Judge grants class action status to lawsuit over detention of Cambodian refugees

A federal judge has granted class action status to a lawsuit involving roughly 1,900 Cambodian refugees nationwide who were detained by immigration officials last fall and now face deportation, a case that stemmed in part from the detention of a Long Beach man.

A California federal judge granted a motion to certify the class action lawsuit last Tuesday, making way for petitioners to challenge the government’s policy of “indiscriminately and abruptly re-detaining individuals who have been living peaceably in our country based on the sole fact that they were once ordered removed,” according to the judge’s order.

The government claims these individuals are not required to receive due process or be notified in advance to challenge their detentions.

The lawsuit, Chhoeun v. Marin, was filed by civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice—Los Angeles, its San Francisco affiliate AAAJ-Asian Law Caucus, and Sidley Austin, LLP.

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One of the two men involved is 42-year-old Long Beach resident Nak Kim “Rickie” Chhoeun, who was detained by ICE in October during an annual check-in.

Chhoeun, who fled the Khmer Rouge with his family as a young child, was convicted of simple assault and unlawful possession of a firearm in 1999. He was ordered back to Cambodia in 2002, but the country would not accept him.

He was then released from custody in 2003 after he was determined not to be a flight risk or danger to society and has since rebuilt his life, mentoring others and working as a satellite technician for AT&T, according to the Asian American organization.

He is one of about 100 Cambodian refugees who were re-detained last fall. Another 1,800 Cambodian refugees under similar situations are also at risk of being detained.

Right now, the organization estimates that about 20 people remain detained, though that number fluctuates based on new individuals being picked up by ICE and others being released on bonds or habeas petitions.

While in detention, these individuals have faced degrading conditions, according to the lawsuit, including being shackled together, denied bathroom breaks and adequate meals, and faced extortion by Cambodian officials conducting interviews “to decide whether to accept their repatriation.”

Chhoeun was eventually released from detention in March of this year and returned to his job.

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Many of the class members share similar stories to Chhoeun, having removal orders based on past criminal convictions—some over a decade ago—but also fleeing a regime in the 1970s only to face a new set of obstacles in the cities in which they settled.

More than half of the Cambodian refugees living in America suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder due to growing up in Thai refugee camps and then resettling in communities where they faced poverty and lack of support, according to Long Beach-based Khmer Girls in Action.

Advocates called the class certification a major victory.

“This ruling is the first step toward getting a court ruling that the government cannot engage in indiscriminate raids and detention of Cambodian nationals who were living peaceably in the community on orders of supervision, with notice and and opportunity to contest whether their detention is necessary to carry out imminent deportation,” said litigation director Laboni Hoq with the civil rights group.

The civil rights group previously said that the detentions by ICE were in retaliation to the Cambodian government’s decision in 2016 to suspend a repatriation agreement with the U.S. that was signed in 2002. ICE has denied those claims.

Hoq claimed that the Cambodian government is accepting more people back now likely due to pressure by the U.S. government through threats of visa sanctions against Cambodian nationals. In the past, about 34 people were being accepted annually, according to the organization; now the country may have agreed to take back about 100 people.

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Stephanie Rivera is the immigration and diversity reporter for the Long Beach Post. Growing up as one of six kids in the working-class immigrant suburb of South Gate, she was taught the importance of civic engagement and to show compassion for others. 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. An avid Harry Potter fan, Stephanie now lives in Bixby Knolls with her boyfriend and their bearded dragon, Austin.