Obama Deports Refugee Survivors of Cambodian Genocide
Survivors of the Cambodian genocide who came to the U.S. as child refugees are now being deported by the Obama administration for crimes committed in the U.S. years ago. These refugees are longtime permanent residents who have reintegrated into their Philadelphia communities after release from prison. Many have U.S. citizen wives and children. Some have started small businesses. The Obama administration has the discretion to exercise lenience in cases of compelling humanitarian or family interest like these, but is more interested in appearing tough on immigration ahead of the elections.
A group of the refugees' family members and supporters confronted President Obama on his visit to northwest Philadelphia on Sunday, spelling out the message "STOP DEPORTING REFUGEES" to his motorcade as it passed by on the way to a rally in support of Democratic candidates in Pennsylvania.
Holly Otterbein recently wrote in the Philadelphia City Paper about the deportations that are tearing the city's Cambodian community apart. These deportations stem from a bipartisan law passed in 1996, the most anti-immigrant federal legislation since Congress slammed shut the doors to Ellis Island in 1924 in a fit of anti-Semitic, anti-Italian panic. Otterbein writes:
[I]n 1996, Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility [IIRIRA] and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty acts, which made deportation mandatory for any immigrant who commits an "aggravated felony," an opaque term that includes everything from non-violent drug offenses to tax evasion. (Prior to '96, refugees and other legal immigrants were deportable only if they committed a crime with a sentence of five years or more.) The laws also rendered non-citizen immigrants ineligible for both forgiveness and individual consideration before the court, effectively disintegrating their right to due process.
But these Cambodian refugees have been living in the community for years now--one of the men profiled in the article, Mout Iv, finished his prison sentence in 2004 and has since opened a popular barbershop in North Philly. The government has not yet explained to the community why now is the time to deport these refugees back to the country where their families were murdered, leaving advocates to speculate about the Obama administration's motives.
"There used to be a small trickle of deportations each year. I haven't seen Cambodians getting rounded up in these substantial numbers until now," says Steve Morley, Iv's lawyer. "My guess is the current administration thinks it can sell immigration reform if it shows it can be aggressive in other areas, like deporting criminals."
Perhaps, given the volatility of the immigration debate, the administration feels politically vulnerable if it doesn't demonstrate to critics in Congress and the media its toughness on "criminal aliens." That would explain DHS Secretary Napolitano's recent announcement that this administration is deporting more people--nearly 400,000 this year--than any other administration ever has. DHS touts the high numbers of "criminal aliens" being detained and deported, but in addition to refugees who came to the U.S. as children, those "criminal aliens" include people who committed low-level offenses like shoplifting, DUI, driving without a license, simple assault, marijuana possession, and other offenses that often don't involve jail time. Many in the "criminal alien" category include people who re-crossed the border to be with their families or to work to support them. The government is not eager to explain these distinctions to the public, preferring instead to tally up as many "criminal aliens" as possible without mentioning the underlying crimes.
Refugees have historically been admitted to the U.S. to help achieve foreign policy objectives. This was likely the case of Cambodians admitted to the U.S. after the genocide of the late 1970s to highlight the evils of communism and perhaps to allay U.S. guilt for helping destroy Southeast Asia. The shallowness of the government's commitment to those human beings who came here for refuge can be seen now, when some of those refugee children who've grown up in the U.S. have become a political football again, this time to help convince conservatives of President Obama's immigration bona fides. The Cambodian refugees who escaped Pol Pot's genocide as children have now become political casualties of the Democratic leadership's ongoing quest for approval from nativists in Congress and the media.
The formula is this: in the 1980s, dump indigent refugees in Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods with little support, hit them with the full force of the criminal justice system if they broke the law, then apply tough new immigration penalties retroactively or with no warning of immigration consequences when plea agreements were formulated, and finally, deport them to enhance toughness in the "criminalization of immigrants" narrative in which the Democratic party is fully invested. Refugee status and the pleas of U.S. citizen wives and children are irrelevant to the decision to deport. DHS may say its hands are tied, but the government has the discretion not to deport because they didn't for years. Only now when the issue of immigration has heated up have they decided to take action.
As Otterbein writes:
[R]idding the nation of criminals sounds like a lofty idea. But perhaps it's not that simple. The vast majority of Cambodian refugees being deported are convicted criminals, and many transgressed as youth. Kiernan argues that because these refugees lived through the harrowing Khmer Rouge regime, "You had parents with very serious [post-traumatic stress disorder] who couldn't be the parents they needed to be for their children, which is why a lot of the kids got involved in gang activity. Not to mention, they were settled into these neighborhoods that were already very troubled."
Says David Seng, a Cambodian activist and refugee who came here as a child, "America set up no support system for us. You started school in the U.S., you got beat up and chased around and looked at differently. So you grouped up to protect yourself. That led to gangs." He adds that because the Khmer Rouge killed off so many men and intellectuals, countless Cambodian refugees grew up with single, poor mothers who barely spoke English.
Add up these compounding handicaps, and Cambodian-Americans have become "the greatest failure of the refugee program in this country," Lavinia Limon, executive director of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, told The New York Times in 2003. Compared to other refugee populations, they routinely come in last in social indicators like income level, literacy and employment. Many immigrant activists fault the U.S. for first admitting these refugees to broadcast the horrors of Communism, and then abandoning them after a brief, halfhearted introduction to a foreign land.
President Obama didn't acknowledge the suffering of the families gathered at his rally on Sunday, hoping to catch his attention. The government has remained silent about its recent campaign against the Cambodian community in Philadelphia.
In the City Paper article, anti-immigrant activist William Gheen leaps to defend President Obama's policies. If these are the friends the Democrats are making while ignoring the voices of immigrant families they claim to represent, perhaps they should reevaluate these policies and stop deporting refugees.
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An interfaith, multiethnic group of Philadelphians rallied and marched today to protest the detention and deportation of Cambodian refugees who came to the U.S. as children escaping genocide in their homeland. About 300 supporters rallied at the Arch ... Read More