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Cambodian immigrants with criminal pasts push back against ICE deportations

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Rickie Chhoeun, in white T-shirt, poses at a birthday party with two brothers and his sister at her Long Beach home in June 2019.
(Courtesy of the Chhoeun family)

Day to day, for Cambodian immigrants threatened with deportation, the struggle is not knowing when you might have your last meal with family, your last bike ride, your last hug with your mother or child, if authorities arrest you.

Rickie Chhoeun, an AT&T service technician from Long Beach, understands this all too well. An agent from Immigration and Customs Enforcement first nabbed him in October 2017 when he showed up for a regular meeting at an ICE office. Chhoeun was required to check in there annually because of his 1999 conviction for assault and carrying a firearm.

And it could happen again, he says, harking back to the nightmare of being shackled, then booked into Theo Lacy Jail, a maximum-security complex on the banks of the Santa Ana riverbed where he was detained, then later sent by bus to various detention centers.

He was not given an explanation for his treatment, and at times he had no chance to contact loved ones before his release in March 2018, after a judge found that his abrupt arrest violated his right to due process.

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“I always wonder when I leave the house if I will come back. Will the officials ever give us advance notice before they grab us?” Chhoeun, 44, said.

A judge’s recent ruling might give people like him — many haunted by prior criminal convictions but who have since transformed their lives — more protection.

In a 2017 lawsuit against ICE and the Department of Homeland Security representing about 900 class-action plaintiffs, advocates alleged that immigrants, including plaintiff Chhoeun, were illegally detained as part of the Trump administration’s 2017 unprecedented roundups, in which people of Cambodian descent with criminal records were jailed and, in some cases, deported.

Supporters believe that the administration is targeting Cambodians to fulfill Trump’s 2016 campaign promise that he would step up deportations of immigrants with criminal records, including refugees, said Jenny Zhao, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus based in San Francisco.

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The sudden actions sparked massive anxiety and pushback in Asian communities where activists said they refused to be silenced when the authorities tried to break up families.

U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney ruled last month that ICE should not detain the Cambodians based on old removal orders without notice, saying that doing so violated their due process. He also noted that, among those affected, many are married to U.S. citizens or have children born in the United States and, moreover, that immense barriers existed for them to obtain the paperwork needed to petition their cases from different agencies.

Paige D. Hughes, spokeswoman for ICE, said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Advocates hailed Cormac’s decision “because it’s an issue not just limited to Latino communities,” which is “a common perception,” Zhao said.

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The judge’s ruling “is a recognition that if people have been living here for decades, and if they’ve been following all the rules, that we treat them with some respect before we try to remove them,” said Sean Commons, a partner at Sidley Austin LLP, a law firm providing pro bono work for the lawsuit.

This month, attorneys are submitting a proposal outlining what due process should look like: how far in advance notice should be provided, how notice is served and what it should detail.

“If you grab someone on their way to work, who’s going to pick up their kids from school? And if they’re driving their only car, how will their family members get around? Some of the scenarios we’ve seen are heart-wrenching or they’re a complete disruption,” Commons said, adding that advocates are focused on keeping families together.

Class members in the lawsuit are largely Cambodian refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and ‘80s. In many cases, they grew up in tough neighborhoods with a heavy presence of gangs and, because of resettlement policies, a lot of them were placed in areas with failing schools, according to Zhao. “They made mistakes in their youth, but they’ve truly worked to pay back their communities.”

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One example is Chhoeun. Since being convicted, supporters say, he has turned his life around by being a dedicated employee, often asked to train fellow co-workers and winning 2016’s “Technician of the Year” at the AT&T job he started in 2014. He volunteered at a nonprofit and has opened his studio apartment to a former colleague who became homeless, helping him to find work and start a new life.

Kimsy Chhoeun, his older sister, said she is scared that hearing of her brother’s plight will affect their mother’s ailing health.

“We grew up during the Cambodian genocide and she struggled enough,” losing relatives and both of her parents during the terror-filled reign of the Khmer Rouge. “She is diabetic and has never been strong. All my brothers and sisters have tried to shield her from this type of news.

“I pray every day and I hope every day that they will never take him away again.”


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