by Hannah Beech
It was fish for breakfast and fish for lunch and fish for dinner.
“I hate fish,” Khan Hin said.
What Hin wanted was a burger. Maybe a bowl of Cap’n Crunch. Or some Tater Tots. “I’m feisty,” he said, “for my Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.”
Hin’s palate is American. His vernacular, slang from the streets of Stockton, California, is American.
And his family’s experience is all too American. His older sister was at school in Stockton in 1989 when a man sprayed gunfire on the schoolyard. Five children ages 6 to 9, all of Cambodian or Vietnamese heritage, were killed. Nearly 30 others, including Hin’s sister, were injured. The killer had repeatedly spewed hatred of Asian immigrants.
At the hospital, Hin’s sister got to meet Michael Jackson, which was an American dream of sorts, although it wasn’t worth two bullets in her body.
But Hin, 33, isn’t American. Born in a Thai refugee camp, he came to the United States as a baby. His parents, refugees fleeing genocide in Cambodia, never claimed citizenship for their son, even though he was entitled to it. Until he was jailed at age 18 for auto theft, Hin had no idea he was only a legal permanent resident.
American law is uncompromising: Deportation applies to legal permanent residents who commit an aggravated felony in the United States. Such crimes include failing to appear in court or filing a false tax return, as well as more serious offenses. Deportees are barred from returning to the United States.
Hin had served five years and was holding down a job in California when Immigration and Customs Enforcement came for him. For 18 months, he shuffled through various detention centers across the United States. Three years ago, he was deported to Cambodia.
It was his first time in the country. He did not speak Khmer, the local language.
That’s how Hin ended up on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, in the house of a family friend he couldn’t understand, eating fish three meals a day.
“It was rats, pigs, babies all over the place,” he said. “It was the ghetto but badder. This ain’t home. America’s my home.”
While President Donald Trump has brought renewed attention to the fate of legal and unauthorized immigrants alike, deportations of Cambodians began in 2002, when the government of Cambodia signed a repatriation agreement with the Bush administration. So far, around 600 legal permanent residents of Cambodian descent have been deported from the United States, many directly from prison.
The number is likely to increase significantly this year, as Trump cracks down on green card holders with criminal records. ICE tracks 1,900 Cambodians who are subject to orders of removal from the United States.
The Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, which receives American funding to help deportees start new lives in Cambodia, expects around 200 people to arrive this year. Around 100 Cambodians who had already completed their prison terms were rounded up in immigration raids in October.
Citing human rights concerns, the Cambodian government suspended the repatriation agreement last year. But the United States responded by slapping visa restrictions on Cambodian officials, and a trickle of deportations began in December. In February, the two governments held talks on the repatriations, and 16 deportees have arrived this year.
Posy Chheng was deported in May, just a couple weeks after his son was born. His wife grew up in Minnesota farm country and knew nothing about the American secret bombing campaign in Cambodia or the ensuing reign of terror unleashed by the Khmer Rouge. At least 1.7 million Cambodians died by execution, disease or starvation when the Communist guerrilla movement took over in the late 1970s.
“Goulash and spaghetti,” Chheng said of his wife. “That’s her life.”
When he was 14 years old, Chheng was convicted as an adult of second-degree murder and imprisoned for 17 years. After his release five years ago, he worked as a barber in St. Paul and spent time with his mother, who had raised four children on her own.
His own son is still in Minnesota.
“I think about him all the time,” Chheng said. “I see kids without car seats here, squeezed on a motorcycle with their whole family, and I think: ‘No way I’d let my son do that. It’s crazy.'”
Asian immigrants are often regarded as a model minority group in the United States, with higher education and income levels than other ethnic groups. But the 270,000 people of Cambodian descent who live in the United States are among the poorest in the country.
Many Cambodian refugees were farmers who fled the Khmer Rouge with no schooling or savings. Once in the United States, they scrambled to get menial jobs, like packing fruit or sewing clothes.
“My mom was illiterate, she didn’t speak any English,” said Jimmy Hiem, who was deported to Cambodia in 2016. “I’d get up to go to school, and she’d be sewing. I’d go to bed, and she’d be sewing. How was she supposed to know anything about citizenship and stuff like that?”
Cambodian refugees, along with Vietnamese and Laotians, were often resettled in tough neighborhoods, like South Central Los Angeles or Long Beach. By the 1980s, their children had formed street gangs, like the notorious Tiny Rascal Gang.
“We had to protect ourselves from homeboy shootouts,” said Ricky Kul, who was 15 when he joined the Oriental Lazy Boyz in Los Angeles and was later jailed for burglary. (Three members of the Oriental Lazy Boyz were convicted of the 1996 murder of Haing Ngor, the Cambodian-American actor who won an Academy Award for his role in “The Killing Fields.”)
Kul, who was repatriated two years ago, now manages a bar in Phnom Penh that is popular with foreign visitors. If deportees lack the tattoos that mark them as gangbangers, they can find work as English teachers or tour guides. One runs a hip-hop dance academy, another is a street poet.
While some deportees have taken their own lives or been caught dealing drugs, the recidivism rate in Cambodia is lower than in the United States, according to Bill Herod, founder of the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization.
“If I wasn’t here, I might be dead,” Kul, 42, said. “Leaving America kind of forced me to turn my life around.”
The one thing he misses, though, is his mother, who has diabetes. She did whatever she could to support the family, like digging oysters or sorting through recycling.
“She had a rough life, always hustling for her kids,” Kul said.
Modern Phnom Penh, with its Domino’s Pizza outlets and air-conditioned malls, would be unimaginable for his mother, he admitted. Her memories of home are of bombs and piles of dead bodies higher than any rice harvest.
“I’m going to get myself on my feet,” Kul said, “and then I’m going to bring her here and show her, ‘Look at my life, look at Cambodia.’ She can finally be proud.”