The dorm house where Khan Moek works is on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. It is run by the Returnee Integration Support Program (RISP), a venture supported by the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. The program offers a number of support services to help Cambodian felons who are deported from the U.S. learn to live in a country where they are nominal citizens, but utter foreigners in every other way.
The house is a dusty fifteen-minute ride on the back of a motor scooter. I wrap a scarf around my nose and mouth as my motor-scooter driver weaves through heavy traffic, heading from the Independence Monument in the city center to a lesser-developed neighborhood. There are no traffic lanes and few stop lights, but everyone drives courteously. From the paved street the driver turns onto a narrow dirt road, barnacled with rocks, leading to the RISP house. Chickens loiter inside the concrete-walled yard and Toby, a pet monkey given to one of the staff members, swings about in his cramped cage, excited to see new people on the premises.
The two parts of the city are worlds, and seemingly decades, apart. Near the urbane square, you can pay U.S. prices for an iced latte in a café run by a Westerner and patronized by expats, or check email at any of a handful of internet cafés. Meanwhile, in the neighborhood where the RISP house is located, many homes lack indoor plumbing.
Moek greets me as I pay my driver what amounts to about one U.S. dollar. Warm and soft-spoken, with a fit, slim build, Moek is obviously proud of the condition of the home and its grounds—he is in charge of managing this place. He invites me to sit beneath a banana tree at a chunky wooden picnic table. The heat and humidity is indescribable. “Oppressive” and “stifling” mean nothing, even though I scribble these words on my notepad. I’ve only been in Phnom Penh a couple of days, and when I breathe, it’s with the same heaviness as if I were in a sauna. Sweat drips, clothes stick. You forget about even attempting to look as cool or composed as the Cambodians seem to be. Moek looks at me and smiles. He knows what it’s like to be dropped into this climate from Minnesota’s cooler temperatures.
“It’s not easy to acclimate,” I say, rolling up my pant legs. “I know,” he replies. A resident at the dorm house brings us shade-cooled bottles of water (ice is out of the question). Like the others, he was deported from the U.S. for committing a felony. I’m curious to know what he was convicted for, but I don’t ask—due to the recent tightening of immigration laws, it could have been anything from rape to theft.
Moek, however, wants to tell me his story. As he begins talking, he sounds sincere and, well, honest. “I’ll tell you the truth because you can find it out anyway,” he says. He bounces back and forth between the past and present with unease and trepidation. Moek, who is twenty-four, says he has two big regrets: joining a gang and not encouraging his parents to become U.S. citizens. If they had, citizenship would also have been conferred upon their children under the age of eighteen. By the time Moek was eligible to take the test for himself, his trouble with the law disqualified him from pursuing citizenship. He didn’t know it at the time, but those choices sealed his fate: not only to be convicted of a crime, but also to be banished from the only country he knew.
Moek was three-and-a-half years old when he—along with two younger sisters, Savan and San—arrived in the U.S. with their parents. It was 1984, and the family had been living in a Thai refugee camp since 1977, when Moek’s parents fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Their story is not unusual. The conditions of life in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge are well-known. Eighty-five percent of the population was subjected to brainwashing and forced labor, and suffered lack of food, water, shelter, and medical care. Thirty-six percent of the people reported torture; seventeen percent reported rape or sexual abuse; and fifty-four percent experienced the murder of a family member or friend. In all, an estimated two million of Cambodia’s eight million citizens perished from disease, starvation, overwork, or outright execution during one of the world’s most notorious genocides. Meanwhile, those who made it to refugee camps suffered from depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and a host of other psychological ailments.
With the help of U.S.-sanctioned policies and programs, Cambodian refugees began arriving on our shores in the mid-seventies. However, critics say poor preparation, as well as a lack of resources and other support, laid the groundwork for an immigrant community that would remain at risk for all kinds of problems associated with poverty and racism—including drug use, gangs, and crime. Even those Cambodians who came here as toddlers or were born here would suffer.
Moek’s parents had two more children, his brothers Sokhen and Sohkom, after arriving in the U.S. They were U.S. citizens from birth, while the rest of the family lived here as permanent residents. It’s a common scenario. “My mother and father never became citizens because they couldn’t pass the language requirements,” Khan tells me. “I never even thought about citizenship for myself—honestly, I didn’t think I needed it.”
As a teenager, Moek was a good son, said his mother, Sath Soa. “Family was important to him,” she told me, while sitting cross-legged on the floor in her living room in St. Paul, cradling a newborn grandchild. “He helped take care of the younger children and was good in school.” Moek worked at the United Cambodia Association of Minnesota translating letters and organizing events for Cambodian youth, she said. He scored A’s and B’s at Guadalupe Alternative Programs, an alternative school in West St. Paul. Jody Nelson, the principal, remembers Moek well. “He was a leader—that was clear early on,” she told me. She cannot seem to say enough glowing things about him as a student. “He was respectful to his peers and teachers and was very involved in extracurricular activities, including the student government board.” Nelson and other staff members at the school were saddened by the “mistake,” as she called it, that lead to his arrest. “But that didn’t make a difference to me.”
Nor, apparently, did Moek’s involvement in the Red Cambodian Bloods gang. “It’s an urban reality,” Nelson said. “Many of our students are gang members, but I wouldn’t categorize them as serious gangsters. Many of them belong out of safety or the need to belong to something. But what I see is that most of the kids eventually grow out of the gang activity when they are ready to graduate, have kids, or find girlfriends.” She saw that in Moek. “He was close to his girlfriend, they seemed to have a good relationship, and he was really involved in their baby’s life.”
Unlike Sath Soa and Jody Nelson, Moek readily admits that he wasn’t a perfect teenager. But he echoes Nelson in explaining why he joined the Bloods. “It doesn’t matter if you’re not in a gang,” Moek says. “Members of other gangs figured I was and targeted me anyway, just because I was Cambodian. I guess I joined the RCB so I’d have some power and they’d know to leave me alone.”
Nelson said that Guadalupe Alternative Programs only admits students whom teachers and other staff members believe they can invest in. “[Moek] was one of those students,” she said. “He was someone who had a lot of potential to make a difference in the world.”
Before he could do that, however, Moek was one of seven men indicted on charges stemming from five bank robberies that took place in the St. Paul area in 1998 and 1999. Between December 1998 and March 1999, authorities tracked guns, body armor, ammunition, and cars that they believed were used to carry out the robberies. One gun was linked to Moek. He was arrested in July 1999 and charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, for supplying one of the weapons.
“I had it, but it wasn’t mine,” Moek says of the gun. He doesn’t offer any further explanation, but does note that “it was my first charge as an adult.” He had faced previous offenses as a juvenile—and spent time one summer in a correctional program that involved living and working on a family farm—though again, he won’t elaborate. “I never hurt anyone,” he insists.
Moek was eventually let out of jail pending trial. In 2001, he was convicted on the conspiracy charge and sentenced to three years in the Allenwood Federal Correctional Institution in Union Country, Pennsylvania. Only after serving those three years did he find out that his lifelong sentence had just begun. Upon his release from Allenwood in 2004, he was immediately transferred to a nearby county jail. That’s when U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement stepped in to begin what is called the “removal process.”
The U.S. removes, or deports, any non-citizen of any status who is convicted of an aggravated felony, following an administrative procedure to find the person removable on that basis. This includes people who are convicted on misdemeanor charges that are then elevated to the status of an aggravated felony. That elevation became possible with legislation passed by a Republican congress during the height of anti-immigrant sentiment in 1996. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRAIRA) greatly expanded the number of crimes that are considered an aggravated felony for immigration purposes, including non-violent misdemeanors like shoplifting and possession of marijuana. Conspiracy charges are also considered an “aggravated felony” under the act. What’s more, the law is retroactive—which means that officials have leeway to target, round up, and banish untold thousands of non-citizens years after they had done time for a misdemeanor. By cementing relationships among local law enforcement, the Justice Department, and immigration officials, the act has ensured that increasing numbers of immigrants caught up in local judicial systems will also find themselves facing the feds. In the four years after the act passed, the number of defendants in federal courts facing immigration charges more than doubled, from 6,605 in 1996 to 15,613 in 2000.
According to the most recent statistics, in fiscal year 2005, a total of 204,193 people were deported—usually back to their country of citizenship. Most were categorized simply as non-criminal removals, but 87,256 of those people had been convicted of crimes and so were categorized as criminal removals.
Moek is one of 145 Cambodians convicted of crimes in the U.S. who have been removed by the U.S. government in the last four years. They also include a man in his eighties and a woman who left her children behind in the U.S. with relatives. According to the Southeast Asian Action Center in Washington, D.C., twelve Cambodians were sent to Phnom Penh this February, and an estimated 1,500 more are caught in the removal process, perhaps to be deported. Removals to Cambodia began only in 2002, after the country signed a repatriation agreement with the U.S. in March of that year—just months after Moek went to prison in Pennsylvania. The terms of the agreement were hashed out in secret talks that determined Cambodia would receive its citizens who had been convicted of crimes and had completed their jail or prison sentences in the U.S. The U.S. would pay the Cambodian government two hundred dollars per person, money intended to help the person get settled.
Before 2002, the U.S. didn’t deport anyone—refugees, permanent residents, or convicts—to communist countries. After all, it was held, these people (or their parents) had fled persecution; what’s more, U.S. diplomatic ties with such countries weren’t particularly strong. Now, the U.S. is negotiating agreements with Vietnam and Laos that are similar to its deal with Cambodia; however, Cuba is not on the list. Given how the U.S. government portrays Fidel Castro, forcing Cubans on our soil to go back there would be politically explosive—remember Elian Gonzalez? Cambodia and Laos, however, don’t carry the same political and diplomatic stigmas, and have even become legal tourist destinations. Deporting Cambodians to that country—despite the fact it is foreign to them—doesn’t seem so harsh when more and more Americans are traveling there to see Angkor Wat, or reading about Angelina Jolie adopting a child from one of its orphanages.
By far, Mexicans make up the largest number of deportees in both criminal and non-criminal cases. Some Asian, African, and Central American countries represent most of the rest of the removals from the U.S. But unlike those countries, Cambodia suffered an intensive U.S.-led conflict—at least one that’s in the history books. Between 1969 and 1973, American planes dropped 540,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia in a campaign aimed at wiping out the Vietcong. The bombings, secretly ordered by President Nixon without congressional approval, killed as many as 150,000 civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more, eventually destabilizing the country enough for the Khmer Rouge rebels to take over.