The hip-hop hit “A Lot,” by the rapper 21 Savage, boomed through the speakers at Phnom Penh’s Cool Lounge, the rapid-fire verses spilling from the bar onto the Cambodian capital’s hectic streets.
“Been through some things, but I couldn’t imagine my kids stuck at the border,” rapped the British-born artist who was recently detained in the U.S. on suspicion of overstaying his 2006 visa.
The lyrics and the Atlanta-based rapper’s story, perhaps foreign to most Cambodians, resonated with the bar’s clientele, which included some of the more than 700 Cambodians deported from the United States over criminal convictions since a 2002 repatriation agreement.
During his second term, President Obama prioritized removing migrants with criminal convictions. The Trump administration has since ramped up deportations, including of Cambodians and Southeast Asians, expanding the list of targets and the acts for which they can be removed, some for cases more than a decade old.
But sitting inside the Cool Lounge on a recent afternoon, a tattooed, soft-spoken California man who was deported in 2014 to Cambodia — a country he’d never set foot in — was preparing to embark on a journey that had given other deportees hope.
Veasna Meth, 30, spent the last five years apart from family members in Sacramento, including wife Sandy Ho and their children — son Jorden, 12, and 1-year-old Lily.
Now Meth is one of the first Cambodians to be allowed to return after the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Sessions vs. Dimaya, which struck down part of a broad federal immigration law that mandated the removal of noncitizens, including longtime green-card holders, who were convicted of a “crime of violence.”
The court determined that the statute’s language was vague, voiding the deportation order of a Philippine man who had twice pleaded guilty to breaking into an unoccupied California house.
As a 19-year-old, Meth and his friends broke into an empty house. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to residential burglary, then served one year in prison. A court initially ruled that it was not a “crime of violence” and therefore not an aggravated felony under the federal law, which would have required the cancellation of his green card.
But in 2013, the Department of Homeland Security appealed the decision and won, raising Meth’s conviction to an aggravated felony that invalidated his green card.
Meth said that, months later, immigration authorities came to his mother’s house, asking where he was. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent eventually called him, posing as a parole officer.
“They said they wanted me to sign some paper. And I was like, ‘OK, I’m at work, you wanna meet me here?’ ” he recalled. “Twenty minutes later, three cars showed up.”
Authorities picked him up from his job as a fabricator, where he made signs and boxes out of acrylic, and in January 2014 deported him.
His story is typical of Cambodian deportees, the overwhelming majority of whom arrived in the U.S. as children, their parents having fled the country in the 1970s when the Khmer Rouge began its genocidal campaign that killed nearly 2 million people.
Some deportees were born in refugee camps in Thailand or, like Meth, the Philippines; most had lived in the U.S. for decades and obtained green cards. Many, like Meth, had never been to Cambodia before they were deported and had few if any relatives still living there.
Meth emigrated to the U.S. as a 5-month-old and grew up in California, in low-income communities in Long Beach, Modesto and Stockton, often surrounded by gang violence.
He said he and his parents didn’t understand the importance of pursuing U.S. citizenship, believing his permanent residency to be genuinely permanent.
After arriving in Cambodia, Meth for the first time met his aunt, the only member of his family remaining in the country. And although he speaks Khmer, he can’t read or write in Cambodia’s language.
Native Cambodians, he said, view deportees as suspicious foreigners. “They don’t like us with tattoos,” he said in a California accent as West Coast rap played over the speakers at the Cool Lounge. “They say that we’re the bad guys.”
Learning to live in Cambodia “was a culture shock,” he said. “And then depression, because my son was still young and my wife was there by herself.”
Ho, an accountant who visited him in Cambodia nearly every year, had to support their family on her own.
“I’m just in disbelief how the system worked and my husband was wrongfully deported,” Ho said. “Like literally, at that point, what do I do?”
Meth was living alone, without a Cambodian identification card required for him to work legally. His situation became even more complicated when he suffered a serious motorcycle crash that left him paralyzed for months — a common occurrence in Cambodia, where road accidents are the leading cause of death.
Friends and family raised money for his surgery, but the dearth of quality medical providers in Cambodia stunted his recovery, leaving him with a pronounced limp and unable to lift heavy objects.
Other deportees have been less fortunate: Sophorn San of Providence, R.I., who arrived in Cambodia in December, died in a gruesome motorcycle crash last month.
While recovering from his crash, Meth contacted the legal aid organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus. In May, one month after the Supreme Court decision, lawyers filed a motion to reconsider Meth’s deportation.
We all dream of bringing deportees home. Veasna is hopefully just the beginning.
The high court’s 5-4 ruling was the result of an unlikely alliance between its liberal justices and Neil M. Gorsuch, President Trump’s first appointee to the court. In a partially concurring opinion, Gorsuch wrote that the statute’s vagueness left “judges to their intuitions and the people to their fate.”
Immigration advocates hailed the ruling, saying it would spare thousands of legal residents from deportation. But the Trump administration has pushed back against individual cases.
Department of Homeland Security lawyers opposed Meth’s repatriation, according to court documents reviewed by The Times. Contacted for this article, a representative referred to an earlier statement by the department that the Supreme Court ruling “allows our nation to be a safe haven for criminals and makes us more vulnerable as a result.”
But in November, an immigration judge sided with Meth, declaring his removal order “erroneous” and restoring his green card.
Advocates hope the Dimaya ruling will open doors for the return of other noncitizens.
“We all dream of bringing deportees home,” said Kevin Lo, one of Meth’s lawyers. “Veasna is hopefully just the beginning.”
But others warn that immigration judges retain vast discretion and can refuse for any reason to reopen cases, even those involving the “crime of violence” convictions addressed by the court. Individual cases such as Meth’s do not set a precedent, they say.
Bill Herod, the American founder of the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, a Phnom Penh-based assistance group for deportees, urged Cambodians removed from the U.S. not to get their hopes up.
“Those considering legal action permitting their return to the U.S. will have our cooperation,” he said in a statement. “But as the process may be lengthy and uncertain, we hope this will not interfere with the hard work they are now doing in building new lives of freedom and responsibility in Cambodia.”
Meth never thought he would get back to the U.S. and seemed in disbelief even days before his flight.
“Coming here, it’s always in the back of my mind that I want to go home,” he said. “While you keep going with your life, you try something.… If it work out, it work out. It doesn’t matter how long it take.”
Meth sat at the Cool Lounge with a group of friends munching on takeout Mexican food, a cuisine that reminded them of California. The bar draws a large clientele of deportees — its owner was also sent back from the U.S. — and Meth was struggling to shake a kind of survivor’s guilt.
“You’re here for a certain time and then you bond, you become brothers because that’s all you got,” he said. “I’m blessed, man. It’s hard to explain the feeling because, at the end of the day, I got friends here with kids and no chance of going home.”
On Feb. 27, Meth departed Phnom Penh for San Francisco, carrying physical and emotional scars from Cambodia: He wore a shirt depicting San, the deportee killed in the recent crash, flanked by graffitied angel wings.
“I’m excited to see my kids and to be back on American soil,” Meth said in a text message after landing. “I don’t quite know how to express it, but I just want to go outside and kiss the ground or something.”
Dunst is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Singapore contributed to this report.