Sear Un’s early life was filled with one bad turn after another—a turbulent youth as a migrant in California, an impulsive crime that landed him behind bars, a post-prison battle with addiction. Since then the Cambodian-born refugee has been working hard to turn his life around with sobriety, a steady job and a young family. But last fall the Trump administration put his whole life in reverse, ordering him to return to the country he escaped decades ago in the midst of war.
Then another unexpected twist came on Christmas Eve: an 11th-hour pardon by Governor Jerry Brown that rescued him from deportation. The one-page letter granting clemency for a burglary conviction from 1997 affirmed that Un—who migrated to the United States at age 7—had redeemed himself by living “an upright and honest life” and demonstrating “good moral character.” And the clemency helped spare Un the fate that now looms over hundreds of other Southeast Asian refugees who could be uprooted after spending most of their lives in the US, because of criminal convictions dating back decades.
Un’s fellow refugee Chhay Bun Kim was also among the last-minute spate of pardons issued as Brown closes his term. A Cambodian-born US resident since age 5, Chhay was imprisoned in 1999 for assault. Like Un, he had a pending deportation order after his release in 2002, but the legal challenge that led to his clemency had prevented his removal, based in part on a statement of support from his employer and his record as a “devoted father, husband and friend who put others before himself.”
As Trump closes the borders and detains migrants en masse, many refugees wonder if they will be next. As of September, ICE reported that an estimated 1,900 Cambodian immigrants have pending deportation orders. About 1,400 have criminal conviction, and the rest are undocumented for other reasons. In many cases, the refugees had put their past transgressions behind them only to have their cases dredged up by Trump’s anti-migrant crusade. The deportation drive, advocates argue, violates humanitarian and constitutional principles and plunges already vulnerable communities into crisis.
Un’s legal testimony, presented in court by advocates with Asian Law Caucus, details his rough upbringing, impoverished and culturally dislocated in San Diego: “We lived in a bad neighborhood, and people harassed us in the streets and at school for being different. Like many Cambodian refugees, we were very poor and relied on welfare.” Struggling in school and socially alienated, he recalled, “I helped take care of my brothers, and we relied on each other.”
In the late 1990s, Un was entangled in an ill-planned burglary with friends and eventually pleaded guilty in court, hoping to help his friend avoid a “second strike” on his record for a repeat offense. He was slapped with a deportation order upon release from state prison in 1999. But the 41-year-old has worked toward stability over the past 14 years, staying clean with a sobriety group and raising two children, with a wife (now again pregnant) who is struggling with medical problems. For years he had been checking in with routine meetings with immigration authorities. But last September, he was unexpectedly wrenched from his community and detained.
Both Un and Chhay had been trying to get on with their lives, after serving their time to pay back what was supposed to be their debt to society. But the Trump administration suddenly has other ideas about what they “owe” to the country, after years spent raising their families and contributing to their communities in their adopted homeland. While the public spotlight has focused on the Trump administration’s ruthless border wars against Central American migrants, Homeland Security is simultaneously exploiting a less-publicized backdoor to deportation, moving to deport Southeast Asian refugees with criminal convictions that are considered “deportable offenses.” A total of 16,000 Southeast Asian refugees have been deported since the mid-1990s, under rigid anti-crime provisions embedded in the Clinton-era Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
Deportations are now accelerating under Trump. Although Cambodia’s repatriation arrangement with the United States has allowed some 500 refugee deportations since first enacted in 2002, ALC attorney Kevin Lo says via e-mail that the administration anticipates deporting roughly 200 refugees annually, ultimately expelling all 1,900 of those with pending deportation orders over ten years.
Although many refugees secured a delay in the processing of final removal orders last winter, about 110 were repatriated in fiscal year 2018. Last spring, about 43 Cambodian refugees were sent “back” from California. Around the same time, 33-year-old Phorn Tem of Sacramento was deported and then allowed to return six months later, after his conviction for pot possession was overturned. A Superior Court judge invalidated his conviction on the grounds that Tem had not been properly informed of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty.
Other refugees might be able to avoid deportation by claiming due-process violations, or citing recent legal reforms that led to a reclassification of the underlying offenses to less-serious crimes. According to Lo, pardons from a governor can push forward the refugees’ cases, but it “ultimately is up to the immigration judge to decide whether or not to reopen the case.” (Chhay’s deportation order was terminated prior to the pardon; Un is currently pushing to have his deportation formally canceled).
Many of the refugees now facing deportation grew up in the United States, have no memory of Cambodia, and do not even speak Khmer. And in many cases family members have either long fled Cambodia or perished in the genocide.
While Governor Brown granted several of the 11 clemency requests that ALC and other attorneys helped file, those still threatened with immediate removal are racing against time, Lo says: “ICE is raiding the Cambodian community every four months now, and we typically only have a few weeks to work with the detainees before they are in transit to interview for travel documents.” Advocates also stress that resettled refugees face especially high barriers to justice, as they wrestle with poverty, cultural and language barriers, and a legacy of intergenerational social trauma. Lo warns that many families may be “unable to afford a lawyer to evaluate their case,” and as ICE ramps up its raids nationwide, “there are undoubtedly people who should not be deported getting on the plane and leaving their families behind.”
For Un’s family, which has collectively braved imperialism, genocide, and now Trump’s border war, the Christmas pardon barely saved his family from being torn apart. But the Trump administration’s grim holiday message still haunts countless other refugees: The United States is no longer a country of sanctuary for migrants, but a land of permanent unsettlement.