By Mousa Rebouh
An unexpected phenomenon is a growing concern for immigrant families: the opening of facilities in border cities as close as Mexicali in Mexico and in cities as far as Phnom Penh in Cambodia for convicted minors who served their sentence in the United States, but are subject to deportation and double-punishment because they lack the privilege of citizenship.
In Mexico, the first center for returnees opened in Tijuana in 2003, and the second in Mexicali in 2004. In Phnom Penh, a place for young returnees opened its doors in 2003, shortly after the United States and Cambodia signed the Cambodian Repatriation Agreement on March 22, 2002.
“My brother Borom is one of those people who will be separated forever from his family because of this agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia that threatens over 1,500 Cambodians with deportation,” said Keo Chea, a 23-year-old member of Asian Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment (API for CE), a pan-Asian organization working for progressive change in the Bay Area since 1995.
Keo Chea and her family arrived in the United States in 1981 as political refugees, after they fled Cambodia.
Arrested at 17 and sentenced to seven years at an adult facility in California, her brother completed his punishment in 2001. Instead of going home, however, he was thrown into detention by officials at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who cited immigration reform laws passed in 1996.
There are nine detention facilities for immigrants, in places like Buffalo, New York, Miami and El Centro, California. The ICE holds foreigners in seven facilities and in rented cells in 40 jails across the country.
Although Section 305 of 1996 immigration law requires the U.S. Attorney General to deport aliens within 90 days of a final order, or when the person is released from criminal custodywhichever is laterBorom Chea already has been detained for three years.
“His only crime is that he holds a green card and not a certificate of naturalization. In this democracy, how does this punishment fit the crime?” asked Keo Chea at a community rally in Oakland on March 22.
The rally, hosted by Asian Youth Promoting Advocacy and Leadership (AYPAL) at the Federal Building Plaza in Oakland, brought together over 100 young men and women who listened to individuals and families affected by deportation and declared their Oakland neighborhoods deportation-free zones.
AYPAL’s two-year campaign to stop deportations has produced a youth-led report entitled “Justice Detained.”
Among other findings, the report shows that while the majority of criminal deportations are for non-violent crimes, and immigrants are less likely than native-born citizens to commit crimes, hundreds of thousands of families from various origins are affected by deportation.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the countries with the most criminal deportations in 2002 are Mexico (55,683), the Dominican Republic (1,990), and El Salvador (1,712).
The 1996 immigration reform law, passed by a Republican Congress and signed into law by President Clinton, is retroactive, expands the definition of aggravated felonies to increase the number of crimes punishable by deportations, and denies people their ability to ask for a waiver of deportation before an immigration judge.
Under the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), deportable crimes can include gambling, shoplifting, domestic violence, or drug-related offenses.
The most common categories of crime for removals in 2002 were drugs (41 percent), undocumented immigration (16 percent) and assault (10 percent), according to the 2002 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics.
AYPAL opposes deportation because it breaks up families, punishes immigrants twice, and sends people back to a place they do not know.
“We don’t ever see Cambodia as: that’s my home place. We see it as a place where genocide happened,” said Chea.
“My 54-year-old mom has hopes that the law might be changed,” she added. “We all have our fingers crossed hoping that day will come.”
According to AYPAL organizers, the IIRIRA paved the way for the Cambodian Repatriation Agreement, soon to be followed by Laotian and Vietnamese agreements that will threaten 9,000 more families with the specter of deportation.
AYPAL’s report further claims that “because of criminal justice and immigration policy changes combined, many immigrants can be deported for crimes for which they would not even have gone to prison 10-15 years ago.”
During the March 22 rally, Katalina Langi, 17-year old AYPAL intern from East Oakland, summed up her work: “I want to tell the families affected: Keep your head up because a lot of people are working to stop deportations.”