A record number of Khmer-Americans, the so-called 1.5 generation, could be deported to Cambodia – a country they have no connection with – if a last-minute appeal in the US District Court fails. Joy Yanga and Sinara Sagn report from Long Beach, California.
California’s Long Beach, in the United States, is home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia.
The Southeast Asian Resource Action Center confirmed scheduled deportations of possibly as many as 100 Khmer-American citizens by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) before Christmas, during a time when most people await the presence of family members and holiday gifts. However on December 15 a federal judge in Santa Ana issued a temporary restraining order, preventing the Christmas deportations by the ICE, with the case revisited on January 11.
The decision came after petitioners filed a last-minute application seeking a stay of removal until they had the opportunity to challenge their deportation orders.
Last fortnight, over 150 community members made it to Not Home for the Holidays – a forum on deportation and the state of Cambodian American families in the US, held at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Centre.
At the forum, Kimthai Kuoch, CEO of the Cambodian Association of America, talked about past US policies and the carpet-bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War that were responsible for the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the community.
The Cambodian Association of America, together with four other social organisations, is part of the Cambodian Advocacy Collaborative (CAC).
“Frustrated that the local narrative of Asian Americans does not reflect the unique needs of the Cambodian community, and that disaggregated data is still not available, CAC decided to conduct its own research with the California State University of Long Beach to better uplift the voices of the Cambodian community,” said Susana Sngiem, executive director of the United Cambodian Community.
A total of 220 participants were interviewed in the study and out of that number, around 50 participants shared their experiences during focus group discussions.
The study found that after 42 years of being in the diaspora, Cambodian, Lao, Hmong, Mien, Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees who were displaced, after the end of the US war on their countries, still faced higher poverty rates than the national average in the United States.
“Most families like mine, resettled to Long Beach and moved into poor neighborhoods where Southeast Asian refugee communities were vulnerable to poverty, crime, violence, racism, discrimination, and profiling, with incarceration rates higher than any other Asian ethnic group in relation to the size of the Cambodian population,” said Jocelyn Kong, a youth leader at Khmer Girls in Action.
“My aunt was impacted by this. She had to figure out how to get by on her own with these barriers in place” added Ms Kong, who is struggling to graduate from high school.
Ms Kong’s aunt is currently detained for possible deportation and this echoes the stories of the 1.5 generation refugees who arrived here as children and are now disproportionately impacted by detainment and deportation. The term 1.5 generation immigrants is used to describe people who arrived in the US as children and adolescents.
Ms Kong and her mother now care for the children, including a 10-month old daughter, that her aunt was forced to leave behind.
Results from the CAC’s community needs assessment show that half of Cambodian Americans who were surveyed show symptoms of depression which also impacts their ability to work and keep jobs. One out of five did not know how to access social support services.
Of those who were unemployed, 20 of them in the study said that mental and physical health were barriers to employment stability. Half of those unemployed were only able to find and keep their jobs for six months or less.
As the first generation of Cambodian refugees live from hand-to-mouth, their children assume adult responsibilities to keep the family together.
“It is very stressful for me to focus on school while having to work to support my parents and myself, said Alisha Sim.
Ms Sim is also a caretaker for her grandparents and her mother who suffers from four out of five chronic illnesses experienced by Cambodian refugees – PTSD, diabetes, hypertension, depression and arthritis.
“Running a lot of these errands for my family has become a challenge for me. It’s almost like a job. Because my family is my priority, there would be times I would have to miss school or reschedule my work days to make sure everyone in the family is well and also make sure they don’t miss their doctor’s appointments,” added Ms Sim.
With mounting pressure to manage her family’s health, as well as her own work and school life, Ms Sim is reminded at every holiday season of what’s missing in her family’s life. Her brother, a 1.5 generation refugee immigrant, was deported to Cambodia – a country he has no connection with.
“If our community had access to more support services my brother might still be here in the US celebrating the holidays with us,” said Ms Sim emotionally.
“Intergenerational trauma exists in our community and we need leaders to stand with us to fight for laws and policies that will uplift and give our community a chance to finally heal and thrive.”
The aftermath of deportation is a heavy burden that impact women who take on the role of supplementing their family income when the main income earner, most often males, are detained or deported.
Phal Sok, shared his 1.5 generation experience at the Not Home for the Holidays forum. He was tried as an adult for robbery at the age of 17, a time when he got expelled from school and lost his father – the only other surviving member of his family.
The passage of SB 260 revoked his over 20-year jail sentence. However, shortly after his release he was picked up by ICE and served a deportation order. SB 260 is a new law that went into effect on January 1, 2014. It gives a second chance to most people who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crime, tried as an adult and sentenced to an adult prison sentence.
Mr Sok encouraged the community to break its culture of suffering in silence and to speak out loudly against injustices. He awaits trial early next year, despite having already served his time.
“Our families help us be more comfortable, alive, happy, and powerful! Without family, we have no history and without history we lose a part of our identity. Keeping families together means keeping our community safe and strong. It makes Long Beach a place of love and empowerment!” said Khmer Girls in Action’s Ms Kong.
“ ‘Tis the season to resist, to stop deportation and fight for justice. Please help us fight to keep our families together.”
Joy Yanga is director of communications at Khmer Girls in Action in Long Beach, California, and Sinara Sagn is with the United Cambodian Community.