Deported to a place they never considered home1:42 PM, July 10, 2019
Cambodia:Hundreds of Cambodian refugees who grew up in the US have been sent back, often for the most minor offenses.
Protesters gather outside the office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Fort Snelling in January 2017 to call for the release of eight Cambodian Americans in Minnesota who were scheduled for deportation to Cambodia after being convicted of crimes. (Photo by Fibonacci Blue via flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Eight years ago, Buck Billy arrived in Cambodia, a country he had never seen before. Even though it’s where his parents were born, considering the Southeast Asian nation home hadn’t crossed his mind for a single moment. For him, home was Philadelphia in the United States, at least for the first 26 years of his life.
“I was born in a refugee camp and taken to the U.S. when I was 8 months old,” he says in a café in Phnom Penh. “When I was sent to Cambodia, I had some family here, but I couldn’t adjust to their lifestyle and they couldn’t adjust to mine.”
Billy’s fate is not as unique as it may sound. Since 2002 more than 700 Cambodian refugees who grew up in the U.S. have been deported to the land that the authorities regard as theirs. Last week a new group of 37 deportees set foot on Cambodian soil, 32 of whom had lived in the U.S. for decades. Just as Billy did, they arrived in the U.S. as refugees who had fled from years of civil war, brutal violence and starvation. Many were born in refugee camps just across the border. Others were small children went they left.
While most Cambodian refugees successfully set up a new life, some ended up on the wrong side of the tracks. They committed a crime, got arrested and were convicted. For refugees who had never applied for U.S. citizenship but had been issued green cards entitling them to permanent residency, one conviction can be enough for them to be deported. Nor does the committed crime have to be serious. The possession of a small amount of marijuana, for example, can be enough to be forever exiled from the U.S.
Buck Billy doesn’t want to go into detail about how his life went off the rails. “I had a conviction but I didn’t kill anyone,” he says. “The problem is that I wasn’t a U.S. citizen. I was only a legal resident.”
Life has been tough for Billy ever since he was picked up by U.S. immigration authorities in 2010. “My mom and dad are still in the US and I have a daughter there,” he says. “She’s 8 years old and was born in December 2010 while I was in detention and waiting to be deported.”
The deportation of Cambodian refugees started in 2002 but has rapidly accelerated since the Donald Trump administration took office in January 2017. Last year there were more than 100 and this year the number could be as high as 200. According to the Khmer Vulnerability Aide Organization (KVAO), an NGO that assists Cambodian refugees exiled from the U.S., about 1,400 more are on the list for deportation. “We expect the U.S. to deport 200 refugees per year for the next five years,” said KVAO spokesman Bill Herod.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced that the recent group of deportees were “aliens who present a danger to national security or are a risk to public safety” but Herod points out that many of the exiled men and women are being punished for something they did as a teenager. “Some of them were 14 or 15 when they did something wrong,” he points out. “They have already served their time and now, 20 years later, they are being picked up and deported.”
Cambodia isn’t alone in this. Under President Trump, the deportation of refugees to other countries has also increased. Last year press agency Reuters reported that American authorities wanted to send more than 8,000 people back to Vietnam. Among them were a significant number of refugees who feared prosecution and who believed that they had found a safe haven in the U.S.
In 2008 Hanoi signed an agreement with Washington that immigrants who arrived in the U.S. between 1975 and 1995 wouldn’t be forced to return to Vietnam. Now, however, there are significant concerns that the Trump administration will force Hanoi to accept these people if American officials decide it’s necessary to send them back.
Supports new deportees
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has also criticized the deportations. According to Radio Free Asia, he said in 2017, soon after Trump took office, that the U.S. was splitting up families and that his government had to address this matter. “When they are jailed in the U.S., their families are allowed to visit them in prison but when they are deported, they are far apart from their families,” he is reported to have declared.
About three years ago, Jimmy Hiem was put on a plane to Phnom Penh with the clear message that he should never return to the United States, a country where he grew up and had lived for more than 30 years.
“You know, there are guys who should actually be deported for the things that they have done,” he says on a late afternoon near the riverside of Phnom Penh. “But there are also guys who shouldn’t be here, who only have one minor conviction that they can perhaps still appeal.”
Hiem says he was a “bad man” when he lived in the U.S. but he turned over a new leaf on his return to Cambodia. He and a few other deportees set up ZIN Adventures, a travel company that organizes tours around Phnom Penh and to Kirirom National Park. He also supports new deportees as they try to acclimatize and need all the help they can get. “I’m a dropout and now I’m trying to help people. That’s what I do,” he says.
He and Buck Billy know how difficult it is to settle into Cambodian life when you have been deported from the U.S. and are forced to leave behind your loved ones, jobs and possessions. In Cambodia, everything is different: the food, the climate, the culture. And although they grew up with Khmer parents, even the language is often a struggle.
“The worse thing is the mental pressure,” Billy tells ucanews.com “You can only deal with that if you accept what has happened, but that’s very difficult. For example, when I’m hungry I can’t go to my mom’s house to get something to eat. Those things are the worst.”
After being back for eight years, Billy has also found his path in life. He has set up his own clothing brand, is involved with Hiem in ZIN Adventures and has finally accepted his new reality.
“I don’t think I will ever fit in here in Cambodia,” he says defiantly. “But I don’t care about it anymore. I have set my own course. Now they need to fit in with me.”
© Ucan India 2019. All rights reserved.