On MLK Day, Philadelphians Protest ICE's Deportation of Cambodian Refugees
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 Street United Methodist Church in Center City, Philadelphia, before marching to the ICE District Office several blocks away. Speakers throughout the event referenced the words and life of Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday was celebrated today.
Several Cambodian men now in their thirties were resettled as child refugees in some of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. Raised by traumatized parents, in families that had been decimated by the Khmer Rouge, some strayed in their youth and were convicted of crimes in their teens and early twenties. They served their time and reintegrated into their communities, raising families and starting businesses. Many had become permanent residents but not citizens, not understanding the distinction or the consequences of not naturalizing.
A pair of laws passed in 1996 with bipartisan support are now tearing apart Philadelphia's Cambodian community. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) and Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) expanded the types of crimes which could result in permanent exile. They removed the ability of immigration judges to consider discretionary factors, such as length of time in the U.S. or family ties, in individual cases. Now, years after these men served their sentences, ICE has locked them up and begun deporting them. They will never be able to live with their U.S. citizen wives and children in this country again. They will be banished from their adopted country and sent back to the place where their families were slaughtered.
Ly, a high school student leader with Students Against Unjust Deportation at Philadelphia's Central High School, said that this harsh policy "doesn't just affect people who are being deported, it affects the people they are connected to." Kelly, another student at Central, spoke about the backstory to the Cambodian genocide, a U.S. war that destabilized the region and a secret bombing campaign in Eastern Cambodia in the 1970s that had the unintended consequence of strengthening the Khmer Rouge. The students spoke of the unforgiving environment in which these families found themselves in Philadelphia, many suffering from PTSD with inadequate support networks.
Maria, a Dreamer and member of Dreamactivist Pennsylvania, quoted MLK, who said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
Rita, the wife of one of the deported men, spoke of the last four months without her husband as "the hardest four months of my life." This government has made her a single mother.
Desi Burnette of the Media Mobilizing Project asked why we are told by our government that there isn't enough money for the things our communities need when we as taxpayers are spending millions to deport fathers and husbands back to Cambodia. After the speakers were done, supporters took off the yellow armbands they had worn in honor of the deported and soon-to-be-deported men and tied them to the fence across the street from the ICE building.
I have been to that ICE office many times with clients, but never with so many people who felt as I do that something has gone horribly wrong. I don't understand how this government can treat its people so badly. It felt good to stand with others who are fighting back.
President Obama has never been held accountable for splitting up these families, for taking parents away from children their government is supposed to protect. Democrats have never been held accountable for voting for the 1996 laws and other anti-immigrant laws that have devastated immigrant communities. They have never had to answer to the family members left behind, never had to explain why they have done absolutely nothing to slow this epidemic of deportation.
Where are the politicians who will speak out against these draconian laws? Why hasn't repeal of these laws been a central plank of any comprehensive reform bill proposed by national advocacy groups and Democratic leadership? The Cambodian community in Philadelphia needs allies right now, and there are few to be found in Washington, D.C.
[Update: This Daily News article explains that one of the detained men, Chally Dang, is a married father of four young children, was 15 years old when he committed the crime that is now leading to his deportation, and has never even been to Cambodia, having been born in a refugee camp in Thailand. This is what passes for justice in America today.]