People Post is a space for opinion pieces, letters to the editor and guest submissions from members of the Long Beach community. The following is an op-ed submitted by Crystal Mun-hye Baik, an assistant professor in the Department of Gender & Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Long Beach Post.
These first few months of 2018 have been a chaotic time in Long Beach. Renters are ramping up actions to counter rising living costs and the housing crisis. City employees are struggling to find solutions to a looming budget deficit. Local policy conversations are dominated by debates regarding city density and the uncertain future of Long Beach.
The first few months of 2018 have wreaked chaos for others who call Long Beach home as well, albeit for different reasons. In line with his characterization of immigrants of color as dangerous criminals prone to violence (or from “shithole” nations), Trump has expedited the detention and deportation of certain immigrant and refugee groups. Most recently on March 7th, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the US Department of Justice’s decision to sue the State of California for its various “sanctuary” policies supporting immigrants: the “California Values Act” (SB 54), the “Workplace Raid” law (AB 450) and the “Detention Review” law (AB 103).
Across the United States but especially in California, the Cambodian refugee community has been hit hard by these and other anti-immigration orders. During a public forum convened in December 2017, youth members from the Cambodian Advocacy Collaborative (CAC), a network of organizations serving Long Beach’s Cambodian population of 20,000—the largest in the country—recounted the lasting toll of detainment and deportation in their communities. In one testimony, Alisha Sim described ICE’s detainment of her older brother Sarob in 2011 and his eventual deportation to Cambodia, where he remains today.
While deportations are not especially new, the acceleration of removals under Trump is alarming. In October 2017, Sessions committed to fast-tracking the deportation of “criminal immigrants.” During the same month, 100 Cambodians nationally were detained by ICE. As shared by Lian Cheun, the executive director of Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), a grassroots organization that Alisha is active in, these numbers are staggering given that the total Cambodian population in the country is under 280,000: “We’ve never seen anything like this before. ICE’s actions are extreme, inhumane, and unacceptable.”
In Sessions’ aforementioned speech, his use of “criminal immigrant” is instructive. Primarily, Sessions is referring to ICE’s prioritization to expel noncitizens convicted of aggravated felonies. According to ICE, 1,900 Cambodians in the United States have deportation orders, with over 1,400 of these related to criminal convictions. Yet, at a moment where alternative facts sit alongside hard-hitting news, it’s important to question these statistics. A closer examination, in fact, tells us that immigrants are not “criminals” because they are more prone to violence and break fair laws applied to everyone. On the contrary, immigration policies create a higher standard for immigrants, making it easier for them to be categorized as felons in the first place. Simply put, the U.S. immigration system is an uneven playing field.
Legislative acts passed in the last 20 years demonstrate these asymmetries. In 1996, the passage of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) dramatically expanded the number of noncitizens, including permanent residents, subject to deportation by reclassifying common misdemeanors like shoplifting as aggravated felonies—a trigger point for automatic removal. IIRIRA also applies retroactively, so that those with previous convictions are still vulnerable to deportation. The impact of IIRIRA has been devastating for Southeast Asians. As the Los Angeles Times recently reported, ICE’s targeting of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants underscores the ways in which Asian Americans—an incredibly diverse demographic universally portrayed as successful, economically mobile and model minority citizens—are impacted by incarceration and deportation.
Despite these facts, Trump states that those deported are irredeemably “bad” people. As this argumentation has become central to the local sanctuary policy known as the Long Beach Values Act, it’s paramount to challenge such troubling assertions by pointing to the inherent imbalances within the US immigration system. My reference to these inequities also stems from a place of discomfort since some take up the “good versus bad immigrant” argument as a line of defense.
For example, when Trump rescinded the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program last fall, which shields some undocumented young people from deportation, Barack Obama stated on Facebook that DACA recipients arrived in the country “through no fault of their own.” While offered with good intentions, this logic sets up a false binary where we’re forced to ask, who are the bad immigrants? The people who “choose” to leave their homes due to a global financial system that heavily favors wealthy countries, like the United States, while crushing other national economies? Or perhaps those fleeing from armed conflict, as we’ve seen in Syria and Yemen? The vast majority of Cambodians in the United States are refugees, or children of refugees, resettled in the country due to a devastating war linked to American military intervention in Southeast Asia. Before demonizing those who make the heartbreaking decision to leave their homes, we need to examine the root causes of their migrations.
Because we are likely to witness an escalation of deportations this upcoming year, it’s imperative that the Long Beach City Council approves a clean Long Beach Values Act with no “carve-outs” for past convictions. It’s also crucial for us to challenge the nationalist narrative of the good versus bad immigrant so entrenched in American popular culture and media. As my colleague Leigh Patel reminds us, unless you are an indigenous person native to this land we now call the United States, we are all settlers of and immigrants to this country.
Crystal Mun-hye Baik is assistant professor in the Department of Gender & Sexuality Studies at UC Riverside. Currently, she is completing her first book focusing on the Korean War, militarized migration, and gender and sexual violence.