Raised in America, Cambodian Youths Face Deportation By KATHERINE SEAR Pacific News Service

By KATHERINE SEAR Pacific News Service
Friday August 13, 2004

SAN FRANCISCO—Ratana Som, 24, is trying to turn his life around. The ex-drug dealer works at a nonprofit in the city’s Tenderloin district, a high-crime neighborhood where his family and many other Cambodian refugees first arrived in the early 1980s. But along with 1,400 other young Cambodian Americans convicted of aggravated felonies, Som faces deportation.  

While non-citizens have always been at risk for deportation, Congress passed an amendment to immigration law in 1996 mandating that non-citizens convicted of aggravated felonies and sentenced to at least one year of prison be deported, regardless of the length of their residences. The law also expanded the definition of an aggravated felony to include petty crimes such as shoplifting.  

The law hinges on whether countries are willing to take back their nationals; post-9/11, the United States convinced Cambodia to do so. Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba are among the few remaining countries that still refuse to enter into such agreements with the United States.  

Since July 22, 2002, about 100 Cambodians have been deported, and 11 more were deported in July, mainly from California, says Porthira Chhim, advocate at Cambodian Community Development, Inc., an Oakland-based nonprofit. Approximately 172,000 Cambodians lived in the United States in 2000, according to the U.S. Census. In California, the community numbers around 75,000.  

The last time Som was in jail, in 2002, his family was able to bail him out. Just a few months later, the law changed: no bail for non-citizens.  

A heavy-set young man with a youthful face, Som has been off the streets ever since. In soft-spoken slang, he says he no longer wants to make money the fast way, because the cost of lawyers and bail always offset the amount of money he was making from dealing narcotics. “After awhile,” Som says, “the money just got recycled.”  

Som sits slouched in shorts and sandals and says he wishes he had stayed in school and off of drugs. He dropped out in high school, lured by the amount of money he could make selling drugs. He needed to help his parents feed and clothe the other six children in the family, he says, as well as an older sister left behind in Cambodia.  

Som wants to stay in America. “In Cambodia,” he says, “there is no [rule of law]. If someone kills you, no one is going to investigate why.” He plans to complete his G.E.D., get off of parole and turn his life around.  

Advocates for Cambodian Americans call the laws racist. Many Cambodian youth in America were born in refugee camps in Thailand. Technically, they are not Cambodian citizens. The United States, advocates say, took these children in as refugees. Though they are not U.S. citizens in the legal sense, their experience in America calls into question the meaning of such limited definitions of citizenship.  

“They are products of America more than they are of Cambodia,” says Chhim. These youths got involved in crime on crime-filled, American streets, just as many American-born youths do. Citizenship, advocates say, is not just a piece of paper; it is also an experience.  

Chhim responds to Representative Lamar Smith’s (R-Texas) idea that non-citizens who are criminals “terrorize” American communities, as reported in AsianWeek on November 21, 2003: “If this [the deportation] is really about safety, let’s designate an island for all ex-criminals. I’ll bet you’ll see a lot of white people.” Smith co-authored the 1996 law that currently deports Cambodian Americans.  

Recalling the whole history behind why Cambodians are even in America, Chhim says, “America landed on us.”  

Nixon and Kissinger’s administration terrorized the Cambodian people in America’s campaign against communism. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the countryside was completely carpet-bombed, destroying whole villages. In the erupting civil war, the United States supported Lon Nol’s democratic government, but not enough to prevent Communist Pol Pot’s rise to power. In April 1976, the Killing Fields began. When the Vietnamese intervened in 1979, a third of the country’s population was dead, and genocide survivors spilled into Thai refugee camps. The United States welcomed more than 100,000 of them into its poor, urban communities.  

“What kind of opportunities were [Cambodian refugees] given?” Chhim asks. In a poor, urban environment, he says, it’s no surprise that people “will do what they need to do to get by.”  


Katherine Sear, 22, is a student at the University of California at Berkeley and a Cambodian American.