Growing up in South Sacramento in the early ’90s I remember being part of a community of Southeast Asian immigrants and believing I was American. I attended Rutter Middle School and later Florin High and was like many other American teenagers. I played Nintendo, collected baseball cards, and had crushes on pretty girls.
Not once did I know there was a difference between a permanent resident and a US citizen or really cared about it. Neither did my parents or any adults around me. So I continued believing in the American Dream and that one day I would make it from the brutal poverty that surrounded me to the suburban utopia of white picket fences and 25-cent lemonade stands.
I wasn’t naive enough to acknowledge that it wouldn’t be a hard journey because every once in a while racism, elitism and bigotry would show itself. I knew I was different beyond the dark skin and slanted eyes, it was about more than just race, it was about being poor.
So I turned my attention towards school, which I usually excelled at anyway. I got good grades up to my sophomore year. Luckily I had Southgate Library, a beacon for my curiosity. My mother made a point to get me a library card and I entered the lives of fabled heroes, mythical times, rites of passages, love stories and epic adventures. But my peer group was different.
They came from broken homes and were the troublesome types. They only went to the library to flirt and loiter in the parking lot. They would pressure me to skip school, sneak into movie halls, shoplift or whatever else came into their deviant minds.
My parents concentrated much of their time to working and saving money thus making my upbringing less of a priority. I realise now that they probably had to deal with much more hate and racism than I did but didn’t dwell on it. So of course they just wanted to move up the social ladder as quickly as possible to escape and prove their worth.
My father, disappointed that I associated with these types of friends, became increasingly distant with me. Deep down inside I knew he loved me regardless and tried to discipline me but to no avail. I started to head down a wayward path.
Eventually, my behaviour got worse and finally escalated to a point where my parents kicked me out when I was 17. Without parental supervision I fast-tracked my way into a 14-year sentence for robbery. And although it was my first offence, in the court system they tried me as an adult.
This was the beginning of a hellish 10 and half years of incarceration, ending with deportation to Cambodia. I was by no means a model immigrant. And I understand that the consequences of my action caused great harm to my community, and I deserved to be punished. But to what extent?
I spent seven and half years serving my time in state correctional facilities and three more years in immigration custody. Nonetheless, by definition I had served my time and earned the right to prove that I was rehabilitated and worthy of a second chance.
The immigration judge who ordered me removed did not let me show evidence of my change. Had he, he would’ve known that I was awarded a full four-year scholarship to San Francisco State University once released. He would’ve known that my family had successfully worked their way out of the projects of South Sacramento to the estates of Granite Bay, the suburbs.
He would’ve known that instead of joining a gang, getting prison tattoos, or any other typical recalcitrant behaviour, I chose to continue my education through college correspondence courses, was certified in hardware and software computer repair, and grew far beyond that once reckless teenager. A reformed person brimming of hope I expected to be free of punishment because of these calculated decisions.
I am not writing this to seek sympathy or to blame politicians about the harsh immigration policies they’ve implemented. I understand America and know that a majority of Americans feel a certain way towards immigrants. However, I am writing this to the few fair-minded Americans who believe in justice, equality and human rights.
I hope that someday through a consensus of legislation and a change in public opinion, the US will adopt a more humane treatment of refugees, that visitation rights or a return to America be granted for people such as myself. Then maybe one day I can see joy in the eyes of my three children and wife as they see the place I used to call home and feel the warmth of waking up on Christmas morning like I did so many years ago.
Borom Chea is a marketing executive in Phnom Penh.