cambodians and Vietnamese, respectively, compared to the national rate of 14 percent—and arrived during troubled times.
This year marks 40 years since the beginning of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, a three-year agrarian revolution spurred by Pol Pot that killed up to two million Cambodians, many of them well-educated.
Families resettled all over the world, many in Long Beach. The city has the highest population of Cambodians in the world, outside of Cambodia.
“Resettlement in Long Beach meant an opportunity for life,” said Sophya Chhiv, founding member of Khmer Girls in Action, and the forum's monitor. “An opportunity to find our loved ones, missing from war. An opportunity to begin healing.”
Instead, while many families have fought to create new lives in poverty-stricken neighborhoods amid gang violence and racism, they have in turn been torn apart. A total of 13,000 Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans have been served final deportation orders since 1998, according to the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC).
Individuals on the panel at the forum discussed how deportation affected them personally, and how policies currently in place have created a cruel reality, where Cambodians and Vietnamese born outside the U.S. face deportation at a moment’s notice.
“The 1996 laws greatly expanded the definition of 'aggravated felony' under immigration law to encompass over 50 separate crimes in 21 categories, including some that are neither 'aggravated' nor 'felonies' under state criminal laws,” stated a SEARAC research brief.
Panelists at the forum demanded changes to current U.S. law, including:
- Revise the U.S. and Cambodian Repatriation Agreement with the provisions that protect community members that came to the U.S. as refugees, using language that already exists in the U.S. and Vietnamese Repatriation Agreement, specifying the desire to apply the agreement retroactively to facilitate an end to deportations and ensure deportees have the right to return.
- Immediately suspend all U.S. deportations to Cambodia so that all possible avenues of Repatriation Agreement advocacy and relief can be exhausted without interference.
- Create an agreement between the U.S. and Laos, as Laotians have been deported. If an agreement is created, it should be in line with the Vietnamese/U.S. agreement model.
- Maintain the same agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam. The agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam grants an exception to those who may be deported after committing an imprisonable offence under U.S. law for those who entered the country before July 12, 1995, when the U.S. and Vietnam established formal diplomatic relations.
- Urge elected officials and the Obama Administration to push for change regarding the policies discussed, writing letters to the State Department and contacting those in charge to change the agreements.
Panelists noted the link between incarceration and deportation, but noted it was problematic to deport an individual who arrived as a refugee and has no family where they were born.
Touch Hak, who arrived in the U.S. as a refugee, spoke at the panel. He is now facing deportation after serving nine years in prison. Chanthaveth Ros also spoke, weeping as she discussed her soon-to-be deported son in Khmer, speaking through a translator.
"He was in prison for a long time," she said. "Now my child will be taken from me. It breaks my heart."
"There’s no way you can do this work without crying," said Chhaya Chhoum, executive director of Mekong NYC, speaking at the forum, wiping away tears while discussing numerous deportations and the ongoing battle to end the displacement. She read a text message from a man who had been deported to Cambodia.
"A house without a family is not a home," she read, glancing at her phone after composing herself. "What if, I wonder, we could really win the fight to return?"
This story was updated on 12/20/15 at 5:02PM, clarifying Touch Hak's situation and including a quote from Sophya Chhiv.