They came seeking sanctuary as children, refugees of Southeast Asia’s wars. Now they’re being displaced again as adults, wrested from their American families and communities as refugees of Washington’s war on immigrants.
Since the US government resettled them as a humanitarian gesture in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, eight Cambodian Americans—collectively known as the Minnesota 8 or MN8—have struggled to renew their lives in the Twin Cities’ growing refugee diaspora. Now the government threatens to turn them back to the land they fled in terror, intent on punishing past transgressions on American soil.
The MN8 are being considered for deportation because their offenses fall under an esoteric legal category known as “aggravated felonies,” a group of crimes ranging from assault to financial fraud that can trigger deportation orders even for legal resident immigrants. These legal provisions originated with the Clinton-era zero-tolerance policies of the mid-1990s, which limited judicial discretion and expanded prison sentences for even minor drug offenses, and intensified the policing of immigrant communities. In the post-9/11 climate of national-security panic under Bush and Obama, these criminalized migrants have been “prioritized” for removal by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Although the Obama administration has vowed to reprioritize deportations to target “felons, not families,” the flourishing families who have been raised by the MN8’s “felons” attest to the complex realities of immigrant communities struggling with, and overcoming, hardship, inequality and discrimination, along with historical trauma across the Southeast Asian diaspora. Activists are seeking a special reprieve from the White House before the takeover by Donald Trump, who threatens to crack down even more severely on immigrants and “border security.”
Southeast Asian–American community advocates acknowledge that the MN8, like many American youth of color during the 1990s, often struggled to build an identity in the face of economic and racial segregation, and some behaved recklessly and “did their time.” But as refugees, unlike others who survived a rough adolescence, their subsequent years as parents, workers, and activists might now be erased by a bad rap sheet.