Dear Your Excellency Ambassador William Heidt,
On a sunny Tuesday morning last week, as the birds sang their favourite songs, I walked into the US Embassy of Phnom Penh for my non-immigrant visa interview. Everything was normal as I passed through its high security checks and sat down in the waiting room to wait for my number to be called.
As I waited, I listened to the many people ahead of me pleading their cases for their visa. A dental student applying to go for an internship almost got denied because his birth date didn’t match the previous application he entered the US with.
A mother and child were denied because the mother didn’t have enough ties to the US as she only wanted to visit her partner, who is a US citizen. A woman and her sister were denied for the second time because one had lied on her previous application about her ties in the US.
I suddenly felt dizzy and my adrenaline was pumping like if I had been hitting 250kph on my sports bike. When I walked into the embassy I knew I would be denied, no doubt about it. But for some reason, I felt a spark of hope.
After all, I would be speaking to a real human being that day, one who held the power to grant my visa – or at least put it in the correct pile to move forward. Maybe, just maybe, this person would at least hear me out, and then surely they would understand my situation and make a fair, just decision.
Although I tried to bury that spark of hope, I couldn’t help but daydream about how I would surprise my 9- and 10-year-old daughters when I picked them up from summer camp in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I imagined the look on their faces as they ran to me with open arms. But I caught myself as tears filled my eyes, scolding myself for even thinking that far ahead.
“Zero – eight – three”, the intercom blared.
This is it. Surely my application would be denied, but at least I would get a chance to plead my case to a real person.
As I walked up to the window, I could already sense the uneasiness of the consulate officer. He didn’t know whether to “chom-reap sor” me or greet me with a simple hello. So I broke the awkwardness and said, “Hey, how are you this morning”, in my perfect Californian accent. The officer proceeded with his first question: “Have you ever been to the United States”?
I answered that I used to live in San Diego, California, with a Permanent Resident Alien Card. As he began his second question, he didn’t look at me but instead kept looking at his computer monitor and a pile of paper on the counter. He’s only asking me these questions because of protocol, I thought to myself.
“Why did you return to Cambodia?” he asked next. I’d clearly stated in my visa application that I was deported under the US 1996 Anti-Terrorism Policy, which makes non-US citizens eligible for deportation if they were convicted of a felony. I fell in that category, so I didn’t hesitate and told the officer the same thing.
He sighed and shuffled his papers. “Let’s not waste each other’s time,” he said shrugging. “We will not issue a non-immigrant visa to anyone that had been deported for a criminal offence.”
With that, the birds stopped singing, everything went quiet, crashing in on me and making it hard to breathe. Every image I had earlier about my daughters running up to hug me all vanished.
It felt like I just got hit by an 18-wheeler, but I quickly collected myself, knowing I probably only had a few seconds more with him, I recited what I’d read over and over before, requesting a § 212(d)(3) non-immigrant waivers (also referred to as 212(d)(3)(A) waivers) that is adjudicated by the Admissibility Review Office located in Washington, DC.
The three criteria for granting a waiver under § 212(d)(3) are set forth in the Matter of Hranka:
1. The risks of harm in admitting the applicant
2. The seriousness of the acts that caused the inadmissibility
3. The importance of the applicant’s reason for seeking entry.
Both Department of State regulations and the Foreign Affairs Manual provide that: “while the exercise of discretion and good judgment is essential, generally, consular officers may recommend waivers for any legitimate purpose such as family visits, medical treatment (whether or not available abroad), business conferences, tourism, etc.”
The officer shooed away my request not with facts or explanations but with a wave of his hand, telling me only to get an immigration attorney before bidding me good day and calling for the next number.
I wanted so desperately to show him my supporting documents; there were letters from my previous employers and current employer, letters from executive directors of NGOs that are the biggest recipients of USAID I used to work with and volunteered for, letters from foreign diplomats and United Nation’s officials whom I’ve consulted for and still stayed in touch with through all these years.
If only the officer took his time to review my case, to even give me the consideration that it was even possible, the denial for my visa would’ve been a bit easier to understand. If he only knew my story, I thought, as I collected my things and walked out of the office back onto the streets of Phnom Penh.
I was charged with assault with a deadly weapon in 1999 in San Diego when I was just 19 years old. I served a one-year jail term and was held in ICE custody for another two years until I was released on supervision in 2003.
Upon my release, I enrolled in community college and worked a full time job. I was truly turning my life around. But in 2004, ICE decided it was time for me to leave the country. Shackled in a US Marshals’ bus, I bid farewell to the neighbourhood I grew up in as we drove past it on the highway as we headed up to Los Angeles.
I arrived in Phnom Penh on July 21, 2004. It’s hard to describe what I felt, so I guess I’d say I was numb; numb because I couldn’t dare start to absorb the feeling of abandonment from the US, a country that had accepted me and family from war-torn Cambodia. And now, that same government had just sentenced me to life in exile from everything I knew in my life: my family, San Diego, the United States of America.
Now, I was forced to accept Cambodia as my new home. I took a deep breath as I stepped off the plane. “This will only build my character,”I thought as Cambodian officials ordered me to keep walking. I vowed to do my best with my new life and continue the changes I’d started in San Diego.
Months later after exploring Phnom Penh, a group of friends and I saw that there was a lack of education about drug abuse and HIV/AIDS, and especially among the people most at risk. So we formed the Cambodian Harm Reduction Collaborative and solicited donations of condoms from Family Health International to pass out to workers in bars and brothels. We went on for months voluntarily educating and building relationships with the people, and, amazingly CHRC (now known as Korsang) is still operating today.
Seeing that there were so many more people who needed help, we formed another NGO called Tiny Toones, using our American hip-hop culture and breakdancing to steer the Cambodian youth from gangs and drugs. At Tiny Toones, they had a safe place off the streets and also a way to express themselves and tell their stories through performing arts.
My professional credentials also expanded the more time I spent in Cambodia, as I began exploring the private sector and and started my current job at the Phnom Penh Post, a role that has allowed me to form deep connections in the business community.
As I built my career in Cambodia, I also built my very own family. I met my lovely American in 2006, and together we built a home in Cambodia and have two beautiful daughters. It was only recently that my wife returned to the US to finish her MBA at Columbia Business School, and my daughters joined her last summer. However, I cannot go back and join them, a fact I’m reminded of every single day.
I guess the point of this letter is to let you know how unjust and inhumane the United States’ immigration policies are. There are hundreds of others here in Cambodia just like me, and thousands more awaiting removal.
I am now 36 years old, yet still being punished for something I did 18 years ago, even though I paid my debt to society back in the US. Believe me when I tell you that not being able to visit my family – my mother, my wife and my two beautiful children – is worse than any punishment you could inflict upon me.
Nor was this meant to be a permanent deportation, as technically, I was ordered removed with a 10-year ban before I am eligible to apply for a US visa. But your immigration officer didn’t bother to even check that.
In closing, I want you to know that I’m not the same person I was 18 years ago. I have a bright future ahead of me no matter what soil I call home. I will continue passing on my knowledge, positivity, and experience to those youth that may be headed down the same path I walked.
Respectfully, your imperfect immigrant,
Sophea Hang is the organiser of 1LOVE Cambodia and director of marketing at the Phnom Penh Post. He has been living in Cambodia for 13 years.