Politics, The World

These refugees were promised safety in America, so why are they being deported?

Zero-tolerance immigration policies are harming the vulnerable, not protecting them.

These refugees were promised a home that would safeguard them from the trauma of war and genocide. Now, they’re being deported to a country they once fought to escape as children.

Eight Cambodian American men in Minnesota, dubbed by advocates and their families as the ‘MN8’, are joining an upward of 600 Cambodian refugees that have been deported by U.S. immigration officials back to Cambodia, thanks to a 2002 repatriation agreement that opened the pathway for refugees to be deported back to their country of birth.

Only one of the MN8 have been released back to their family since the #ReleaseMN8 campaign was created almost a year ago. Four have since been deported, while three remain in Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody today.

The families of the remaining MN8 aren’t stopping here: The tireless fight remains for them as they continue to rally advocates and lawmakers around their pleas for atonement, reform, and compassion for refugee plight.

About 1.2 million refugees from Southeast Asia fled their war-torn homes to resettle as refugees in the United States starting in the late-1970s. The largest of that group were Cambodians, who were fleeing the Khmer Rouge regime that had ultimately claimed the lives of about two million Cambodians. Many of these refugees came to the U.S. as infants or small children, and the U.S. has been the only home they ever knew. Now harsh U.S. immigration policy is punishing those who need protection the most.

Southeast Asian Americans have historically been disadvantaged in the United States, experiencing the highest rates of poverty, high school dropout rates and limited English-language proficiency among the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community. They are also more likely to enter the school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline and are 3-5 times more likely to be deported due to a past criminal conviction compared to any other immigrant community.

While many Southeast Asian American may have followed a troublesome path in their youth as a reaction to the trauma from war and resettlement, the MN8 had been lawful legal residents who have made sincere efforts to get their lives together after serving time. All of them eventually had their own families in the United States and had rooted themselves in a place they’ve called home since childhood.

Although the MN8 refugees served their sentences for the aggravated felonies on their records, the current zero-tolerance immigration policy standard in the U.S. failed to work in their favor. Because of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, judges largely ignore family ties, atonement, and rehabilitation in deportation proceedings.

The mass deportations have become so concerning that the Cambodian government is even publicly expressing their concerns.

“We cannot stand by as the US deems Cambodian people unworthy of humanity and compassion,” Sieng Lapresse, an adviser to the Cambodian government told NBC News earlier this year.

The U.S. has largely ignored the plight of Southeast Asian Americans because of damaging myths like the “model minority” so often attached to all Asian Americans. These refugees came to the U.S. with the promise that they could safely settle into a country that would protect them against the turmoil triggered in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The MN8 refugees are not only survivors of war, but they are also victims of a system that failed to uplift their communities and assure their success.

The fate of the remaining MN8 feels even more uncertain under the Trump Administration, especially after the administration has made continuous promises of cracking down on immigration and prioritizing the deportation of both undocumented and legal residents with any degree of a criminal record.

U.S. immigration policy is punishing those with a lifetime of trauma on their backs. There is something deeply wrong with a system that not only triggered displacement in the first place but is now punishing those it displaced by deporting them to the very places they fled.

There is no justice in these measures – only more broken families and promises to a generation of refugees.

  • Alicia Soller

    Alicia Soller is a first generation-born Filipinx American digital storyteller committed to uplifting the narratives of communities of color. She is a graduate of the University of Florida, where she received her B.S. in Journalism and began her involvement with community organizing. She currently does freelance writing, marketing and design work with non-profit organizations.