One-Way Ticket to Cambodia 

Jon's family fled the Khmer Rouge when he was two. Now he fears the INS will exile him to a country he can't even remember.

Jon doesn't venture out much these days. Not that the young man wouldn't like to be carousing with his pals. He simply can't chance a run-in with the authorities.

The 24-year-old Oaklander, who asked that his real name not be used, is a legal United States resident. But due to some troubles with the law, he believes he's in danger of being deported to his home country of Cambodia, a land of which he has no memory, and whose language he barely speaks. He was only two years old when his parents fled the Khmer Rouge with their children and came to America. "I can't survive if I go back, because my family was killed," he says. "I don't know what I'd do with myself."

He's not the only young Cambodian running scared. That country signed a pact with the United States in March, pledging to take back citizens who have been convicted of breaking US laws. In the past, Cambodia was among a handful of countries -- including Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba -- that didn't accept deportees from the United States. Since the agreement was inked, between 24 and 27 Cambodian ex-cons have been deported. The Immigration and Naturalization Service has targeted an additional 1,400.

These forced repatriations have struck fear in the heart of many Cambodians, whose Bay Area population is around 10,000. Many, like Jon, fled their homeland twenty years ago as refugees from the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime that massacred more than a million people.

And many, also like Jon, were young children when they arrived, raised here on McDonald's, MTV, and video games. Though far more American than Cambodian, few of these now-grown refugee kids ever filed the paperwork and paid the $300 required to apply for citizenship. As a result, many are now in danger of being exiled.

Immigration officials say they're merely enforcing a 1996 law that calls for the removal of any noncitizen convicted of "aggravated felonies." "Aggravated felons have a two-thirds rate of recidivism within the first three years of release," says INS spokeswoman Sharon Rummery. "So the INS looks upon aggravated felons as some of the most dangerous people in our society. It's for the protection of the people of this country that we seek to remove aggravated felons when their sentences are up."

Prior to 1996, aggravated felonies were generally defined as serious crimes such as murder or drug trafficking, and included other violent crimes and theft offenses only if the sentence was five years or more. The 1996 law lowered the threshold from five years to one, broadening the definition to include some petty offenses. First-time offenders can be deported under the new rules. And while juvenile crimes do not apply, even misdemeanors can now be considered aggravated felonies under immigration law if a one-year sentence is imposed. Noncitizens also can be deported for crimes committed before 1996.

"I'm not a violent criminal," says Jon, who recalls a childhood so impoverished that he only had a couple changes of clothes. "I made some mistakes, and I really regret them."

Those mistakes are as follows: At fourteen, Jon was busted for selling crack cocaine. Then in 1997, as an adult, he was caught with some marijuana in his shirt pocket. He also got nabbed for driving while his license was suspended, and on his birthday this past February he was arrested for driving drunk. The young man isn't sure if any of these offenses make him deportable, but he's not taking any chances.

People like Jon have reason to be afraid, says organizer Loan Dao of Asians and Pacific Islanders for Community Empowerment, a group organizing petition drives and rallies to protest the deportation policy. Some Cambodians, she points out, have already been deported for nonviolent crimes. One of the first, a Texas resident named Sor Vann, had been convicted of indecent exposure for urinating in public, according to The New York Times. (A heavy equipment operator, he'd peed at his construction site, but in Texas that's considered a sex crime.) He then violated his parole. Vann was sent packing to Cambodia in August, leaving two children and two stepchildren behind in the States.

"Look at how these crimes were committed. In what context?" says Dao, offering her view on what the INS should be doing. The US government, she adds, has a responsibility to Cambodians because it bombed their country during the Vietnam War, brought them over as refugees, and settled them in crime-ridden communities with scant resources.

Many of those likely to be affected may not even be aware of the 1996 law. As a result, say immigrant-rights advocates, Cambodians charged with crimes may plea bargain, not realizing that a guilty plea could get them a one-way ticket to the homeland. Additionally, those who went through deportation proceedings prior to March may have declined to appeal their cases, since at the time there was nowhere to be deported to.

Until recently, the INS also had the right to keep former aggravated felons locked up while they fought their removal from the country. "Prior to 2002, if you took a final order and didn't appeal, you could be let out of custody," says San Francisco immigration attorney Joren Lyons. "There weren't any real life changes to having a removal order except there was a vague, distant possibility that US-Cambodian relations would change. That vague distant possibility is now a reality."

That's grim news for the Chea family. Borom Chea, now 26, was born in a Cambodian slave camp. He was just four years old in 1981 when he and his family came to the United States, settling in Sacramento. His mother raised three kids while working several jobs and attending college. She later reunited with her estranged husband, opened a small grocery store, and moved the family out of the ghetto.

By that time, however, Borom was running with the wrong crowd. At seventeen, he and five friends were arrested for a home invasion robbery. Tried as an adult, he served seven and a half years in state prison. Upon his release in May 2001, immigration officials greeted him. Borom is now in Bakersville state prison with about fifty other Cambodians awaiting deportation. He could be shipped off in the next week, according to his youngest sister Keo Chea. "We didn't know how important it was to have citizenship," she laments.

The other family members have since become citizens, but it's too late for Borom. "He doesn't speak the language there. He doesn't know the customs. It's a nightmare for us," says Keo, 22. "It's one thing to send someone back to a home country where they were originally brought up. But to Cambodia, where it's a Third World struggling country where there's basically martial law? That's so scary."

Keo, who says her brother's plight has inspired her to become a lawyer, recently visited Cambodia to see what it would be like for Borom. What she found was hostility and resentment. "We were discriminated against and treated like we had deserted them." she says. "They're bitter they got left behind after the war and that we had left our country."


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