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Returnees still in US pending appeal

Recent deportees from the US socialise in Battambang province. The deportation of 50 Cambodians scheduled for Monday was stayed by a US judge.
Recent deportees from the US socialise in Battambang province. The deportation of 50 Cambodians scheduled for Monday was stayed by a US judge. Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Returnees still in US pending appeal

More than 50 Cambodians who were set to be removed from the US today can temporarily remain in the country to fight their deportation orders due to a last-minute decision from a US judge that immigration advocates celebrated as a “Hail Mary”.

Christina So, spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, called the temporary restraining order issued by US District Judge Cormac Carney “exciting news”.

“The government had ordered a chartered flight with at least 50 Cambodians aboard to leave Texas on Monday to return these detainees to Cambodia,” So said in an email on Friday. “This temporary restraining order literally stopped that airplane.”

The Asian Law Caucus launched a class action lawsuit against the US government last month arguing that the deportations violated the due process rights of the Cambodian detainees.

So said Friday’s restraining order means that roughly 200 Cambodians who were detained in recent US immigration raids can stay to fight their deportations.

The US government has been deporting Cambodian permanent residents who commit certain crimes since 2002, but the program became a flashpoint last year after the Kingdom temporarily stopped accepting deportees, citing human rights concerns.

The deportations have been criticised for tearing apart families and for repenalising offenders who have already paid their debt to society. Many of the returnees, most of whom went to the US as refugee children, have never set foot in Cambodia and were not aware they were not US citizens at the time they committed the offences that precipitated their deportation.

In a speech at the Peace Palace on Friday, Hun Sen said the government would reactivate a program to find the bodies of American soldiers who went missing in action in Cambodia if the US withdrew sanctions imposed on Cambodian foreign affairs officials after the country stopped accepting the deportees.

“We are implementing the agreement and interviewing people now,” Hun Sen said.

Bill Herod, founder of the Phnom Penh-based Returnee Integration Support Centre, praised the judge’s order as a “Hail Mary” move.

“The order will certainly not stop all deportations from the US to Cambodia, but it may buy time for legal manoeuvres that may help in some particularly troubling cases,” Herod said in an email. “It is certainly encouraging to see this issue get the serious attention it deserves.”

Herod said the NGO was scrambling to prepare for the new arrivals over the weekend – even knocking down barriers in their office building to make more room to house the arrivals – when they heard the news. Cambodian officials said they were not aware of the development but confirmed later that the flight was indeed cancelled, according to Herod.

Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak and immigration head Sok Phal could not be reached yesterday.

The US judge’s order said halting the deportations was necessary “until the Court can give proper consideration to the complex issues presented in this action”. The next court hearing on the restraining order will be January 11.

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