Why Has ICE Suddenly Started Targeting Cambodian Refugees?

More than 100 Cambodians across the country have reportedly been detained by Immigrations and Custom Enforcement in recent weeks, leading civil rights groups to raise alarms that these Cambodians Americans are being targeted because of ongoing diplomatic disagreements between the U.S. and Cambodia. These have been the largest raids ever to target the Cambodian community, according to a statement from civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice. Last week, Asian Americans Advancing Justice filed a national class-action lawsuit on behalf of the detained immigrants, alleging that ICE has acted unlawfully.

Although the Cambodians detained by ICE in recent weeks by and large did already have deportation orders, most of those orders dated back years, if not decades. Many of the individuals have been living and working in the U.S. without incident—and faithfully reporting for their scheduled yearly ICE check-ins. Advocates say that many of those deportation orders stem from decades-old criminal convictions for offenses that the individuals committed as teenagers—and for which they have long since served their time.

"Now, we're seeing years or decades or later, that ICE is suddenly re-detaining people," Jenny Zhao, a staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said during Wednesday's press conference. In mid-September, the Trump administration announced the implementation of visa sanctions on Cambodia (as well as three other countries) due to lack of cooperation in accepting deportees from the United States. The "series of raids" on Cambodians abruptly began about two-and-a-half weeks after DHS had issued the sanctions memo on approximately October 1, according to the lawsuit.

The suit alleges that the plaintiffs and others "have been arbitrarily and unlawfully detained" by ICE. The suit also alleges that ICE has conducted these raids "in disregard of basic procedural rights," and without any evidence that the Cambodia government will even accept the potential deportees back into the country. "Cambodia has never accepted hundreds of people all at once like this," Anoop Prasad, another staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice said Wednesday. Nearly 2000 Cambodian refugees are now at risk "of being unlawfully arrested," according to a statement from Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

"We think it's just a political tactic for ICE to put pressure on Cambodia to take more people back for deportation than they ever have before," Zhao said of the arrests.

California, which has one of the nation's largest Cambodian populations, has been hardest hit by the raids. The impact of the arrests on the Cambodian community has been "devastating," according to Zhao. Southern California is home to more than 50,000 people of Cambodian descent—the largest population outside of Cambodia, according to the L.A. Times.

Nearly two million Cambodians were executed or died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, as refugee seekers fled the country in waves. More than a hundred thousand Cambodians emigrated to the U.S. between 1975 and 1994, primarily as refugees. The refugees, according to the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History, "encountered enormous difficulties adapting to life in the United States." After being brought to the U.S., those refugees settled in the poorest and most violent U.S. neighborhoods, where many were ultimately caught up in the criminal justice system.

Many of the individuals who could fall under the class action suit were born in refugee camps and "have never set foot in Cambodia," according to Prasad, who noted that many were brought to the U.S. as babies or small children, fleeing genocide under the Khmer Rouge. "This is really the only home they have ever known. For most of them, English is the only language they speak," Prasad said.

On October 24, L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes a large Cambodian population in Long Beach, sent a letter to acting Homeland Security Secretary Elaine C. Duke, calling the detentions "troubling," and addressing speculation that these Cambodians are being targeted and used as "bargaining chips with the Cambodian government" because of ongoing diplomatic disagreements between the two countries. After a diplomatic detente resulted in visa denial for Cambodians looking to travel to the U.S., "reports began to emerge about an increase in ICE detentions of Cambodians. Some who were scheduled to check in with their local ICE office were told to come in at an earlier date and then summarily detained," Hahn wrote. "There appears to have been no precipitating event in the immigrants' lives that would warrant such a detention," she continued.

"My residents and their families cannot be used as pawns," Hahn told the DHS director.

Fighting back tears at the press conference, Chen Kong-Wick, described the feeling of waking up on a Wednesday morning and receiving a text that her brother had been arrested by ICE. That was on Oct. 19, and her family has been "weakened, torn apart, and turned upside down" in the days since. They arrived in the U.S. in the early 1980s after fleeing the Khmer Rouge.

Her brother remains in ICE detention and at risk of being deported to Cambodia, despite having actually been born in a Thai refugee camp, and not on Cambodian soil. The 39-year-old man has lived in the U.S. for 37 of his 39 years. Kong-Wick's family has faced enormous hardship, first as refugees fleeing a genocidal regime, and later as new transplants to the U.S., struggling to put food on the table and make sense of a foreign land in "a poverty-stricken environment."

"A lot of people joined gangs like you'd join a country club," Kong-Wick said. "Their purpose was to bond together and be safe." She said that her brother had gotten into some trouble when he was younger, incurring the criminal convictions that spurred his initial deportation order. "Since that time, he has turned his life around," Kong-Wick said, adding that her brother had both owned up to his prior crimes and already served his sentence.

“ICE has traumatized entire communities by re-detaining people with no warning and for no legitimate reason,” Jenny Zhao said. “We demand that ICE release these Cambodian refugees and stop violating the law.”