By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
Rithy Yin, 33, pointed toward his church, Victory Outreach Church, from the kitchen of his sister and brother-in-law’s townhouse, where he lives with his new wife, Jackie, and stepson, Jacob.
“We go to the streets and we minister to people — to the homeless or to the youth out there. We mentor these kids, talk them away from stuff like that. Share our stories so that they don’t make the same mistakes we made. I tell them, ‘We made them so you don’t have to.’ … There are a lot of kids who don’t want to go down that route, who don’t want to join gangs or do drugs — and we try to help them stay away. Because, you know, it’s a path of destruction.”
Yin immigrated to the United States from Cambodia as a refugee with his family when he was almost 2 years old. He held up a convenience store at gunpoint when he was 18. He was caught and was sentenced to an 11-year prison term.
In prison, Yin passed his high school GED test, took victim’s awareness, stress, and anger management, building maintenance, and took information technology classes. He joined the church ministry and found that he had a talent for helping inmates who struggled adjusting to institutionalization.
It’s been a little more than five years since Yin’s release from prison in 2008. In that time, he’s acquired a full-time job as a machine operator in Kent, got married, and has not had any run-ins with the law.
“When I first got out, they didn’t make it easy,” Yin said. “It was a lot — a lot — of paper work. Even after you get your papers, the hardest part is finding a job, finding someone who will give you a chance. My brother helped me find a job as soon as I finished this program called Greenlight Project.”
Yin acknowledged that his life post-incarceration would have been considerably more difficult without his family’s connections and support.
He will eventually be deported back to Cambodia because he is an aggravated felon.
Last month, about 40 former Cambodian refugees from across the West Coast were temporarily held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. The center is the first stop on the way back to Cambodia for those detained. Most were released for now, but they will eventually be deported. About six people remain in detention. The Cambodian government will issue travel documents for these people so that they can be repatriated back to Cambodia.
One of the men still held at the Northwest Detention Center and slated for deportation is Touch Hak, according to a KPLU report. Activists are trying to get Hak’s deportation delayed for a time because his brother, Puthy, has a failing kidney and needs a transplant. The brothers are a perfect match and Hak is keen on donating a kidney to save his brother’s life. But the process of delaying deportation is complicated.
When the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), which instated stricter immigration laws, went into effect — Cambodia wasn’t accepting returnees and wouldn’t until 2002, when, due to U.S. pressure, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the United States, agreeing to allow repatriation.
“Cambodia has historically issued a limited number of travel documents to Cambodian nationals ordered removed from the U.S,” said U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Public Affairs Officer Andrew Munoz. “These documents are necessary for the U.S. government to effect a deportation. Given this limited number, it is U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) priority to first seek the removal of criminal aliens with the most serious criminal histories.”
Since 2002, about 450 people have been sent back to Cambodia. Roughly about 1,500 to 2,000 people are waiting for their travel documents to be issued by the Cambodian government.
“It is quite a backlog. It results in a really unusual situation for the people who are on the list,” said Assistant Federal Public Defender Jay Stansell. “There’s this looming dark cloud in their future, but it’s a dark cloud that, after some years go by, is pretty easy to forget about. … A lot of folks understandably go back to life, get married, have children. … I will say that the folks that I know who have been on this list since 1999 have had the great benefit of living life and maturing. Many of them were quite young and unskilled when they were incarcerated — no job skills or maturity. Many of these people have had the chance to fully rehabilitate.”
“My personal view is that people who have committed crimes when they were younger, [it’s not] guaranteed that they are a threat to society,” said Yoon Joo Han, Behavioral Health Program Director at Asian Counseling and Referral Service. “We all know many people who did something stupid when they were young, but learned their lessons and grew up to be constructive members of society. I am sure [many of the detained Cambodians] paid the price for their crimes, just like anyone else. I don’t think it is fair for them to pay [a higher] price — deportation — than anyone else in the country. … This is not humane.”
Ram Son, 39, sometimes struggles in recounting his immigration story. Talking about it to the press is awkward for him — he’s unsure of where to start and prefers to stick to broad strokes.
He was 7 years old when his family fled the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia. His family, which included his mother, sister, brother, and stepfather, landed in Alabama after being granted amnesty and relocated to the United States due to their status as refugees — Alabama because that was where their sponsors lived. Son said they only met their sponsors once, maybe.
Today, his parents aren’t together anymore. He said his stepdad is the only father he knows.
“He raised me when I was little, since I was little. I don’t know my real dad. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive.”
It’s easier for Son to talk about his crime. He and some friends broke into a gas station after it closed for the day, when he was 16. It was his first crime and when the police arrived, his friends ran.
“I was the only one caught,” said Son. “My friends took off and I got caught, and I wasn’t snitching on anybody. If I did the crime, I needed to do the time. I wasn’t trying to put that on anyone else.”
Son’s decision to not reveal his friends’ names to authorities actually spared them from the deportation that he currently faces.
Because he was incarcerated for two and a half years, he is an aggravated felon. IIRIRA and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA) resulted in stricter immigration policies. Aggravated felons will be removed from the United States and do not qualify for deportation waivers.
According to Munoz, in addition to Son’s 1996 felony convictions, he was convicted in 2003 and 2004 for driving under the influence, when he was in his mid-20s. Since then, there have been no other incidences.
In April, the New York Times conducted an analysis of internal government records, in which Ginger Thompson and Sarah Cohen reported that since President Barack Obama took office, “two-thirds of the nearly 2 million deportation cases involve people who had committed minor infractions, including traffic violations, or had no criminal record at all. Twenty percent — or about 394,000 — of the cases involved people convicted of serious crimes, including drug-related offenses, the records show.”
Obama has been under fire from many immigrant rights advocates for the high number of “deportations” under his administration.
Shifts in contemporary politics and changed terminology can obscure what may actually be happening, though. For one, deportation is a bit of a legally obsolete term. Post-IIRIRA, in 1996, deportation and exclusion — the process of denying would-be immigrants entrance into the United States — was rolled into one blanket term: removal.
There is another term, “return,” which refers to the action of preventing people from illegally entering the United States at the border.
Removals carry harsher consequences than returns. Those who are removed cannot re-enter the United States legally. Those who are returned, however, can apply for legal re-entry.
The immigration numbers in reports may combine both return and removal numbers, or exclusively use removal numbers, to conflate or de-emphasize immigration enforcement policies under Obama’s administration.
It should be noted that Obama’s administration is set to surpass George W. Bush’s 2 million removals. It should also be noted that most of the removals under Obama have occurred along the U.S.–Mexico border and that interior removals have dropped, comparatively, under his administration.
According to the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, put out by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, in fiscal year 1986, the INS removed 1,978 aliens for criminal violations. The numbers increased massively in 1997, once IIRIRA went into effect.
In 2012, a total of 199,445 people were removed for criminal violations, 80 of whom were Cambodians. 151,018 were Mexican.
“The Cambodian situation is really poignant and really tragic,” said Stansell. “But it’s not altogether worse than being impoverished in a violence-prone place in Mexico — or Guatemala or El Salvador — and having your child who’s been here since 2 to be deported to a place that he has no idea how to survive in. There are hundreds of thousands of people getting deported every year — hundreds of thousands of families are being torn apart by, now, a Democrat president. And it’s not necessary. And nobody can say that it is.”
“The president needs to get out in front on this. The president has talked about how the government has put too many people in jail for too-long sentences because of a failed policy on the drug war,” added Stansell. “So I have no idea why there’s no dialogue going on about why we’re deporting people so often. … [Deporting people in such high numbers] serves no purpose. It doesn’t change the global inequality of wealth. It doesn’t fix trauma. It’s just blind enforcement.”
Next month, Yin is undergoing training in Washington, D.C., through the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC).
“I want to do more mentoring,” he said. “The training is to learn to be a leader and advocate, to spread awareness about what’s going on with the deportations of Southeast Asians.”
Son, more so than Yin, is sensitive to the criticisms directed at him once people learn he was incarcerated. In some ways, he’d prefer to live his life in anonymity. But, he said it’s also important to him to talk about it publicly.
There’s no silver bullet in terms of reprieve for Yin, Son, and others like them. There is currently no legislation significantly far down the pipeline that would temper the strictness of IIRIRA and AEDPA.
“People need to agitate with their congressional and senate representative, to change the laws,” said Stansell. “These laws are connected to our cruel criminal justice system. … There haven’t been progressive, compassionate changes to any of these laws for decades and decades.”
“We need leaders to be brave enough to stand up for the rights of people like Rithy and Ram to present their stories in front of a judge, who can decide if deportation is really the best and fairest course of action, so that fewer children end up losing their parents or parents their children because of these rigid laws,” said Mari Quenemoen, SEARAC Policy Manager. “We need people to start talking, with their friends, neighbors, and their elected officials, about why due process and a fair shot at a second chance is better for our families and our communities.”
“It’s all interconnected and no one can help the Cambodians without also talking about the Mexicans and everyone else,” said Stansell. “We have to not be afraid of talking about convicted criminals. We need to point out that it is not a crazy liberal thing to do and to say that each one of these guys deserves to talk to an immigration judge and say, ‘Give me a second chance.’ Believe me, judges used to routinely deny second chances, but at least people had the chance to ask for them.”
Stansell also thinks that there’s a strong argument to be made to at least not deport former refugees.
“They have a special place in this country. They fled horrific things. A lot of the times, they fled horrific things that were part of the geopolitical forces that included U.S. wars.”
Naturally, Son and Yin have talked about their eventual deportation with their families. Yin laughed it off and said his wife is coming with him to start anew in Cambodia. He joked that that is what she tells him, and that is what she has supposedly agreed to.
Son is more pensive. He said he will leave by himself.
“I wouldn’t want them to come with me. It’s a new territory. What are my children going to do there? What is there, over there, to offer them?” (end)
For more information about SEARAC, visit www.searac.org. Questions related to court decisions should be direct to Justice Department’s Executive Office for Immigration Review. This is the final part of a three-part story. Parts one and two are on nwasianweekly.com.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.