By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Rithy Yin, 33, was born in Cambodia in 1980. His memories of the country are foggy at best, though over time, the sequence of events have been repeatedly recounted to him by his family members, so much that he has adopted their memories as his own.
He said his mom fled the Khmer Rouge and the killing fields, leaving everything she knew, risking life and limb to get Yin and his older sister to a refugee camp. He said his father was killed by the Khmer Rouge. Yin does not have a photo of his dad and thus does not know what he looked like. The family was granted refugee status and immigrated to the United States in April 1982.
“I turned 2 over here,” said Yin. “I have a picture of my second birthday, when we reached Springfield, Ohio. They threw me a birthday party. My sister had a party, too.” It was their first introduction to American culture, a gesture that was touching and meaningful, but foreign.
Fleeing after war
Modern Cambodia has been subjugated, again and again, by outsiders. France absorbed Cambodia from Thailand in 1867, folding it into French Indochina in 1887. Cambodia gained its independence in 1953, after a stint under Japanese occupation during World War II. However, its independence was uneasily colored by military tensions as the Vietnam War intensified.
King Norodom Sihanouk was ousted in a coup in 1970. By 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (the Khmer Rouge) took power. The Khmer Rouge was known for agricultural and social reforms based on Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward — a movement characterized by agriculture-based self-sufficiency. It systemically erased Western ideals by shutting down education, healthcare, and commerce sectors — forcing its urban population into labor camps.
The killing fields refer to mass gravesites where ethnic minorities and those associated with foreigners or former governments — mostly professionals and intellectuals — were executed. Death toll figures vary. UNICEF and the UN estimate between 2 million and 3 million people dead — between 27 and 41 percent of the entire population.
“Sometimes, I sit down at a [Cambodian] wedding and I’m having cake or whatever,” said U.S. Assistant Federal Public Defender Jay Stansell. “And I turn to the person next to me and I say, ‘How are you?’ And then all of a sudden, they launch into this stuff that they don’t get to tell enough about, such as being in the killing fields and literally living under the fear that at any moment, at any hour, on any day, they could get chopped in the back of the head with a shovel and die. And that was part of the terror. That was a tool of the Khmer rouge, to be horrific monsters.”
Yin is an “aggravated felon” who will eventually be deported back to Cambodia. When he was 18 years old, he held up a convenience store at gunpoint. He was caught and was sentenced to an 11-year prison term. He was released in 2008, and has since checked in regularly with his parole officer and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Yin is deportable because he was a permanent resident at the time of his arrest and sentencing in 1999, not a U.S. citizen.
“Rithy Yin’s immigration status was reviewed by an immigration judge in [March] 2003,” said ICE Public Affairs Officer Andrew Munoz. “The immigration judge found him removable as an aggravated felon due to his 1999 felony convictions and ordered him deported. … Mr. Yin was remanded to ICE custody in June 2008 following his release from prison.”
Deportation back to Cambodia can be a sluggish process that takes years. As ICE cannot hold people for more than 180 days, Yin was released from ICE custody on order of supervision in September 2008, according to Munoz.
While Yin’s case was reviewed by an immigration judge in 2003, Stansell said the current process is an empty exercise — “virtually useless” — due to the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRIRA) and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).
Between 1990 and 1995, Stansell did deportation defense. Many of his clients were people who committed crimes, but rehabilitated since the crime. The individuals were sometimes granted waivers of deportation by immigration judges, keeping their green cards and eventually becoming U.S. citizens.
In 1996, with IIRIRA and AEDPA, the definition of aggravated felon was broadened significantly to include Yin’s crime — “a theft or burglary offense for which the term of imprisonment is at least one year.”
At the category’s inception in 1988 with the Immigration and Nationality Act, aggravated felonies comprised only murder and drug or firearms trafficking.
Under IIRIRA and AEDPA, aggravated felons are not eligible for deportation waivers.
“They were signed by [President Bill] Clinton, a Democratic president,” said Stansell. “It was a crazy time, and many Congress people have since admitted that they didn’t fully understand the sweep of the acts. … I think a lot of [Congress members] were afraid to run against prohibiting waivers for aggravated felons. They were afraid to run for re-election and have people say, ‘Oh, you’re lenient on aggravated felons.’”
Since then, there has been a movement called Fix 96 to “correct” or revert the laws.
“To this day, it’s still — to my knowledge — not on the table in Washington, D.C., right now,” said Stansell.
A new hometown
Rainier Vista and Holly Park housing developments were built in the 1940s, on 172 acres of land that was sparsely populated in its earlier history because it wasn’t easily farmable, according to “Neighborhoods Southeast Seattle Community History Project,” by John Hoole, prepared for the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods in 2011. Leading up to World War II, the surrounding area was 98 percent white. That land would eventually house some of Seattle’s poorest residents.
The relative economic isolation of the area intermixed with issues of the 1970s and 1980s — “school desegregation, white flight, and the crack epidemic — unfolded vividly in the Rainier Valley,” reported Hoole. Unemployment surged in the early 1970s, crime ratcheted up. According to Hoole, the Seattle Police Department estimated that there were 1,400 crack houses operating in the Valley in 1989.
Yin’s family was in Springfield for about six years, as the only Cambodian and only refugee family in the small community. While Springfield was welcoming, Yin’s mom grew homesick and yearned to be near relatives. When Yin was about 8 or 9, the family moved to the Rainier Vista area of the Valley in Southeast Seattle.
His stepfather worked two menial jobs to keep the family afloat. His mother stayed home to take care of the children, although language and culture were massive obstacles for her. Yin was constantly getting into fights at school — he said he was bullied by peers — and his mother couldn’t understand why he was getting into trouble.
Yin found a bit of solace in others like him — other young Cambodian males whose families were similarly displaced by war.
“Why people commit crime, especially when they were young, is a difficult question to answer,” said Yoon Joo Han, Behavioral Health Program Director at Asian Counseling and Referral Service in Seattle. “I would not be surprised if [Cambodian men who commit crimes] have experienced many more negative life events and circumstances while growing up in the U.S., in addition to the trauma that they experienced in Cambodia and in [the process] of coming to the U.S. When so many negative social determinants factors [are compounded], it is not easy to be a healthy, positive person who will perfectly fit into a mainstream society.”
Yin attributes his crime partly to the American culture of the area. He stated that when he was young, he didn’t know what he didn’t know and life in the Rainier Valley was all he knew. He certainly did not know that his residency in the United States would be conditional.
“I’ve heard it hypothesized that a lot of these kids born in the 1970s and 1980s, born before the Khmer Rouge or in a refugee camp — their really early childhood was filled with war, with guns, and really unspeakable horrific violence — so being able to discern violence as a tool versus a crime is hard for them,” said Dori Cahn, Stansell’s wife. Cahn was previously a teacher at South Seattle Community College, working with its at-risk student support program, where she met a lot of young and troubled Cambodian students.
Consequences for families
“When we moved away from our country, we didn’t ask to come here,” said Aneda Kim, 42. “We were chased here. And we were lucky enough to have the support of the American system. We are grateful for that and call it home. And now that we’ve made this place our home, and they’ve said they’ve made us permanent residents — but one mistake and now he’s not a permanent resident? The law has changed, and it’s one mistake and that’s it?”
Kim is Ram Son’s fiancée.
Son, 39, was caught burglarizing a gas station after hours in 1996. He was 16 years old. He’s also categorized as an aggravated felon, having served two and a half years in prison for his crime. Son came to the United States in 1982, as a 7-year-old refugee.
Like Yin, Son is due to be deported back to Cambodia at some point.
Son is currently officially unemployed. Unofficially, he’s a handyman, doing odd jobs and construction work for friends, family members, and acquaintances to help pay for the house he rents with his family. Son has two obstacles working against him in gaining employment — he’s an aggravated felon and his immigration status. He needs to be authorized to work. He’s applied for it, but has been stuck waiting for a response.
It’s imperative for Son to keep busy. On weekdays, he wakes up to make his kids’ breakfast. After he drives them to school, he runs errands and goes to his odd jobs. He purposely avoids being in the house.
“Because my mind goes crazy,” he said.
Deportation is always sitting in the back of his mind. “Because I don’t know when,” he said. “And you can’t fight it. Will I get a phone call? Will they come knocking on my door?”
“We have children — my children are young and look up to him as a father,” said Kim. “He raised them. … They have nobody else to call ‘Dad.’ We’ve established that foundation and to know and fear that one of these days, their dad is going to be taken away? It’s devastating.”
“I knew I made a mistake,” said Yin. “I knew my mom raised me better. I was drinking a lot when I was doing stuff, doing drugs. … I didn’t have much hope when I was young, didn’t care about anyone, nothing — not even myself. But — I know it was wrong, because I’d be hurt if some —” he paused. “Something did happen to my mom, actually. Someone robbed my mom when I was incarcerated. And I couldn’t do nothing. I knew it was karma.” (end)
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.