Alisha Sim and Susana Sngiem attend a United Cambodian Community meeting in Long Beach, CA. Photo courtesy of UCC and Khmer Girls in Action
Alisha Sim and Susana Sngiem attend a United Cambodian Community meeting in Long Beach, CA. Photo courtesy of UCC and Khmer Girls in Action

“What can be simpler or more accurately stated? They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”

So said Donald Trump during his campaign for the US presidency. He was talking about Mexicans, who constitute the vast majority of the 11 million people living in the US illegally. Since his election, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, has made a total of 143,470 arrests, a 30% increase from 2016. Most of those detained are Hispanic, but often Asians are caught in the sweeps too.

In Los Angeles County, the city of San Gabriel – where 61% of the city’s population is Asian – announced this week that it will no longer cooperate with ICE. “San Gabriel embraces our immigrant communities,” explained local Councilman Jason Pu. “If the message becomes ‘Come to San Gabriel and get deported,’ it would be devastating to our community and to our business.”

San Gabriel began working with ICE over a decade ago to capture Chinese criminals bilking newly arrived immigrants out of millions of dollars. Today, ICE primarily targets Hispanic illegals with criminal records, but it admits that almost 8% of those picked up nationally are “collateral arrests” of immigrants in the US illegally but not currently wanted for criminal activity.

The threat of deportation is especially troubling for California’s Cambodians, most of whom have no memory of their native country and see little about the current regime in Phnom Penh that they like. More than 1,900 Cambodians living in the US are subject to deportation orders and 1,441 of them have criminal convictions.

ICE began deporting Cambodians living in the US illegally two months ago. Among the first nine expelled, five had criminal records for homicide. The other four were convicted of drug-induced sexual assault, a sex offender registration violation, drug possession and possession of a weapon. Two Cambodians scheduled for departure who had families and middle-class jobs were pardoned by California Governor Jerry Brown. Seventy more were allowed to stay in the country temporarily by a US district judge. But the reprieve was little comfort for the 50,000 Khmers living in Long Beach, CA who constitute the largest diaspora of Cambodian people outside of their native land.

Khmer-Americans attend a United Cambodian Community meeting in Long Beach, CA. Photo courtesy of UCC

More than 150,000 Vietnamese live just down the Interstate in Orange County’s “Little Saigon.” The county has embraced the population and elected Vietnamese to a number of political offices. Cambodians are equally accepted in Long Beach.

In 2007, city leaders named a 2km stretch of Anaheim Street, where many Khmers live, “Cambodia Town.” Many Cambodians saw the designation as the chance to build a new home free from their homeland’s painful history. So when ICE came calling at the end of 2017, they responded with lawsuits and rallies.

A forum for the 70 Khmers scheduled for deportation attracted more than 150 community members who complained that the expulsions were unfair for left-behind wives now solely responsible for family support. “Trauma exists in our community,” declared Alisha Sim of the Cambodian Advocacy Collaborative. “We need leaders to stand with us to fight for laws and policies that will give our community a chance to fully heal and thrive.”

Last month, help arrived in the form of an offer from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who welcomed home all Khmers living illegally in America if Washington would pay for their airfares home and provide financial support for one year. “I declare we will welcome our brothers and sisters home from the US and I will not let anyone mistreat any of you,” he said.

Cambodia and the US already have a signed Memorandum of Understanding stating they must accept their own citizens if they are subject to deportation from the other’s country. In any event, Hun Sen’s offer was received with a collective “Thanks but no thanks.”

Long Beach Cambodians made their feelings about Hun Sen clear back in November when a large street protest greeted the news of Cambodia’s Supreme Court officially dissolving the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Cambodians throughout California poured into the streets demanding the release from prison of Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president. Indeed, the only concrete response Hun Sen’s offer engendered was increased support for a class action lawsuit demanding a halt to Cambodian deportations.

There may be no permanent solution to Cambodian residency issues but at least for the moment all 92 Cambodians still in US custody can remain in the country until all their cases are reviewed individually. It is a process that could take months. That’s fine by Cambodian Americans, who have more lawsuits ready to file.