No Second Chance for Troubled Youth
SAN FRANCISCO, 28 May
Kew Chea's college graduation party was also to celebrate the release of her older brother from prison.
"I had made music and a slideshow, and I invited everybody," recalled Chea. "Two months before the party and release, we found out he would be deported. My family had no clue what deportation was at the time."
Chea's family had fled Cambodia as political refugees in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge regime. She was not yet one, and her brother was four when they arrived in the United States in 1981.
As U.S. legislators discuss the latest immigration proposal, called the STRIVE Act, immigrants rights advocates are closely considering the proposed bill's impact on family reunification policies. However, immigration policies enacted in 1996 which have led to the imminent deportation of thousands of Southeast Asians are not addressed in the bill.
Chea's brother's story is similar to that of many refugee children adjusting to life in a new country.
Their parents opened a convenience store and worked long hours to support the family, but had little time to watch over them. He got caught up with bad friends and landed himself in some trouble. When he turned 18, Chea's brother, along with four friends, were arrested for a crime they committed while still juveniles.
Due to bad legal advice, he was tried as an adult. His friends were sentenced to two to three years in the California Youth Authority, while he received triple the sentence in the state penitentiary.
His family believed that after he served his time, he would eventually return home as a free man. But, in 1996, immigration laws took effect that allowed non-citizens who were convicted of crimes labeled as "aggravated felonies" to be deported.
"My brother had a Green Card [residency permit], and we were political refugees escaping a country the United States recognised as a country of persecution...and they embraced us as part of their resettlement programme, so it was unbelievable to us that they would send us back to this very country that they knew we were escaping from," she said.
Previously, permanent residents convicted of a crime and facing deportation would be entitled to a fair hearing before a judge. In 1990, the aggravated felony category was created, and the law said those convicted of such crimes and who served five years in prison would not be allowed to have a hearing. The 1996 law lowered the bar even further, according to Joren Lyons, a staff attorney with Asian Law Caucus.
"Let's say I steal a computer. I'm convicted of misdemeanor theft, given a suspended one-year jail sentence, ordered to serve 30 days in jail, and the rest of my jail sentence is suspended," he said. "From a criminal standpoint, I only have to serve 30 days in jail, but from an immigration standpoint, I have now become an aggravated felon."
Lyons said, in these cases, the judge does not have to weigh extenuating circumstances.
"Regardless of how long how long I've lived in the U.S., whether I'm married to U.S. citizen, have U.S. citizen children, have a good work history, no prior criminal history -- none of these things matter. The only thing I can discuss with the immigration judge is whether I'm likely to be severely harmed in the country that the U.S. government is going to deport me to. I can't talk about whether I'm sorry for what I did, apologise to the computer owner or pay restitution, none of that matters," he said.
And the law applies retroactively, taking into account criminal convictions before 1996, even if the sentences have already been served in full.
Chea says her brother was picked up by immigration officials upon his release from prison and shipped to Arizona, even though there were detention facilities nearby.
"For the next three years, they told us that my brother would be deported in the next month, they told us this for 36 months. Each day my brother started to lose hope. He started thinking he might spend the rest of his life in detention," said Chea.
She described situations her brother encountered while under detention: "It seemed like so many times they had forgotten about him. They didn't know who he was. His identity was mistaken twice. He was picked him up from a detention centre in Los Angeles, and they flew him out to North Carolina and then to Texas saying he would be deported to Cambodia in the next couple of days."
"They prepared him for it, and two hours before his flight to Cambodia, they woke him up in the middle of the night...the day before Thanksgiving, and said 'sorry, we have the wrong guy' and this is three states later," she said.
In 2001, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a non-citizen who is ordered deported could not be detained beyond 180 days if his or her home country does not accept deportees. Lyons says the Strive Act has a provision that allows for indefinite detention.
"This bill would authorise the Department of Homeland Security to keep people in indefinite detention under certain circumstances," said Lyons. "What's disturbing about this is that these are people who have served full sentence for criminal conviction, but held under civil detention for years and years and years...because of a political dispute between their country of birth or citizenship and the U.S."
When Chea's brother signed his deportation order, the U.S. had no repatriation agreement with Cambodia. Several months later, however, in 2002, the countries signed one. Currently, 14-hundred Cambodian Americans are under deportation order. One hundred and twenty-six have already been deported, including Chea's brother who was deported in August of 2004.
She has visited her brother twice in Cambodia and says the law affects deportees and their children, spouses and parents in the United States.
"There are few that have jobs, those with college degrees can't find jobs, it's a struggling country...a lot of guys have the stigma, U.S. has kicked back, nobody wants them, U.S. threatened economic aid and travel visas," said Chea.
"The Cambodian government doesn't want them, the civilians are afraid of them, it's really hard for them to survive. A lot of guys who were sent back are breadwinners -- they supported mothers, fathers, and wives and children. When they're deported, their wives pick up the work, often times working two jobs, raising their children, taking care of parents and sending money back to Cambodia to make sure their husbands survive in Cambodia."
Immigrants' rights advocates, like Chea, want due process restored in deportation cases and re-entry for those who have already been deported. As a public interest attorney, she says she still has faith in the legal system, but she says it has robbed her of her innocence and her brother of his life.
"My brother made a mistake as a kid, but he never had a second chance and he tried to prove it in so many ways that he was a changed individual and ready to start his life again and yet they never gave him the opportunity," said Chea.
"No judge heard his situation, nobody knew what his circumstances were. They didn't think about the fact that he came here when he was four years sold, he doesn't speak Cambodian, doesn't know what a Cambode even looks like. He has no memory and in every sense of the way, aside from the way he looks and the fact he was born in Cambodia, he's not Cambodian, he's an American...and everything he knows is American culture that he's been raised under. What we've created is an American kid and they sent him back.."
*This article is part one of a two-part series on the impact of U.S. deportation policies on the South Asian immigrant community. Part two appears on May 29.