Civil Rights Groups File Lawsuit Challenging ‘Unlawful’ Detentions of Cambodian Refugees


​Posda Tuot, cousin of Nak Kim “Rickie” Chhoeun, speaks during a news conference in downtown LA Wednesday morning. Rickie was detained by ICE on October 20, 2017. Photo courtesy of AAAJ-LA.

Flanked by family members of recently detained Cambodian immigrants and other community members Wednesday morning, a civil rights organization announced in downtown Los Angeles a class action lawsuit challenging the recent raids and arrests of Cambodian refugees by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.

The lawsuit was filed by civil rights organizations Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (Advancing Justice – LA), its San Francisco affiliate Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus (Advancing Justice – ALC), and Sidley Austin LLP, an international law firm which will provide pro bono work.

The groups claim that ICE has made unlawful arrests since early October when it “rounded up over a hundred Cambodian refugees with deportation orders, making these the largest raids ever to target the Cambodian community,” according to a release. Nearly 2,000 Cambodian refugees are at-risk of being unlawfully arrested.

ICE officials previously 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.

According to Christopher Lapinig, a fellow at AAAJ-LA, these raids are in retaliation to the Cambodian government’s decision last year to suspend a repatriation agreement with the U.S. that was signed in 2002. Lapinig said that even with the signed agreement, Cambodia was only accepting about 34 individuals a year.

Since the suspension of the agreement, the U.S. government placed Visa sanctions that made it difficult for Cambodian officials to enter the United States, Lapinig said, and now “the repatriation agreement has not been put back into place but ICE and the Administration have nevertheless engaged in these enforcement actions even though there’s no possibility of restarting repatriation in the foreseeable future.”

Knowing if deportation is likely is an important factor as, according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Zadvydas v. Davis, ICE cannot detain a person “beyond a presumptively reasonable period of six months if there is no “Significant likelihood of removal in the reasonably foreseeable future”, according to ICE. Exceptions include persons determined to pose a threat to the community or considered a flight risk, and according to AAAJ-LA officials ICE has not revealed those reasons to be the case for the individuals detained.

One of those recently detained was 42-year-old Long Beach resident Nak Kim “Rickie” Chhoeun, a plaintiff in the lawsuit. He reported to the immigration office October 20, a month earlier than his usual date to report, which he has faithfully done for over a decade, according to his cousin Posda Tuot, who drove him to his appointment.

“He just never walked back out,” Tuot told the Post recently.


Tuot also spoke at the news conference announcing the lawsuit. He confirmed that Chhoeun served time for a crime he committed when he was young, which led to deportation orders that have yet to be filled.

“He’s been a good citizen since he’s been out. Just trying to live life,” Tuot said. “Recently, he even took a kid off the streets, to try to work on his dreams, even though I feel like he can’t work on his knowing one day he may be deported.”

Chhoeun has worked as a satellite technician for AT&T for the past 15 years, and has even received awards for his work, according to his cousin.

“I came to the United States when I was six years old as a refugee from the war. This is the only place I’ve ever known as home,” Chhoeun in a statement. “When I was detained two weeks ago, I felt betrayed and confused. My family and entire livelihood was taken from me without any reason or explanation.”

Stories like his are not uncommon for Cambodian refugees living in America. On top of about 62 percent suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to growing up in Thai refugee camps and resettling, many children faced poverty and lack of support, according to Lian Cheun, executive director of the Long Beach-based Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), who spoke during the news conference.

Cheun said her organization was bombarded with families reaching out since ICE’s detainment of over 100 Cambodians in the U.S. early this October. KGA is currently working with about eight families who face similar situations.

“ICE has traumatized entire communities by re-detaining people with no warning and for no legitimate reason,” said Jenny Zhao, Immigrant Rights Staff Attorney at Advancing Justice – ALC, in a statement. “We demand that ICE release these Cambodian refugees and stop violating the law.”

Advancing Justice – ALC has also started a petition calling for an end to the deportation of Cambodian refugees. 

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Stephanie Rivera is the immigration and diversity reporter for the Long Beach Post. After graduating from CSULB with a degree in journalism, Stephanie worked for Patch Latino and City News Service before coming to the Long Beach Post in 2015.