No Way Home

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge attempted to turn Cambodia into a classless society. Everyday freedoms were abolished. Buddhism and other forms of religion were banned. Money, markets, and media disappeared, as did contact with the outside world. Travel, public gatherings, and communication were restricted. And the state set out to control what people did each day, whom they married, how they spoke, what they thought, and who would live or die. “To keep you is no gain,” the Khmer Rouge warned, “To destroy you is no loss.” The Khmer Rouge is the sole reason Moek’s parents immigrated to the U.S., along with more than 145,000 other Cambodian refugees who came between 1975 and 1999.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act didn’t just create more opportunities to deport non-citizens—it also took away the discretion judges once had in determining whether some of them could in fact remain in the U.S. In fact, permanent residents no longer have the right to a pre-deportation hearing should they ever come under investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. At these hearings, now available only to refugees, judges can take a number of factors into account, such as remorse, rehabilitation, family support in the U.S., employment and educational opportunities, demeanor and attitude, and social network.

They might also consider whether an individual had children, and whether he had resided in the U.S. for at least seven years. Judges could even postpone their decision in order to monitor the individual’s behavior for a period of time before rendering a decision.

Sheila Stuhlman, a lawyer at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, in St. Paul, said that these kinds of mitigating factors can make deportation too harsh of an outcome for permanent residents. “There are many cases where family members here in the U.S. depend on the individual for emotional and financial support,” she told me. “It’s not right to send people to a country they do not call home without giving them the opportunity to argue for a second chance and to show what they’ve done to turn their lives around.”

“I really do think there are many people we could point to who, when given a second chance, have done much for society,” said Bill Hing, a professor and researcher at the University of California-Davis. His book, Deporting our Souls: Values, Morality and Immigration Policy considers the ramifications of the act and will be published in August. “The system worked very well prior to 1996,” he added. “Judges had the chance to review the evidence and decide if the person should be allowed to stay. They were not always convinced, and I am fine with that.”

The current policy, however, is objectionable for several reasons—including moral ones, said Hing. “Should people be deported when the U.S. has been involved in creating the conditions that led to their becoming refugees?” he pointed out. “After all, Cambodian refugees would not have become refugees but for U.S. policy. And yet, the U.S. is not being held accountable for any of its own actions.”

In other words, Hing believes the U.S. bears a burden of responsibility for the well-being of refugees from Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries. In spite of our government admitting its culpability in the Vietnam conflict and the difficulties that so many Southeast Asians have had in resettling in the U.S., the response to Cambodian criminality is, essentially, one strike and you’re out. “Moral considerations and an ethic of responsibility compel us to re-think the entire concept of deportation,” said Hing.

Perhaps not surprisingly, he believes that adopting a rehabilitative approach to justice could be most appropriate and effective. “What some term ‘relational justice’—with the goal of avoiding injustice and promoting legitimacy and good relationships—makes a good deal of sense as a set of guiding principles for the removal process,” he said. That is in part because the families of deportees also pay a price, both a fiscal and an emotional one. According to Hing, that only reinforces the need for social services, continues the cycle of poverty, and increases the potential for more criminal behavior. “When we repatriate Cambodian refugees, we further destroy a family at a time when the family needs, more than ever before, to be whole.”

“It’s over for me.” That was Moek’s first thought upon learning he was to be permanently exiled from the U.S. “I realized I’d probably never see my mother or my siblings ever again.” He hadn’t seen any family in more than three years; they never had the money to travel to Pennsylvania to visit him in prison, so he doubted they’ve ever make their way to Cambodia.

Because Moek was a felon, he was not guaranteed a court-appointed lawyer during the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s removal procedure. “My mom wanted to hire one but I told her not to—she couldn’t afford that,” Moek says. So he was in the dark about the deportation process. “I didn’t know what was going to happen to me next, but I didn’t think they’d send me to Cambodia. I basically was in shock. I didn’t know anything about the country other than what my parents told me about the Pol Pot regime.”

These days, Moek keeps in touch with family in Minnesota through phone calls and email. He tells me he’s excited that his mother plans to travel to Phnom Penh, with a friend, in August. But then he looks down at his folded hands on the table and slips into private thoughts. His right arm is tattooed, “So many years, so many tears.” He looks sad. “I also am a father, you know,” Moek says. Lakhan, now seven years old, was a toddler when Moek was arrested. “I stay in contact with him by telephone when he’s at my mom’s house on weekends—I miss him every single day,” he says. “I hope some day he wants to come here to meet me.”

A few weeks later, I was back in St. Paul. I visited Moek’s family members, who all live together in a crowded town home at McDonough Homes, St. Paul’s largest public housing project, which is almost exclusively the domain of Southeast Asian refugees. Lakhan, who was visiting his grandmother, aunts, and uncles with his mother, Angkheabos Chung, sat on a couch in the living room. He was restless, like any seven-year-old boy. He was wearing a Timberwolves jersey. He listened to his mother and grandmother talk about his father. “I want to go to Cambodia to see my dad,” he interjected. Chung said Moek was an attentive father before he was sent to prison. “His deportation has affected us all,” she said, meaning not just Moek’s mother and siblings, but her and their son, as well. “A lot of things would be different for us if he were here. But it’s hardest on Lakhan. Sometimes he gets angry and asks me why his dad isn’t here.” Lakhan kept listening. “You know,” she continued, “He was really excited to come here tonight. He wanted to meet a woman who had just seen his dad.” Lakhan and I were sitting next to each other on the couch. We looked at each other. I did see his father in him. They both fiddle with, and look down at, their folded hands when they talk.

Given how she fled Cambodia, Moek’s mother now lives in terror for her son’s safety there. “I pray every day for Khan,” said Sath Soa, whose faith is a mix of her native Buddhism and the Catholicism preached by the church that sponsored her immigration to the U.S.

“We were all put on a U.S. federal marshal’s plane. Our hands were cuffed behind our backs and our feet were chained,” Moek recounts. It takes at least twenty hours to fly from the East Coast of the U.S. to Phnom Penh. “There were Filipinos on our plane, so we landed there first. Then we took off for Phnom Penh,” he continues. “When we got off the plane there were police and military officials waiting for us. I was scared to death. I thought they were going to kill us … seriously. I just prayed.” Moek doesn’t really define his religion, and is amused by the question. Like his mother’s, it’s kind of a mix of Buddhism and Christianity. All he knows is that he gets down on his knees to pray to see his family again.

“The next thing I remember, we were given the equivalent of ten dollars and locked in a cell. I couldn’t eat any of the food given to me or sleep,” he said. The next day, Bill Herod showed up. He had helped set up the organization that would become the Returnee Integration Support Program. “He explained how things work in this country. He told us how the money worked, how the phones worked, and about the RISP program. But I didn’t trust the guy. Everyone seemed grimy and corrupt to me. I didn’t trust nobody.”

Moek had a photograph of an uncle whom he’d never met. “My mother sent it to me so I would know who was going to come and pick me up,” he says. “He paid the officials some money and took me to my grandmother’s house out in the countryside.” It was about a three-hour trip from the city. The Khmer Rouge often left rural farmers alone, and Moek had a handful of extended family members who lived about three hours from the city, sharing a small, one-room thatched hut. “I slept outside in a hammock stretched between two coconut trees,” Moek says. “There was no electricity, no running water, and no toilet.” He was taken in by extended family, but his grandmother was the only one who seemed to accept him. His daily chores included washing clothes in a stream and taking the cows out to pasture to graze. He could speak Khmer, but that was not enough for him to slip into a new life in rural Cambodia. “You never experience that kind of stuff in the U.S. It was real culture shock for me.” Nearly half of all Cambodians live on less than the equivalent of a dollar a day—below the poverty line of even this developing country.

Moek made his way back to Phnom Penh. “I went to an Internet café to call my family. They sent me enough money to get my own apartment,” he recalls. Moek describes feeling as though he was from two worlds. In the U.S. he was seen, primarily, as Cambodian. “But here, Cambodians see us returnees like animals released from cages. They’d be rude to us and call us names like motherf—er. They’d say we were not Cambodians.” He learned to keep his distance. “I’d be polite and just sit and drink my coffee alone, but people would just stare at me. It was my accent or the way I dressed.” It’s easy to see how “returnees” like Moek, who never actually lived in Cambodia, are immediately pegged as outsiders. They don’t have a mastery of the Khmer language, they are often tattooed (unusual in Cambodia), and they retain their American-style clothing. “They don’t wear short sleeves and shorts here,” Moek explains. Additionally, most native Cambodians would love to live in the U.S. and do not understand how people like Moek could have thrown away such an opportunity.

Given his different, but equally tenuous, situation in the city, it’s not surprising that things didn’t go well for him there, either. “I couldn’t find a job and my money ran out in four months. That’s when I went back to my grandmother’s house to give it another try.” This time, he was put in charge of raising chickens. “But the chickens all died because there was nothing for them to eat,” Moek says. He went to Phnom Penh once again and found work at the Intercontinental Hotel. “But I was eventually fired because I came to work after drinking.”

Finally, he called Herod. “I told him I was sorry for disappointing him but that I wanted to do whatever it takes to be accepted to the program. I told him I wanted to start over.”

Herod says Moek’s experience after arriving to Cambodia is not unusual. “Many returnees are depressed and angry for being ripped away from the U.S. and their families,” he said. Put simply, many of them truly believed that their U.S. Permanent Resident status was actually “permanent.” They are shocked, hurt, and enraged about their deportation. They feel betrayed. “Today, he seems to be doing well after the difficult time he had, in the beginning, to settle in,” said Herod of Moek.

Two-and-a-half years after arriving in Cambodia, Moek is kind of a success story for the reintegration program. As a housing manager, he makes enough money to live on his own in a nearby apartment. But he still doesn’t mingle much with locals. His life is mainly about connecting with other returnees through the program. Total assimilation is unrealistic. Moek lived apart from mainstream American society while growing up in St. Paul and, in a way, is even more of an outsider here. His high school principal described Moek as having a foot in two worlds when he lived in Minnesota; today he straddles two identities in Phnom Penh. He’s Cambodian, but he’s not of Cambodia.

At one point, we take a break and meander the grounds of the dorm house that Moek manages. “That’s the kitchen where everyone must help to cook. That’s the bathroom.” “Here,” he points to a few chairs and a bench press, “we have another place to sit if we want to relax, or we can exercise.” It’s hardly Club Med, but it’s better than most local standards of living.

We come again to Toby, the monkey, in his cage. Another resident teases Toby by holding one of the pet cats to the cage. Toby reaches his tiny hand through the bars, trying to grab one of its paws. “He ran away once, along the tangled tree tops, and ever since we got him back he’s had to be caged,” Moek explains. “He got the taste of freedom once,” he laughs. “He would love to escape again.”

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