It was an unusual greeting to hear in Phnom Penh and revealed much about the two
One Cambodian-American was greeting another shortly after their return from the United
States where they had both lived for two decades, though they hadn't known each other.
Growing up as men of color in America had given them their own unique fraternity.
Tattooed, wearing t-shirts, baggy jeans and sneakers, they could have walked un-noticed
through a mall in Los Angeles or Chicago or Houston.
In Phnom Penh, heads turn, eyes follow. Most people assume these are just visiting
Khmericans, pockets bulging with dollars, here to see the sights before returning
to their families and jobs in the States.
The reality is quite different. These handsome, eager and well-mannered young men
are among the first of more than a thousand Cambodians who are being deported from
the United States. They arrived only with the clothes they were wearing. They had
more possessions with them when they fled Cambodia in terror twenty-some years ago.
Some say these people are being deported because they are criminals, but that is
not true. Citizens who commit crimes are not deported and people who are not committing
crimes are not criminals.
These people are being deported because they are not eligible for citizenship due
to some mistake they made years ago. All have served court-ordered sentences and
if they were citizens would be free to live normal lives in America.
Under current U.S. law, however, non-citizens convicted of a wide range of crimes
(ranging from writing a bad check to drunk driving to robbery and assault) must be
deported to their countries of origin. Currently, there is no provision for any type
of review. It doesn't matter if the person was in a gang-related incident as a teenager
ten years ago and is now a stable, contributing member of the community with a steady
job and a spouse and children. He or she must be sent back.
While the US criminal justice system may be based on reform, immigration law regards
any blemish to one's record as permanent and irredeemable.
Until last March, Cambodia (like a few other countries) simply refused to accept
deportees. But in March, the Cambodian government finally gave in to US pressure
and agreed to receive all 1,400 Cambodian-Americans currently facing deportation
(and others who may enter this category in the future). The first six deportees arrived
on June 22. Another group of 11 arrived on September 19. From next month, regular
arrivals are expected each month for years.
What's in this for Cambodia? A great deal! Cambodia will get hundreds of skilled,
highly-motivated, bi-lingual men and women, educated in the United States, who are
accustomed to working to demanding first-world standards and will devote their lives
to recreating here what they found
They gasp at the dangerously poor quality of electrical wiring, of shoddy plumbing,
of poor road construction techniques, and the lack of proper safety measures here.
They are appalled at the inefficiency of all kinds of systems, from chaotic traffic
to the lack of "service" in the service industry.
As more and more of the returnees enter employment here, they are going to make
their mark. Already, several are muttering "This is hopeless, we need to start
our own businesses and do these jobs right!" Right on!
Of course, not all will be positive additions to our community. Some will be dysfunctional
products of American institutions and communities which failed them. Like so many
others here, they may slip into substance abuse, violence or even criminal activity.
Judging from the first arrivals, however, we think these will be the rare exceptions.
After all, these people are survivors. They survived the Khmer Rouge terror as children,
poverty and racism in American cities as teenagers, then long periods of incarceration
before finally being sent back to Cambodia. Finally they have a chance to take control
of their own lives and function as normal, responsible people in the real world.
One of the guys who arrived in Cambodia in shackles in June was recently given a
promotion in his job. For a young man-an orphan-who spent most of his life being
kicked around by forces over which he didn't seem to have control; having his hard
work rewarded with a promotion and an increase in responsibility meant a lot.
One morning as we were having coffee, he said he had to go to work early because
he locked up the night before and had to open the business that morning. Ten minutes
later as he climbed on his newly-purchased motorbike, he flashed a million-dollar
smile and said, "I gotta go. Igot the key."
Bill Herod and Nil Samorn work together in the Returnee Assistance Project (RAP),
a group assisting the returnees with literacy training, job placement, housing and
other basic support services. They may be reached at email: [email protected]