Lawyers for an American pressure group have filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of Cambodian refugees detained in recent raids and who are awaiting deportation.
The Asian Law Caucus’ nationwide lawsuit is demanding their release.
Since early October, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have rounded up and detained more than 100 Cambodian former refugees and given them final deportation orders.
The raids have been the biggest yet to target the Cambodian community.
But the Cambodian government has not yet made a decision to accept the returnees while it and the US are discussing a 2002 memorandum of understanding covering the repatriations.
The Trump Administration issued visa sanctions against some senior Cambodian officials in September, which prompted Cambodia to offer to interview people for deportation.
Kevin Lo, an Asian Law Caucus immigration lawyer who has provided free representation to people in detention awaiting deportation, said the lawsuit was filed on Friday of last week with ICE, the Department Homeland Security and Sacramento Sheriff.
He said the lawsuit covers the 100-plus Cambodians who have been detained and almost 2,000 others that ICE could detain.
“These are people who have final orders of removal, and many were ordered to be deported long ago,” Mr Lo said.
Cambodian officials who travelled to the US to interview the 100 Cambodians began the interviews yesterday. These would go on until Friday of next week, he said.
“Almost all of them were ordered deported, detained, and then released.
“They married, had kids, worked and built their lives, and then suddenly ICE detained them again this month for deportation.”
Their crimes in the US ranged from theft to gun offences and drug possession.
“We filed this lawsuit because the raids on the Cambodian community violate US law and the constitution,” Mr Lo said.
“We want the Trump Administration to know that immigrants have constitutional rights and they cannot be arbitrarily detained by ICE for no legitimate reason.”
He said ICE had no evidence that Cambodia would accept so many people for deportation, and the agency was not even following its own procedures.
“We are demanding the Cambodian refugees be released or that they at least explain why these people are being detained without bond,” he said.
Almost all of those affected arrived in the US as infants who fled with their families in the 1970s from the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Many were born in refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines, and have never set foot in Cambodia. In the US, Cambodian refugee communities struggle with unaddressed trauma, poverty, and violence-ridden neighbourhoods.
Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said he had not yet received information about the developments.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry could not be reached for comment.
In Phnom Penh, US embassy spokesman David Josar said he had nothing to add. He referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security, however the agency did not respond to emailed questions.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan confirmed officials were interviewing the detainees but said it did not mean the country would accept them.
The government was discussing some conditions to protect the interests of deportees, he said.
“We are not yet receiving anyone while we are discussing the memorandum of understanding to ensure the rights of deportees,” he said.
Bill Herod, adviser to the Returnee Integration Support Centre, said 28 Cambodian-American refugees had been deported from the US this year, out of 566 since 2002.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has urged the US to change the agreement covering the repatriations. Cambodia wants to amend the agreement based on human rights, arguing separating convicts from their families in inhumane.