Renewed fears of deportation haunt Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees convicted of childhood crimes
By TATIANA SANCHEZ | The Mercury News | Published: August 11, 2018
SAN JOSE, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Had Phuoc Thang been born in the United States, the 38-year-old electrician would be quietly raising his young family in their comfy Berryessa home, having turned his life around nearly two decades after serving time in San Quentin for drug possession.
Had he been born in Central America or Mexico, he’d likely already have been deported.
But because he was born in a refugee camp in Indonesia to Vietnamese parents who fled communism, things are much more complicated. Thang is part of a unique group of hundreds of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees living in limbo after committing crimes long ago — some as teenagers — that cost them their green cards.
For years they were allowed to stay in the U.S. anyway, in part because of the unsettled nature of the countries to which they would otherwise be returned. But now, under the Trump Administration’s aggressive immigration policies, they’ve become prime targets for deportation.
Many of those immigrants tell similar stories. Feeling isolated in a new country as their parents grappled with the trauma of war, they sought comfort in the wrong crowds early on after settling in America. Some of them joined gangs and committed crimes that got them locked up for years. Now, as grown, rehabilitated men raising families of their own, they’re slowly rebuilding their lives outside of prison.
Some like Thang have never set foot in their native countries and would be forced to either leave their American-born kids behind or bring them to a place they too have never known.
“Before it wasn’t that big of an issue with me,” he said. “It was like, if they send me back they send me back. I understand what I did and I’ll deal with the consequences. But now I have kids, I can’t go back and leave them here with nobody to help support them and raise them.”
Thang’s wife, Kat Macaya, a Filipino immigrant, says she knows firsthand what it’s like to live in a third world country where there are few opportunities. She doesn’t want that for her daughters, Mia, 3, and Audrina, 16 months, who are both U.S. citizens.
“We have all our hopes and dreams here,” said Macaya. “We would be starting from zero. I don’t want to put that on my kids.”
The sudden surge in ICE activity appears to spring in part from the Trump administration’s efforts to deport immigrants with criminal records, even in circumstances where their home countries haven’t traditionally cooperated with U.S. removal orders. In the past, immigrants in that situation have been allowed to stay in the U.S., but the Trump administration has been pressing Cambodia and Vietnam, in particular, to take back their deportees.
“Each country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals who are not eligible to remain in the United States or any other country,” said a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security in a statement.
There were 1,836 Cambodians and 8,585 Vietnamese immigrants in the final stages of deportation living in the United States as of July 23, the vast majority of whom had criminal convictions.
Vietnamese and U.S. officials in 2008 signed a repatriation memorandum that in part said Vietnamese immigrants such as Thang who arrived in the United States before 1995 would not be subject to deportation. Activists, however, have said some of the individuals being detained arrived before 1995, leaving them to wonder whether some of these deportations are legal.
Thang’s family moved to San Jose in the early ‘80s, where he got into trouble as a teenager, doing drugs and selling them to support his habit.
He was arrested on drug and weapon charges in 2001 and pleaded no contest, for which a judge ordered him deported. After serving about a year in San Quentin, Thang — who also has a 2009 DUI arrest, according to court records — was transferred to an ICE detention facility in Eloy, Arizona, where he was detained for another six months. Assured by fellow inmates that he wouldn’t actually be deported, Thang didn’t think to appeal his deportation order at the time, instead returning to San Jose to build a new life with Macaya.
Now, he faces deportation to a place he’s never even visited.
Last year the Trump administration detained about 200 Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees across the country in mass sweeps that activists in this community said they had never seen before. The sweeps have continued this year.
Those who support the tougher enforcement point to something they consider obvious — that any immigrant who has committed a crime doesn’t belong in the U.S.
“If you’re here in some legal status, it’s a conditional agreement,” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stricter immigration enforcement. “We allow you to remain here to pursue life, liberty and happiness and you agree to abide by the laws of the country.
“Things that people do in their youth, they haunt them and follow them around in many cases.”
Cambodia in 2002 signed a repatriation agreement with the United States which allowed for a certain number of Cambodian immigrants to be deported each year. But only last year did deportations among Cambodians spike to these levels.
“Cambodians are low-hanging fruit,” said Sophal Ear, a professor of diplomacy & world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles. “Trump sees an opening and is pouncing — whereas under Obama and previous administrations, there was more finesse; less indiscriminate behavior.”
Borey “Peejay” Ai was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents who fled genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime. The family immigrated to the U.S. when Ai was 5. But growing up in a troubled family in a crime-ridden neighborhood in Stockton, Ai struggled to fit in. As a young boy, he witnessed his 7-year-old cousin get gunned down in the infamous Cleveland Elementary School massacre of 1989. Five children were shot to death.
Seven years later, he was the one pulling the trigger. At 14, Ai pled guilty to second-degree murder in the 1996 slaying of a Berryessa liquor store owner during a robbery, becoming one of the youngest people in California to be given a life sentence for murder.
He served 20 years in San Quentin and was granted parole in 2016. But on the day he was freed, ICE was waiting outside.
Ai spent nearly two years at the Rio Consumes detention facility in Elk Grove. He’s appealed his deportation order and has asked Gov. Jerry Brown to pardon his crime, which could eventually allow him to stay in the United States.
But even as Brown — who last year pardoned Cambodians Mony Neth and Rottanak Kong, convicted of possessing stolen guns and felony joyriding, respectively — weighs this decision and as Ai’s case sits in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, he could be deported at any minute.
“It’s devastating,” said Ai. “It hurts. There’s no way to describe it. I can’t get comfortable, I can’t do anything because I know that at some point it can be gone. It can be taken from me.”
During his time in prison, Ai became a state certified counselor for domestic violence victims through a group called Guiding Rage into Power, which gave him a job after his release. He’s worked extensively with Kid CAT, a rehabilitative program at San Quentin acclaimed for its focus on self improvement through education and counseling. Both Ai and Thang are part of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee in Oakland, which works to rehabilitate former convicts as they re-enter into society.
Ai was raised in the system, he said, and is asking for a second chance.
“I realize I made poor choices in my life,” Ai said. “I know I could never take back what I’ve done but I’m trying my best to give back to my community, to make amends and be accountable for my crime.”
“All I’m asking for is an opportunity to live life right. To redeem myself as a human being.”
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