Long Beach resident Kim Nak Chheoun. Photo courtesy of Posda Tuot.
One week ago on Friday Posda Tuot was enjoying time with his cousin, Long Beach resident Kim Nak Chheoun (aka Rickie), during a surprise visit from Philadelphia.
Also on that day, October 20, Tuot accompanied Nak Chheoun to a federal building in downtown Los Angeles after he received a letter from Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) telling him to check in with his ICE officer.
Normally, Nak Chheoun reports in November, Tuot told the Post.
“It was the same building but different floor, which he usually goes to the same floor for the last 12 to 15 years,” Tuot said. “He reports in every year and this year they sent him a letter to report to a different floor and we had a feeling that he wasn’t going to walk back out when he walked in but he took it as is. He wasn’t going to run from it, where are you gonna run from it? So he walked in.”
That uneasy feeling didn't appear out of nowhere. Rumors of Cambodian refugees getting detained by ICE in recent weeks had been circling around the community. The week before Nak Chheoun was detained, his mother’s neighbor’s son was detained, Tuot said. The son had received a similar notice in the mail as well.
Despite family members telling Nak Chheoun that everything would be okay and he would walk back out of that building, he told Tuot where things were and told him to take care of things at home in the meantime.
“His whole family was like ‘Aww you’re walking back out, don’t say that’...and you know...he just never walked back out,” said Tuot.
Sure enough, in a final text exchange that day, Nak Chheoun told a waiting Tuot he wasn’t coming back out.
Nak Chheoun’s sudden detention, along with those of other Cambodian refugees, is rumored to be a result of ongoing disagreements between the United States and Cambodia, according to County Supervisor Janice Hahn, who represents Long Beach—which includes the largest Cambodian community in the nation.
In a letter sent to Acting Secretary Elaine C. Duke dated October 24, 2017, Hahn stated that the hostility between both countries has resulted in visa denials for Cambodians looking to travel to the U.S. on business or tourism.
In fact, according to ICE’s website, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in September ordered consular officers in Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone to discontinue granting visas after Duke notified him that these governments “have denied or unreasonably delayed accepting their nationals ordered removed from the United States.”
Hahn said that after these visa denials, reports began to emerge about an increase in ICE detentions of Cambodians.
“Some who were scheduled to check in with their local ICE officer were told to come in at an earlier date and then summarily detained,” Hahn wrote. “There appears to have been no precipitating event in the immigrants’ lives that would warrant such a detention.”
“These detentions are troubling,” she went on to say. “In fact, at least one of the detainees lives in my District and was swept up in the increased enforcement. I represent a large population of Cambodians living in Long Beach, California. If it is true, as we hear, that the Administration is using this man and other gainfully-employed, civically-engaged Cambodians as bargaining chips with the Cambodian government, then we urge the Department of Homeland Security to release these people to their families, their jobs, and their communities while the diplomats work things out.”
Hahn also asked ICE to explain any procedural changes and give details on these recent detentions.
However, ICE officials deny that such detentions are the result of a perceived hostile relationship between both countries, instead claiming that Cambodia is now accepting some of the multiple orders of removal hence why it would seem like such detentions were sudden.
“International law obligates each country to accept the return of its nationals ordered removed from the United States,” ICE spokesman Brendan Raedy told the Post in an email Friday. “The United States itself routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked, as do the majority of countries in the world. The United States continues to work with the Government of Cambodia to establish a reliable process for the issuance of travel documents and their acceptance of the prompt, lawful return of Cambodian nationals who are subject to removal from the United States.”
ICE officials said there are at least 534 travel document requests (documents establishing one’s identity like a passport) pending with Cambodia, which have been requested since 2008.
In addition, there are more than 1,900 Cambodian nationals residing in the U.S. who are subject to a final order of removal, of whom 1,412 have criminal convictions.
The removal of foreigners subject to final orders of removal was made a national security priority, highlighted by a Presidential Executive Order titled, “Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States,” issued January 25, 2017.
Ultimately, such detentions have a time stamp on them as ICE officials are legally required to release such foreign nationals after six months if there is no “significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future.”
In the meantime, Tuot said his family has been talking with different organizations in an attempt to help his cousin who currently sits at the Theo Lacy Facility, a prison in the city of Orange.
While Tuot confirmed that Nak Chheoun, who is in his early 40s, did serve time in the past, he has reported to his ICE officer on time every year for over a decade.
Tuot said his cousin currently works as a supervisor for AT&T, and has received awards for being an outstanding worker.
“Normally you see someone coming out from being incarcerated it’s either they are going the same path or they’re walking a 180 different path and he was just going on a good direction where you wouldn't even know where he came from or what he’s been through,” Tuot said. “He just lives life like he’s trying the best he can, it's hard knowing no matter how much you want to move forward they’re just going to take you back anyways.”
Those seeking resources regarding such detentions can contact Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, Khmer GIrls in Action in Long Beach, and Asian American Advancing Justice-Asian American Law Caucus.