By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
“I burglarized a gas station. I was young, naïve. I just — wasn’t thinking,” said Ram Son, a Cambodian man who lives in South Seattle.
Son’s parents fled Cambodia’s killing fields and the genocidal Khmer Rouge. He was 7 years old when their family arrived in a Thai refugee camp. Through sponsorship, the family first settled in Alabama in 1982 before moving to Minnesota, where Son lived for about 20 years.
Son dropped out of high school during his junior year, partly to take care of his newborn son.
In 1996, when he was 16 years old, he was caught burglarizing a gas station after hours. Charged as an adult, he subsequently served a prison term totaling about two-and-a-half years for felony first-degree burglary and possession of a dangerous weapon.
After his release, he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for nine months and issued a final order of deportation, as he was not an American citizen.
“Ram Son’s immigration status was reviewed by an immigration judge in 1999 … Having been found removable as an aggravated felon, the judge ordered him deported in June 1999,” said ICE Public Affairs Officer Andrew Munoz.
Son’s return to Cambodia is on hold until the Cambodian government issues his final travel documents. Then, he will say goodbye to his family, board a plane, and travel around the world to spend the rest of his life in a country he hasn’t seen since he was a child.
He doesn’t know when this will happen, as the government issues a limited number each year.
He just thinks about it every day, and he knows it’s inevitable.
Defining aggravated felons
“When I got locked up, my family got locked up, too. They did that time with me,” said Rithy Yin, another Seattle-area Cambodian man who faces deportation due to his status as an ‘aggravated felon’ from his 1999 felony convictions.
At 18, Yin was caught robbing a convenience store at gunpoint. He liked to emphasize that no one was hurt during the robbery, not necessarily to absolve himself of wrongdoing, but more in relief. These days, Yin’s a devout Christian and frequently references his gratitude to God.
Yin served 10 years of his 11-year prison term before his release in 2008.
Since 1996, as the result of stricter laws, people like Son and Yin, who arrived in the United States as child refugees, have, more or less, automatically been ordered ‘removed’ from the United States, to be returned to Cambodia, due to their aggravated felon designation.
“[The process] used to be called deportation,” said Assistant Federal Public Defender Jay Stansell. “It’s now called removal. It amounts to the same thing.”
The aggravated designation is broadly defined.
“In 1996, the definition of aggravation felony was expanded in extraordinary ways, to the point where you can get a misdemeanor assault conviction and a one-year suspended sentence and never spend a day in court and still be characterized as an aggravated felon — whereas murder and rape used to be what it was limited to,” said Stansell.
Today, Yin resides in his sister and brother-in-law’s townhouse. He lives on the lower floor with his new wife — they married last month. He goes to work in Kent in the afternoons. He said he likes the shift.
“When I was incarcerated, my mom — she used to cry when she saw my friends playing outside. It was hard on her … They did all that time with me,” said Yin, quietly, remembering how his family members’ lives were also put on hold while he was incarcerated. “I told them not to come [visit me in prison]. I didn’t want them to see all that stuff, but they came anyway. They wrote letters, and kept my spirits up. And really, that’s what made a really, really difficult time a lot easier for me. They made it bearable.”
Adjusting to new lives
Yin was almost 2 years old when he arrived in the United States. He grew up in South Seattle and was the target of bullies, he said, maybe due to his small stature, the fact that his family was poor, or because he looked different from other kids.
“I remember my first Halloween here in Seattle,” said Yin, laughing over the memory. “We were robbed, and everyone took our candy and chased us. And that’s how they welcomed us into the neighborhood.” He paused. “And you had to pretty much fend for yourself or get beat up.”
Language was a significant hurdle for the Cambodian refugees in the 1980s. Notably, there were very few Cambodians in the United States prior to the influx of refugees that fled Cambodia following the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge — the Communist Party of Kampuchea.
The relatively small number of Cambodians in the United States at the time resulted in a lack of community and support for the incoming refugees.
“It was also an unfamiliar population for people in the U.S.,” said Dori Cahn, a mentor and adviser for the Royal University of Phnom Penh, in partnership with the University Of Washington School of Social Work, and Stansell’s wife. “There was a lot of — well, a lot of racism. All these Southeast Asians were coming into the schools, coming into communities, needing services, needing help, needing jobs — and all of a sudden, there’s thousands of them… For the children going to school, there’s the language challenge, the challenge of being the new kid, and the ‘other,’ and also the family challenge with parents who had a hard time even functioning.”
“It’s pretty clear to me that America has this ironic approach to refugees,” said Stansell. “For one, we take in more refugees than any other country in the world. That’s a great thing. But as any of these young Cambodian men can tell you, many of the refugees who come here are traumatized, by definition, because they’re refugees. The parents are not ready for impoverished life in America.
“They come ready-made to be of the lower classes because they’re not really well-suited to be engaged in employment because of their, Cambodia’s history in particular — the intelligentsia and the professional classes of the Cambodia were basically wiped out by the Khmer Rouge, so we had a lot of working-class peasantry coming here, not college professors.”
School was a struggle for Yin. He was constantly getting into fights and bumping up against authority figures. He said his parents had a hard time understanding why he was getting into so much trouble — they couldn’t grasp the concept that he was being targeted at school. Yin had older brothers who helped get him into some extracurricular activities — and it worked for a while. But his older brothers were coping with the same pains of adjusting to a new country and life.
“They left,” said Yin, “to find their own way. They were my role models. They were in high school and I was in middle school. They left the house early, too. I looked up to them, and after they were gone, I had nobody to help me navigate through school.”
“I held up a convenience store at gun point,” said Yin. “I’m not trying to justify what I did. What I did was terrible, taking money from people who worked hard for it. My mom raised me better than that.”
A certain future
Son lives in a house he rents with his fiancée, Aneda Kim, who is also Cambodian. He’s father to four and grandfather to one.
He is a father-figure to Kim’s kids, having been in their lives for seven years.
“I tell my kids what the right way is — how to be,” said Son. “I tell them don’t get into trouble, just be smart. Get a good education.”
“We’re on their backs a lot,” he admitted. “We don’t let them out of our sights that much. We always keep them on their toes — I don’t want them to go down the path that I did. You just don’t want that for your kids.”
“I do regret it,” he said, referring to the burglary. “I wish I could take it back.”
For Son and Yin to be returned to Cambodia, there needs to be formal proof that the men will be accepted into the country. To get on a plane, travel documents have to be issued, and those are at the discretion of the government.
“Normal travel documents for someone going abroad is their passport,” said Stansell. “But none of these folks have passports because they came here as refugees. So instead, they require a formal Cambodian document of some sort.”
According to the ICE, when it is able to obtain travel documents for priority aliens, “the agency makes arrangements, considering an individual’s personal circumstances, to detain the individual and remove him or her from the U.S.”
“It happens,” Son said, his eyes obscured by sunglasses. He was speaking of the inevitability of things, of how he copes, and of his eventual deportation. “You know, it — it happens. But I paid my dues.”
“I would say the system has failed these boys,” said Stansell. “Others would say they should’ve figured it out. But it’s so easy to say that. People who say that — have never fled terror.” (end)
This is part 1 of a three-part series. Read part 2 here.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.