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Grappling with deportation

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Photo by: Rick Valenzuela

OM Roeun, who goes by the name Lucky, was born in a Thai refugee camp and moved to America when he was a year old.

Prior to being deported to Cambodia six years ago, his image of the Kingdom was based on a couple of photographs he had seen, as well as stories his parents and other members of the Cambodian-American community in northern Virginia had told him.

“I had never been to Cambodia,” he said yesterday. “I had seen a couple of pictures, and I could speak broken Khmer, but I couldn’t read or write the language.”

Lucky was 17 when he was convicted of malicious wounding and sentenced to five years in prison.

On the day of his release, United States immigration officials arrested him and began paving the way for his deportation, a process that took two years. “They picked me up right on my release day,” he said.

He didn’t know anyone when he arrived in the Kingdom, and he said yesterday that he found it difficult to adjust to his new environs. “I still find it a culture shock sometimes; all my life I was Americanised,” said the 30-year-old, who is currently between jobs and lives in Phnom Penh. “The culture is way different here than over there.”

He said that the hardest thing about the move had been to leave behind his family.

“I have a son who is 14 now,” he said. “I have never met him. He was born while I was locked away.”

Lucky, who was first taken into custody by US immigration officials in 2002, was one of the first Cambodians to be affected by a controversial repatriation agreement signed that year. Under that agreement, at least 10 Cambodians found guilty of aggravated felonies in the US are set to arrive in the Kingdom today, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday.

Kloeung Aun, executive director of Phnom Penh-based NGO the Returnee Integration Support Centre, said yesterday that many of the 229 legal American residents who had been deported to Cambodia since 2002 have faced similar challenges.

He said “a very, very small percentage of them have had contact with Cambodia” prior to their arrival, and that many were forced to leave behind family and friends they have known their whole lives, sometimes with tragic results.

“One person committed suicide, and there have been other attempts,” he said.

Kloeung Aun added that all of the deportees have already been punished for their crimes prior to being deported.

“All of them have served a full sentence,” he said. “Some are released on parole or probation and then [immigration officials] pick them up again.”

According to a report released earlier this year by the International Human Rights Clinic of the Leitner Centre for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School in the US, the 2002 agreement made Cambodians vulnerable for the first time to US legislation enacted in 1996 that “eliminated judicial discretion from the removal process and expanded the categories of mandatory deportation”.

The Kingdom had previously refused to accept deported non-citizens.

Like some rights workers, the authors of the report expressed concern that Cambodian-Americans can “suddenly find themselves eligible for deportation” after having served time and re-entered society.

Sara Colm, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said yesterday that current laws left no room for judges to consider prospective deportees family or work connections, or the fact that they had lived in the US for most of their lives.

“We’ve called for the immigration policy to be amended so that considerations can be made for the strength of the relationship people have with the US,” she said. “Particularly for people who have committed minor nonviolent crimes, the deportation process gives no consideration for the impact a deportation can have on their family. They deport only one person, not the whole family.”

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