An abduction is the forcible removal of an individual against their will. Abductions can happen, stealthily, in the night. An abduction could be what Jason Nam* encountered at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, the night of October 16. Nam had been released directly into ICE custody after serving 20 years in the Washington Department of Corrections. Given a few days notice that he would be transferred to another facility to proceed with his deportation to Cambodia, Nam packed his bags hastily and spent the night in a crowded holding cell. He was ready to be shipped off at a moment’s notice.
At other times, an abduction can begin as something out of the ordinary, a break in routine. Like a surprise letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with an earlier check-in date expected, at a new location. ICE check-ins are routine meetings between someone who has signed an order of deportation—a legal document stating that the United States can deport them—with his or her deportation officer. Signing an order of deportation does not automatically mean one is deported; there are many possible mitigating circumstances, like political instability in one’s country of origin. A person can go to ICE check-ins for years. In Long Beach, Nak Kim Chhouen had been checking in for 14 years when he received a letter telling him to check in early. Across the country in Pensacola, Florida, so too did Chhon Ivy. Two Cambodian-American men in two distant cities, both out of prison for more than a decade, both fearful that this early check-in heralded their impending deportation. Both men had meals with their families the night before; both told their loved ones they are the ones who keep them alive. The next day, Chhon in Pensacola walked out of his check-in, heaving a huge sigh of relief, till the next time. Nak from Long Beach was not so fortunate. He texted his cousin, Posda Tho, who had accompanied him to the check-in, that he would not be returning. That day, he was transferred to the Theo Lacy detention center in Orange County, California.
At other times, an abduction can look like an ICE officer appearing at your house in the morning, just when you are getting ready to go to work—an unexpected intrusion. Everything happens too fast and you can’t say goodbye to your 3-year-old child, your wife, and the rest of your family. Your sister, a counselor at the public high school, is walking her 7-year-old daughter to the bus, sending her off to school in the morning. She finds out about your, her brother’s abduction, through a frenzied phone call from your wife. She holds back her tears and tries not to break down in front of her child.
Three of these four men will likely meet in Jena, Louisiana, this week, at the LaSalle detention center owned by the private corrections company GEO Group. There they will join more than 100 Cambodian Americans, both men and women, who await interviews with the visiting Cambodian consulate. The majority of these individuals have been apprehended as part of ICE’s expanding Criminal Alien Program. The program relies on a legal category of “aggravated felons,” created within immigration law in 1988, and encompassing poeple with criminal histories that may not constitute felonies under criminal law. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act further limited the judicial discretion of immigration judges when it comes to deciding whether documented immigrants and refugees with criminal histories should be deported. Ironically, this set of draconian immigration laws was passed in response to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, where 168 lives were taken by domestic terrorists, most notably Timothy McVeigh. People of color, specifically immigrants and refugees, became the targets of repression in response to white terror.