In 2011, KC Chhan was walking along the riverfront in Phnom Penh with her family. She lives in Fresno, California, and fled Cambodia as a child refugee. The trip back was already an emotional one, but then KC was approached by a man asking for food.
“He said he was from Stockton,” a Northern California city just a few hours from Fresno. He told her he’d been deported, KC said. “And he got teary-eyed—he told us that for people who have been deported, it’s not easy here.”
Many Cambodian deportees grew up during the chaos and terror of the Khmer Rouge and were born in refugee camps, and so have neither set foot in Cambodia nor speak Khmer. Many struggle to find stable work and mental-health care. “Some have committed suicide,” KC said the man told her.
There are soon to be many more joining the man KC met. On April 5, 43 Cambodian Americans with a one-way ticket from the United States landed in Phnom Penh. The flight held the largest group of deportees the US had repatriated to the Southeast Asian country since the nations signed a memorandum of understanding in 2002.
After years of accepting only a handful of deportees a year, the Cambodian government signaled in late 2017 that it would begin accepting more. The Trump administration responded by rounding up people with deportation orders in the Cambodian community, which in the US is largely made up of refugees who immigrated in the 1970s and 1980s. As President Trump amps up the pressure to remove every deportable non-citizen from the US, even longtime residents and those who came to the States as child refugees have become targets.
“When he was telling me his story,” KC said of that river walk, “it reminded me of my brother. I was thinking—this would be the life for him if he were to be deported.”
When Sokha Chhan, KC’s older brother, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last October, he was not surprised. The US had been trying to deport Sokha since early 2008, after he was convicted of two misdemeanors for a domestic-violence incident in 2002. Sokha had heard that ICE had picked up others in the Cambodian community, and so when he received a phone call summoning him to his local ICE office, he figured his time in the US was up.