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US Court Halts Cambodian Deportations at Last Minute

FILE - A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement badge.
FILE - A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement badge.

A district court in California has temporarily halted the deportation of scores of Cambodians who face removal after being convicted of felony crimes.

About 50 were scheduled to be sent back to Cambodia on Monday, court records show.

Most fled to the U.S. as child refugees during or after the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, but never obtained full citizenship.

In a class-action lawsuit, lawyers for the Cambodians argued that their clients would suffer "irreparable harm" if they were returned to a country which many of them barely remember. They asked for an opportunity to re-open the Cambodians' immigration cases so they can appeal the deportation orders.

"So, we're saying it violates their rights to round them up this way, and to load them up on planes before they even had any process in the courts here," Jenny Zhao, one of the attorneys in the case, told VOA.

Many of the detainees were born in refugee camps outside Cambodia after their parents fled the Khmer Rouge.

"Some of them have literally never set foot in Cambodia before," Zhao said.

Late Friday, U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney in Santa Ana, California, issued a temporary restraining order halting the deportations while their legality is reviewed.

"Given the speed with which the government intends to remove petitioners, the court finds that a temporary restraining order is necessary to stay removal until the court can give proper consideration to the complex issues presented in this action," the order stated.

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Court documents reveal that about 100 deportees have been rounded up and held in detention since October, with deportations scheduled this week. They are detained in California and Texas.

"Most of them have strong family ties to U.S. citizens," Zhao said. "They've gotten married, they've had kids, a lot of them are caretakers for their elderly parents and they have just a lot of family members who are relying on them for support."

Lawyers are hoping once there is a decision on the case, the Cambodians can be free pending the appeal of their removal orders.

Christina Soh, a spokesperson for the San Francisco-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, told The Phnom Penh Post on Sunday the restraining order "literally stopped" an airplane in Texas that was to take a group out of the U.S. permanently.

Bill Herod, founder of the Phnom Penh-based Returnee Integration Support Center, said that should the Cambodians get a chance to relitigate their cases, some of them may prevail.

"In some cases, I think there are particularly troubling legal issues involved and giving them time, giving their lawyers time, to work on those might result in a change in their status," he said.

Legal limbo

U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) has previously told VOA there are more than 1,900 Cambodian nationals residing in the United States who are subject to a final order of removal — 1,412 of whom have criminal convictions.

Although both countries negotiated a deportation agreement in 2002, Cambodia has a history of not taking its nationals back, making it a "recalcitrant" country, which has left many detainees in a legal limbo since they did not know whether they would be removed from the U.S. Since 2002, roughly 500 Cambodians have been repatriated.

Last year, the Cambodian government stopped accepting returnees on human rights grounds — sparking diplomatic tensions with Washington — but reneged in September after foreign ministry officials were placed on a list restricting them from traveling to the U.S.

The U.S.-based Southeast Asia Resource Action Center has reported that 200 Cambodians will be sent back in 2018 — by far the largest group ever in one year.

Critics of the program argue it callously separates people permanently from their families who have already paid for their crimes — sending them to a country most of them have never set foot in and know little about.

Spokespeople from Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Interior could not be reached for comment. A follow-up hearing on the restraining order is set for January 11.

"People should have a chance to rehabilitate to turn their lives around and once they have done that, our society should acknowledge that and shouldn't suddenly be punishing them once again for something that happened a long time ago," Zhao said.

VOA's Aline Barros contributed to this report.