Chhan Chhoeuth is waiting to be deported to Cambodia by US immigration authorities in Washington state, one of an increasing number of Cambodian-Americans being sent back after committing crimes in America.
The 33-year-old was convicted in 2000 of aggravated assault in a domestic dispute and served 12 months in prison, according to documents provided by his family. After his release, Chhan Chhoeuth had to report to a probation officer every month. It was on one of these visits he learned he would be deported.
Earlier this year, he was detained by immigration authorities who said they had documentation to deport him, according to his girlfriend, Dork Roeung.
“Chhoeuth, he hasn’t received an answer when the exact date for him to be deported is,” she said. “He wants to have an answer whether they will send him back. If they don’t send him, please let him come out.”
If he is deported, she said, she will be visiting him.
“You know, I need to meet him, to see what his situation is over there,” she said. “And then early next year, I will visit him again.”
Chhan Chhoeuth and others like him have been sent back under a 2002 agreement between Cambodian and the US, to send back Cambodians convicted of aggravated felonies or through direct court order. More than 200 have been sent so far, with varying results.
But families of deportees have expressed concerns that they don’t know the culture, traditions, politics and, in some cases, language of Cambodia. They fear their relatives will meet trouble after being expelled from the US.
Human rights monitors, meanwhile, have criticized the practice as inhumane, saying it breaks families apart, separating husbands and wives, parents and children.
Chhan Chhoeuth’s 61-year-old mother, Chhan Ya, does not have a plan to ever visit her son once he is returned to Cambodia.
“May the world please help me,” she said, weeping, in a recent interview with VOA Khmer. “There is no mother who wants to live apart from her own children.”
Chan Ya lost three of her six children to the Khmer Rouge, before fleeing to the US in 1986, after living in the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp on the Thai border. Disabled when she came to the US and undergoing continuous treatment there, she said, she has no money left to travel.
“This is the end of life,” she said.
The Returnee Integration Support Program in Cambodia, or Risp, helps people like Chhan Chhoeuth adjust to life in Cambodia. He will be one of 25 deportees the organization is preparing for, the organization’s program manager, Kloeung Aun, said.
Since June 2002, 212 deportees have been sent from the US, according to Risp. Many do not have goals when they arrive, and though some have fair living conditions, others struggle. Some sink into depression.
Kloeung Aun said the US should not sent anyone with mental problems. “Honestly, we don’t have the medical treatment centers in Cambodia,” he said.
Some find work, in hotel reception, as security guards, or running small businesses. Others, many of them in Battambang province, are farming.
Battambang Governor Prach Chan said the community has accepted the deportees.
“As you know, our Khmer people all over the place always welcome those returnees to integrate with Cambodian society,” he said.
Lt. Gen. Khieu Sopheak, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said the constitution provides citizenship for Cambodians, no matter where they are from. Many of the deportees are doing well, he said.
"So far, some have changed a lot,” he said. “Some are becoming famous. Some have become English teachers and actors.”
Some, however, have not changed.
“They’ve committed some bad things,” Khieu Sopheak said. “They could have a bad future if they continue doing like this. As you know, some are still using drugs. But our authorities have educated and advise them already. Most of them are good.”
Cambodia offers the deportees a chance for freedom and employment, he said. “If they want to live in Cambodia, they can live here. If they don’t, they can go somewhere else, as they want. This is their right and their freedom. But their homeland is welcoming them first.”
Welcoming or not, many deportees experience a social shock when they arrive, said Keat Chantharith, a spokesman for the national police.
“There are difficulties for them as well,” he said. “Most of them do not have relatives here, because all their relatives and parents are in the US. Secondly, they were raised in America, so they are American. So when they come to Cambodia, it is difficult for them, because they meet a different culture. As you know, the social atmosphere is different.”
Advocates for more rights of immigrants say most deportees sent back to Cambodia have already struggled most of their lives. Many have lived in the US since they were children, after fleeing the Khmer Rouge with their parents after living in refugee camps.
When they came to the US, their parents did not speak, read or write English, and lacked a basic understanding of US immigration procedures. They lived in poor conditions, and may parents thought they had achieved legal residence.
Seng Theary, a member of the American Bar Association and former director of the Center for Social Development, was an advocate on the deportation issue and has continued to criticize US immigration law.
“We see this deportation procedure as immoral and unjust,” she said. “They should not send them back when they don’t think Cambodia is their country. We know that any country can create such a law, but this kind of law contradicts morality and justice.”
One flaw, she said, is a retroactive component of the policy, which gives authorities the power to deport a person who committed a felony both before and after 1996, when the US amended its immigration law.
“It is not fair for them,” she said. “This law contradicts the creation of other laws.”
A senior Cambodian official said Cambodians are protected by the constitution if they have not changed their citizenship, whether they live at home or abroad.
Critics say the deportation policy is an unfair application of the law, providing a bias for “green card” holders.
“I’d like to think that we are a fair country,” said Helly Lee, a policy director of the Washington-based South East Asia Resource Action Center. “And we want to be fair in that way, you know, so that the punishment for their crimes is proportional or fair. Not that you are getting punished just because you are a green card holder and not a citizen.”
Deportation laws are also applied differently in each US state. Some deport immigrants after two or three convictions. Others send convicted criminals back after their first offense.