The Quiet Campaign to Break Up Cambodian Refugee Families

by Project Censored
Published: Last Updated on

By Angel Ryono

During post-9/11’s heightened anti-immigration culture, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) makes rampant arrests, detaining and deporting documented AND undocumented immigrants in the hundreds of thousands. Swept up in this deportation chaos are Cambodian refugees immigrants. Cambodians were promised resettlement by the 1975 Congressional Act to provide permanent homes for displaced people from the U.S.-Vietnam War, which affected populations in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. As of 2004, 1,500 Cambodian permanent residents face deportation. In 2009, 212 refugees have been deported. Only a very small handful of grassroots groups, such as the One Love Movement, have taken the initiative to advocate for deportees and their families. This article reviews the history of immigration in the U.S., discusses how ICE makes drastic departures from the rule of law, and provides key facts about U.S. involvement in the Indochina War, which directly contributed to the displacement of Cambodian civilians 30 years ago.

It is worthwhile to begin the discussion about how current U.S. immigration policies are impacting the Cambodian refugee community by broadening the perspective and revisiting pertinent segments of U.S. history. European immigrants who settled in colonial America looked to escape the oppressive religious institutions in Europe and find opportunities for economic security in the new frontier. Early settlers sought to do all of this while keeping their families intact. Colonial Americans were considered by the dominant class in Europe to be political, religious, and economic minorities (some were politically radical). These marginalized communities found a haven in North America and fought for independence to preserve their new, secured lives.

In the late 1800’s, a poem, “The New Colossus,” was stamped on the Statue of Liberty and further shaped the consciousness of citizens and immigrants alike. The poem effectively assigned lady liberty the additional role of greeting new Americans and presented the United States as a home for future immigrants. For the author, Emma Lazarus, the poem conveyed a more specific message—she envisioned America as a refuge for those who were persecuted or forcibly displaced. Understanding this part of history presents a view that is ultimately at odds with the evolution of U.S. immigration legislation, especially today’s blanketed and hostile attitude towards all immigrants. Those who are familiar with U.S. labor history and global migration issues understand that economic and foreign relation concerns largely underpin changes in immigration law. However, what is expressed in immigration restrictions and enforcement policies is a psychological acting out, in the form of discrimination on racial, political and religious grounds. Since the 1700’s, laws restricting immigration are replete with pathologically racist language. Finally, the current U.S. anti-immigration culture is monolithic:
a) Political leaders and mainstream America show an unwillingness to discern between different immigrant groups as well as the specific motivations leading to immigration,
b) Current policies willfully neglect refugee immigrants who were guaranteed, by past legislative acts, resettlement in the United States, and
c) Mainstream America is unaware or unconcerned about how U.S. military and corporate actions deeply impact countries where U.S. immigrants come from as well as their boomerang effects on the U.S. economy.

Today’s policies and dominant language suggest that the gates to the United States are not simply shutting, but we are aggressively ejecting human beings over our gates. Our current federal government, as well as state governments such as Arizona’s, has initiated a dragnet, which violate both domestic and international laws—eroding fundamental protections afforded by constitutional law, procedural law, international treaties regarding refugee protection, and human rights principles. All this is done in service of Americans’ growing economic insecurity, converted into hatred, which target immigrants entering from our southern border. The current immigration enforcement agency (ICE) is an outgrowth of Homeland Security, not Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS). It promises to be tough on “criminal aliens” partly by conjuring American fear of terrorist violence and expands the function of the national biometric database. What Americans don’t know about ICE is that while it imposes cooperation from state law enforcement institutions, it carries out a nation-wide deportation project by treating immigrants (criminal and non-criminal) different from what we would expect from our local criminal justice system. The Leitner Center for International Law and Justice presents cases in which permanent residents can—after serving time for past crimes and deemed eligible to return to their community—be detained, released, and re-arrested for deportation by ICE without fair judicial review of the person’s current conduct. These cases reveal that ICE makes significant breaches in a first world country that reputedly respects the rule of law. ICE deportation makes drastic departures from our system of justice such as removing judicial review, violating the prohibition of double jeopardy and applying deportation policies retroactively. These actions amount to a disturbingly backwards movement in our justice system. It is important to remember that part of the standard for respecting the rule of law insists that laws are applied consistently and justly.

A more worrisome issue relates to the fact that the deportation project is sweeping up the once displaced and still vulnerable Cambodian refugee immigrants. Cambodian immigrants were promised refuge by 1975 and 1980 Congressional Acts to permanently resettle Southeast Asians in aftermath of the Second Indochina War. Furthermore, what mainstream media does not adequately discuss is U.S. involvement in destabilizing countries, such as Cambodia, neighboring Vietnam. Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan produced a report, which states that U.S. military dropped six million tons of bombs in Indochina (Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) in a period of nine years. Former President Clinton’s order, nearly three decades later, to declassify all U.S. Air Force data with regards the 1964-1975 period in Southeast Asia reveals that aerial “bombardment started three-and-a-half years earlier…under the Johnson administration” and carried on during Nixon’s presidency. From drowning Cambodia in bombs to aiding the overthrow of former Prime Minister, Norodom Sihanouk, the United States played a crucial role in forcing Cambodians to abandon their neutral position in the U.S.-Vietnam War, and the United States helped to usher the victory of the genocidal Khmer Rouge Regime. With this information, it is clear that the 1975 and 1980 legislative actions were not simply generous humanitarian gestures—they were attempts to ameliorate the devastating outcomes of U.S.-power plays in regional politics of Southeast Asia.

A combination of abundant scholarship, few popular media, and an untold number of personal stories can shed light on the Cambodian refugee resettlement experience. All too soon after the 1975 legislation, due to the rising economic concerns during the 1980s recession, U.S. government revised resettlement policies, spreading the hundreds of thousands of Cambodian immigrants over smaller and more remote U.S. cities. Federal funding also dropped significantly, which is necessary to assist a group of people who suffer poor comprehensive health from surviving years of wars, genocide, and displacement, and lack adequate education as violent conflicts in Cambodia disrupted and destroyed basic institutions for educational and social welfare. The practice of “scattering” refugee immigrants continues today with other refugee communities such as the Burmese. The result is that vulnerable refugee groups are isolated and forced to relocate, often moving three or more times within the first years in the United States. Without an effective social network, refugee immigrants are faced with a variety of challenges in accessing institutional support.

Unfortunately, Cambodian families were resettled in under-resourced communities, “riddled with crime and poverty.” Only recently, in the fall of 2011, Khmer Girls in Action, a grassroots non-profit in Long Beach, California released an in-depth case report by compiling statistical information from the U.S. Census Bureau and other census analyses, collecting original survey data, and bridging the disparities in information about the progress of Cambodian resettlement process. It can be concluded from the insights in this well-researched publication that decades after the United States government contributed to destabilizing the Cambodian government and displacing Cambodians, it has ultimately failed to provide adequate care for survivors of regional wars and genocide as well as their children. As of 2004, 1,500 Cambodian refugees (mostly in their late 20s, 30s, and early 40s) await deportation decisions from ICE. Most are permanent residents, not undocumented immigrants. Most have little or no memories of Cambodia as their early childhood was spent in transition out of conflict or waiting and desperately hoping to leave the dehumanizing conditions in Thai refugee camps. Many will find life difficult in Cambodia, as they are not sufficiently literate in Khmer, the Cambodian language. All are victims to the quiet campaign to break up refugee families in the United States.

Angel Ryono is a graduate of Saybrook University. Her M.A. research
focused on local and grassroots capacities for reconciliation and
peacebuilding in Cambodia. She has co-authored two chapters in Peace
Movements Worldwide (ABC-CLIO, 2011) and authored a chapter in
Peacebuilding and Subjectivities of Peace: History, Memory, and
Politics (Routledge, forthcoming in 2012). She served as the
development manager forth Virtual Tribunal Project for the Khmer Rouge
Tribunal. She is currently researching identity issues and challenges
to community development with regards to Diaspora Cambodians.

Notes and Relevant Websites

Foreign relation concerns impacting immigration law

An MIT Study: “Understanding Anti-immigrant Sentiment”

Former Governor of Michigan’s testimony about corporations effects on
America’s local economies

Leitner Center for International Law and Justice – Comprehensive
report on the deportation of refugee immigrants in the U.S.

Khmer Girls in Action Case Report on the Progress of Cambodian
Resettlement in Long Beach

Numbers of Cambodian Refugees facing deportation

Citizen Orange

One Love Movement

Lost in Detention (PBS Frontline Documentary and Expose)

Washington Post – Setting the Quota to increase deportations