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Cambodian-Born US Man Deported Back to Country He Doesn't Remember

Kosal Chhim, who was deported back to Cambodia this week, with his wife, Sanghear Prak.
Kosal Chhim, who was deported back to Cambodia this week, with his wife, Sanghear Prak.

A 42-year-old man who spent most of his life in the United States has been deported back to his native Cambodia.

His family says Kosal Chhim left Cambodia as an infant and spent a few years in Thailand and the Philippines before arriving in the United States as a pre-schooler.

Chimm's family had been fighting the deportation order. The Virginia man was detained last year and his planned December deportation was postponed.

Chhim was sentenced to five years in prison in 2001 for domestic violence. He was arrested more than 16 years later by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers while leaving home to go to work on Oct. 2 last year.

President Donald Trump came into office on an anti-immigration platform. During his first year in office, more than 155,000 undocumented immigrants were arrested, an increase of more than 170 percent.

About 70 Cambodian-Americans who had prior criminal records for felony crimes were due to be deported along with Chhim in December, but the California court order halted the process.

In a class-action lawsuit filed by civil rights advocates in November last year, lawyers for the Cambodians argued that their clients would suffer "irreparable harm" if they were returned to Cambodia and asked for an opportunity to re-open the Cambodians' immigration cases so they can appeal the deportation orders.

Kosal Chhim's wife, Sanghear Prak, with their daughter.
Kosal Chhim's wife, Sanghear Prak, with their daughter.

Chhim came to the United States with his parents, sister and brother in 1983, but never became a US citizen. He purchased a home in Stafford, Virginia, two years ago and brought his extended family to live with him.

“If my son is deported, it would be really hard for me,” Mouy Krouch, Chhim’s mother, told VOA before her son was returned to Cambodia. “I have only this son to take care of me. My husband has died.”

Krouch says she suffers from myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease, and requires regular support.

“I cannot speak clearly,” said Krouch. “My tongue is stiff. I cannot swallow much food. From time to time, I have to be tube fed.”

Chhim was being held at the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia before his deportation. He arrived back in Cambodia on April 5.

“It’s been really hard without him,” said Kim Sor, Chhim's sister-in-law, while he was still being detained in Virginia. “This is going to be really hard. I don’t know how everybody’s going to move on from that. We can try, but we do need him here, especially the kids, and the house. He takes care of the house.”

Kosal Chhim is being held at this detention center in Farmville, Virginia.
Kosal Chhim is being held at this detention center in Farmville, Virginia.

Chhim worked as an air conditioning technician and has a 2-year-old daughter with his wife, Sanghear Prak, as well as two other children with two previous partners.

Prak says that, since his release from jail in 2007, Chhim hasn't committed any other offenses.

"He never hurt me,” said Prak. “When I was in Boston for several years until I graduated, he helped me. He worked. We were not together. I was in Boston and he was in Virginia. He gave me some money. He never mistreated me since we’ve been together. He is not a bad person."

Neighbors had also petitioned Senator Mark Warner’s office for support.

“He has shown us and everyone, all of our neighbor's great compassion and friendship,” Ellie Conley, a neighbor, said before Chhim was returned to Cambodia. “He supported his family. He loves his wife and his daughter and his family. We would be disappointed if he could not come home.”

Kosal Chhim's wife, Sanghear Prak, with his mother, Mouy Krouch at their Stafford, Virginia home.
Kosal Chhim's wife, Sanghear Prak, with his mother, Mouy Krouch at their Stafford, Virginia home.

Another neighbor, Jeri Stephens, said Chhim once offered to mow her lawn.

“Well, I think we’ll be losing a good citizen,” said Stephens. “Someone that’s willing to come in and abide by community standards or by the constitution of our country. It will be a loss for us. And for his family to have to go through what they are going through is really hard for me to understand how they can survive it.”

Across the United States, there are nearly 2,000 Cambodian refugees facing deportation. Since Cambodia signed an agreement with the US in 2002, more than 500 of them have been removed, according to rights activists.

Prak sees being sent back to Cambodia as a “life sentence” for Chhim since he is unfamiliar with his native country.

“If a person changed [after] they committed a crime and they grew from it and they are rehabilitated into the society and everybody loves him and respects him and he hasn’t done anything else wrong, then he deserves a second chance,” said Prak. “And everybody who is in that situation deserves a second chance as well, not just my husband.”


Family Fights Deportation of Cambodian-Born US Man
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Before her husband was deported, Prak said she would follow him to Cambodia if it came to that.

"If he is sent to Cambodia, I and my kid will follow him,” she said. “We do not want to break up the family."

But his mother says she would not be able to return to Cambodia because of her health condition.

"My health does not allow me to live there,” she said. “Where can I find treatment there? I survive on medicine. Without medicine, I cannot eat anything.”

This story originated with VOA's Khmer Service.