The U.S. Is Deporting Cambodian Refugees and Orphaning Their Children


Hundreds of legal U.S. residents have been deported to Cambodia—including many who left Cambodia as infants or have never been there at all. As these residents leave behind children, yet another generation of kids is growing up without a parent. (Photo: United Nations Photo / Flickr)

When a tribunal in Cambodia found two aging former leaders guilty of crimes against humanity earlier this month, many Cambodian and international observers’ verdict on the trial itself was: “Too little, too late.”

The conviction of Nuon Chea and Khieu Samphan, both in their eighties, came nearly four decades after their Khmer Rouge regime emptied Cambodia’s cities in 1975 and forced the county’s whole population into hard labor in rural collectives. The regime aimed to transform Cambodia into a socialist utopia. But instead, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians died from overwork, starvation, and disease in the fields—or torture and execution as suspected dissenters.

By the time Vietnamese forces toppled the Khmer Rouge in 1979, families had been torn apart across the country, leaving generations traumatized. Partly due to the lasting toll those years had on Cambodia’s economic and political development, the UN-backed Khmer Rouge tribunal didn’t get underway until 2006.

The recent verdict against the regime’s two surviving leaders was only the tribunal’s second, following the conviction of a former prison director in 2010. The court will start trying the two leaders on additional charges in the fall, in what may be the cash-strapped tribunal’s last case. Others died before they could be brought to justice, and many question whether life imprisonment for these two old men can really bring much closure for survivors.

As Cambodia struggles to reckon with its traumatic past, Cambodian refugees across the sea are trying to cope with a fresh trauma.

In the United States, whose bombing of Cambodia paved the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, many refugees from the Killing Fields now face the prospect of deportation under a draconian U.S. immigration regime. Already hundreds of legal U.S. residents have been deported to Cambodia—including many who left Cambodia as infants or have never been there at all. As these residents leave behind children, yet another generation of kids is growing up without a parent thanks to the U.S. government.

Many parties bear some responsibility for the carnage of the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields, and it’s doubtful that any tribunal or policy could really bring justice to the families of the victims. But given the U.S. role in the tragedies Cambodia has experienced, an end to these deportations would be a small but fitting step.

Casualties of the Vietnam War

The United States played a significant role in bringing Cambodia to the state of chaos that allowed the Khmer Rouge to come to power. Between 1965 and 1973, American planes dropped more than 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, with the aim of destroying the bases and supply lines of Vietnamese communists operating out of the country. The bombings caused widespread dislocations across the countryside and encouraged some Cambodians to join the Khmer Rouge, then a guerrilla movement fighting the right-wing, U.S.-backed government based in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh.

When the Khmer Rouge finally captured Phnom Penh in 1975, soldiers misled residents into thinking they had to evacuate the city because the United States was going to bomb it. About 2 million Cambodians left their homes with few belongings, many believing they’d be allowed to return in a few days, only to face years of forced relocations and constant fear of punishment for even the smallest of mistakes.

Vietnamese forces eventually ousted the Khmer Rouge in 1979, putting an end to its reign of terror. Yet throughout the 1980s, the United States cynically backed the fallen Khmer Rouge government still clinging to the country’s periphery as part of its Cold War strategy to undermine communist Vietnam.

The United States took some responsibility for the chaos it had helped cause when it accepted about 120,000 Cambodian refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s, along with many thousands of others from Vietnam and Laos. But it offered little in the way of help once these refugees reached the United States, traumatized and penniless. Most Cambodian immigrants—who arrived in the 1980s to Reaganomics, a recession, and assistance agencies overwhelmed by the flood of Southeast Asians exiles—were left to their own devices.

Many suffered from PTSD and other mental health issues due to the nightmare they’d lived through under the Khmer Rouge. Parents struggling to make ends meet had little energy or time to spend with their children, who faced social isolation and discrimination in their new neighborhoods. Many found their sense of community in gangs, leading to brushes with the law.

Another Uprooting

Lacking resources and support to help them thrive in the United States, many Cambodian refugees didn’t realize the limitations of their rights as legal permanent residents. Some learned the precariousness of their resident status only when immigration officials informed them out of nowhere that they were going to be deported to Cambodia.

Harsh 1996 immigration laws greatly expanded the list of crimes that could lead to the deportation of non-citizens. Hundreds of permanent U.S. residents from Cambodia with past criminal charges have found themselves returning in shackles to Cambodia—sometimes due to years-old nonviolent crimes for which they have already served their time. Crimes for which Cambodian refugees have been deported have included the possession of marijuana and buying stolen computer chips.

Some “returnees” have actually never set foot in Cambodia and speak no Khmer, having been born in Thai refugee camps. Most consider themselves fully American. When they arrive, even those who do speak Khmer are seen as outsiders due to their accents, tattoos, or style of dress, and face cultural dislocation in Cambodia just as they did growing up in the United States. Due to these compounding traumas, many suffer from mental health problems, which Cambodia has almost no services to address. Some returnees fall into crime again and spend time in Cambodian prisons.

Since pressuring Cambodia into signing a repatriation agreement amid post-9/11 xenophobia, the U.S. government has deported more than 400 people to Cambodia, separating them from their families and telling them they can never return to America. Because the U.S. government does not consider deportation hearings to be criminal proceedings—even when deportation has been triggered by past crimes—deportees are not guaranteed lawyers or other due process measures mandated in U.S. criminal law.

Moreover, the 1996 laws eliminated judicial discretion to consider mitigating circumstances, such as economic and emotional impact on the deportee’s family, clearing the way for the separation of spouses from each other and parents from their children. And immigration officials have interpreted the law to apply retroactively, making residents eligible for deportation for crimes committed even before 1996.

Many of the same injustices that plague undocumented immigrants afflict these legal residents, including detention for long periods of time while their cases are processed, with no information about the timeline for their deportations.

An estimated 2,000 Cambodian U.S. residents have been identified as eligible for deportation in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s drive to meet deportation quotas. These residents wait in constant fear that they could at any time be taken from their families and the country they call home. Many others could join them on ICE’s list in the future.

Echoing Injustice

While Cambodian U.S. residents are far from the only “criminal aliens” and refugees losing out under harsh U.S. immigration policies, their deportation is particularly shameful because of the U.S. government’s role in the devastation that forced them to flee in the first place.

What these refugees suffer is of course in no way comparable in scale to what their parents experienced under the Khmer Rouge, but many elements are similar: life in fear of the repercussions of even small infractions, seemingly arbitrary imprisonment, deep uncertainty about the future, little to no notice prior to forced relocation, and separation from their families. That should be enough to make the United States, a financial backer of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, ashamed.

A 2010 report by Fordham Law School’s Leitner Center for International Law and Justice highlighted the case of one such child of the Killing Fields, Jorani, who was separated from her nine-year-old son when the United States deported her for drug possession in 2009. “Although Jorani tries to call as much as she can,” the report said, “she does not have consistent access to a phone and has little money to make long-distance calls. The only connection she has with her child is the handful of pictures she carries with her at all times.”

The report also found that as of 2010, six deportees to Cambodia had committed suicide.

The children of deportees are becoming yet another generation that, due to U.S. government policies, must grow up without a parent. Money that could have been devoted to social services and helped immigrants avoid deportable crimes in the first place is instead being spent on detention, deportation, and welfare for families left destitute by the loss of their primary breadwinners. And deportations have only increased under the Obama administration.

Given its own role in setting the stage for the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, the U.S. government should offer those it committed to take in as refugees some small part of the justice they deserve. As the tribunal in Cambodia moves forward with its slow and imperfect brand of justice, the opportunity for the U.S. government to provide more tangible recourse for these Cambodians is just one more reason to reform America’s overly punitive and rigid immigration policies.

Justine Drennan has reported for The Associated Press and The Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia and received a master’s in international relations from Cambridge University. She is now based in Washington, DC. You can follow her on Twitter @JKooKooD.

  • dubinsky

    offering permanent residence status is sufficient. there’s no reason NOT to deport people who commit crimes that are listed as cause for deportation.

    they accepted a deal to come here and it’s up to them to keep that deal…….none of them were summarily deported. they all had to be first convicted of felonies and then they get deportation hearings.

    they get a chance to plead special circumstance….

    nobody owes them any more than that.

    • certop

      look in the text, dubinksy–many of the “deportable crimes” were defined long after the people had migrated, and even after many of the alleged offenses had been committed. that’s not really sticking to the terms of any “deal.” (and that’s not even getting into whether a petty offense like marijuana possession should be grounds to deport someone to a country they may not have ever set foot in.) additionally, many of these people don’t get a chance to “plead special circumstance,” since deportees don’t get the same rights as other people in the justice system.

      the point isn’t that these people deserve special treatment, it’s that the system we’ve set up to deal with them is cruel and inane and seems to serve no one.

      • certop

        (of course, it’s not a legal argument, but you could argue that these people are owed some special treatment after all, given the u.s. role in plunging their homeland into unfathomable terror.)

        • dubinsky

          better argument, peter.
          not quite sufficient but a hell of a lot better than the guff of the legalism of “they weren’t sufficiently felonious and they’re only immigrants and can’t be expected to know better or keep up with changes in the law “.

        • Lydia Barrows

          I am so sick of snotty white boys with glasses thinking they have the right to mandate what THEY think is just and good. Illegal immigration (as well as legal immigration) has ruined a once-great country, and it’s falsely “compassionate” idiots like YOU who have allowed this to happen. If people can’t get their act together in their own countries, then that’s THEIR problem!

          • certop

            i actually agree with you, lydia. this country was far less dangerous to itself and the world before all the illegals showed up. if you ask me, the natives should have sent those pilgrims straight back to england.

            but as they didn’t, it seems to me the answer is to try and understand why people leave their homes, why they go where they do, and think about how we can manage the flow compassionately and practically rather than trying to dictate it out of existence with fascist laws.

            sorry you don’t like my glasses.

      • dubinsky

        thanks, you have a point, but the text is far from clear about whether those “hundreds” were deported for past crimes later added to the list or whether they were deported for not listing past criminal activity that might not have rendered them ineligible for residency had they noted it at the beginning.

        the stuff about marijuana and stolen computer chips is even more vague…….and doesn’t pass the smell test.

        I don’t recall anybody ever getting tossed out on a possession for personal use charge. if people are gonna deal pot or traffic in expensive stolen goods….and are dumb enough to get caught and convicted when few people ever are….
        maybe they aren’t getting a real raw deal in the deportation dance.
        I’m going out on a limb and guessing that they had a pretty good idea when accepted for residency that they weren’t secure if caught committing felonies.

        • Kaliyann

          Check out this report (cited in the article) and see whether it passes your “smell test”:

          It offers more detailed information about several issues you seem unclear on, including whether deportation resulted simply from criminal activity that residents did not “note at the beginning”. As the article indicates, many of them came here as infants, so it’s unlikely either that they had committed deportable felonies (or in any real way “accepted a deal to come here”) before they arrived, or that they had the capacity to “note them at the beginning”. You seem to have not understood who was arriving when, and why. Infants generally don’t have a good idea of their legal rights and obligations, but that doesn’t mean it’s their fault that they’ve been forced to leave their utterly chaotic home country. And how are the those born in Thai refugee camps more Cambodia’s responsibility than the US’s?

          Also, it’s not so much that they “can’t be expected to know better” as that no one can be expected to predict deportable crimes when what’s considered deportable is applied ex post facto.

          Your statement about people being “dumb enough to get caught and convicted when few people ever are” for drug or stolen goods charges strongly suggests you’re a well-off white person with a very narrow understanding of how US law enforcement works.

          • dubinsky

            thank you, immediately after this I will follow the link.

            people who were brought here as infants were allowed in because their parent or guardian made the deal for them. and they are as bound by it as is they were adults at the time.

            people who arrive here as kids aren’t exempted from following the laws as they mature. if anything they should be expected to more closely follow it as they have spent all their sentient years here and been educated here and noether the laws nor the customs are as alien to them as they are to adults coming over.


            I considered the “ex post facto” argument in my reply to certop. i agree that if they are deported for crimes committed and punished prior to being residents, then deporting them simply for that is not just.

            committing crimes here AFTER those crimes are redefined as punishable by deportation, of course, is not violative, as long as the changes in the laws have been published.

            I am not a well-off white person and nothing about my comment suggests any such thing. i AM a person who knows a bit about law and the enforcement of same….and a person who undertook study the law because several of things that enjoyed (and still enjoy) doing are not legal. as i had no intention of foregoing these things merely because I was commanded to forego them, I figured I better do all that I could to avoid the penalties.

            again, thanks for the link. I’m off to peruse it and perhaps I’ll return thereafter.

        • Anna

          You are insanely ignorant and should refrain from commenting until being informed regarding the matter Dubinsky. Many Cambodian Americans have and are being deported for minor offenses.

          • dubinsky

            Anna, if you wish to point out a case where a Cambodian was deported for something that was not a felony, I would be grateful for the information.

            I can only go by what I know, but you surely are correct that I know far less than everything.

            please help raise my level of understanding……

          • James

            I am an immigration lawyer, and there are many non-felony level offenses that are considered minor if you are a US citizen, but can be removable if you are just a green card holder. Anything drug related, from simple possession of paraphernalia to distribution are all treated the same under the INA, and are all immediately removable. There is one exception, a one time bust for a small amount of marijuana. Had a real life case, guy was trying to become a citizen as an adult, when he was a teen (15) he was caught on two different occasions smoking a joint. Both times a simple ticket, but because of the second time he was now in violation of immigration law and deported. Anything weapon related is also instantly deportable (from simply possessing to use). Had one case where mom thought she was doing the right thing calling the cops when she found a gun in her kids room, little did she know she was having her own son deported. And then we fall into crime of moral turpitude, which can also be non-felony level crimes. Shoplifting is considered a CIMT, and so stealing a stick of bubble gum as a kid can get you deported. Then you throw in the ever changing what constitutes a terrorist group. Had one guy who’s neighborhood association was later re-defined as a terrorist group many many years after he had left. Not to mention many kids don’t realize they are only green card holders. I’ve had many clients tell me they thought they were citizens, and didn’t know any better. And you got to remember a REFUGEE didn’t come here by choice, they came here because they would have died otherwise. This is not only law, but by international treaty. So yep, the issue is far more complicated than you have presumed…

          • Vannak Suos

            I beat my deportation case…i had a felony..illegal possession of fire arm…few Marijuana citations..few mistermeaners how ever u spell it…but none of these was deportable crimes…so im giving a second chance…

          • MrColorado

            There you go. Multiple crimes and not deported. Very common.

          • Vannak Suos

            All my crimes atent deportable…non violent crimes…thank u..and ive probably live here in america longer then u…

          • dubinsky

            thank you for the information, James.

            sorry it took so dam long for me to notice your comment.

            however, I’m still a bit unclear as to how “removable” minor offenses actually result in removal.

            I would guess that i’s not all that often and it’s not happening unless it’s more than one transgression or the govt believes that there’s more criminal behavior than they can prove.

          • MrColorado

            Possession of a gun by a green card holder is not illegal. In fact, a green card holder of age can walk into a gun store and buy one legally. So that only way that child was deported was if they broke some other law. I also wonder where the child obtained the gun in the first place. Probably illegally.

          • Vannak Suos

            Wrong wrong wrong…i got all that under my belt and im a green card holder…its the violent acts…and drugs thats like coke , meth etc is mandatory deportable…

        • Lily Huang

          the criminal behavior may be a result of untreated PTSD.

          • dubinsky

            does PTSD render someone not responsible for criminal actions?

            wouldn’t it need to be rather severe and somewhat apparent?

          • Lily Huang

            As another commenter said, I think it may be that the US is responsible for the PTSD.

            And yes, I think it is severe, but no, it may not be apparent to people.

    • Jennifer Joost

      I love how you say they get a chance to plead special circumstance, when you do not even know what really goes on. Some of these guys plead guilty to a crime, before they are ever warned of the possibility of being deported.. Now as of 2010 they are not allowed to do that.. however for those before 2010 THEY DID NOT HAVE TO WARN OF DEPORTATION during a plea deal… this is where a lot of mistakes were made that cannot be changed… because we did not disclose the threat of deportation.. because they did not understand they had a right to claim asylum once entered into America with a 2 year limit, they spoke no English to know this. You know nothing of the pain they came from entering into America at age 4 to see the entire family on a hit list making it here with maybe a brother.. they watched people tie loved ones to trees and slice there necks.. slept with lights of war over there head… poisoned by the Thai that did not welcome them into camp… you know nothing of the pain they have endured. Nor do I know the pain, but I have empathy. Until you know OUR JUSTICE SYSTEM… don’t try.. Peddila vs kentucky shed some light and realize 2010 is the year they might have had a chance, before then, don’t count on it. NOTHING HAD TO BE DISCLOSED. Had it, we would have a different situation.

  • bfearn

    America is a mean selfish country and has been from the beginning. From starting needless wars, that have killed millions, to inequality that allows millionaires to pay no income tax while working people struggle with 3 jobs, to a level of foreign aid that is tied and paltry, to a disregard for international law and environmental disasters America is mean and selfish and dubinsky is just one of millions.

  • Kynal Kou

    Not once do this article blame the Cambodian government for accepting these deportees. They made a deal with the USA government. I believe they get $10k to $30k per deportee.

  • MrColorado

    I don’t give much credit to any article that is long on verbiage, but on short on facts. ICE publishes detailed reports proving that very few individuals are deported for “minor crimes”.

    To put this in perspective we brought in 120,000 from Cambodia, but as of the date of this article have only deported around 400. That is a very small percentage.

    The author also failed to mention that the deportee first had to get caught by the cops, prosecuted by the DA, and be convicted by a court. Then pursued by ICE for deportation (most aren’t) and then actually ordered deported by a judge which typically takes over a year and during which they have the right to apply for relief.

    As has already been mentioned. If you don’t want to get deported stay away from drugs and don’t do stupid stuff that will get you arrested. Better yet, be a productive citizen, study, and apply for naturalization.