Guest blogger: Grey Hensarling, law student, University of San Francisco:
Escape from the Khmer Rouge
Recently, ICE has targeted the Southeast Asian community for deportation, separating many families and leaving them in turmoil. I sat down with Chivy, who has been affected by the increased number of removals of Cambodians since late last year. Chivy shared with me the story of her family’s traumatic journey to the United States. Her family moved to the United States as one of a massive number who fled the Khmer Rouge during a mass genocide which killed an estimated 1.7 to 3 million people from 1975 to 1979--roughly a fifth of the country’s population.
Q: “When did your family move to the U.S.?”
A: “In 1982. They escaped the Khmer Rouge during the late 70s. My mom and dad's villages were pretty close to the border to Thailand, so they had to cross the mountains into Thailand. [My mother] was hiking while pregnant with my middle sister when they were escaping. I was supposed to have an older sister who was born in ’77 or ’78. But, she died of some mysterious disease while they were hiding and escaping in the mountains. I was the only one who was born here [in the U.S.]. I was born in ’86.””
Q: “Where are your parents?”
A: “They are currently in Cambodia right now for over 2 months. They are visiting my brother.”
Q: “Did they speak English when they moved to the U.S.?”
A: “They did not know English. There was a program in south Seattle that kind of taught you basic English. Their English still isn’t very good.”
Q: “How old were they?”
A: “I think they were around 35.”
Q: “Why the U.S.?”
A: “After Thailand, they went to the Philippines for a bit and I think they were supposed to go to France. So, a lot of my dad's side of the family are currently French citizens. My dad's the youngest out of 9. A lot of them escaped and went to France. My dad's the only sibling that came to America because he had my grandma who was really old at the time. She couldn't sit at the airport because she was super old and so they got a quicker flight out to Seattle and that's why we’re American. I could have been French.”
Q: “When did they take the naturalization test?”
A: “They did that when I was in high school. So, it took them a while. [My father] had to take it twice. ‘I take a walk in the park every day’ was the sentence that he couldn't write.”
Q: “What is your impression of their immigration process?”
A: “It was easier for them because of Reagan’s amnesty act. They all got green cards. It wasn't an issue until now. I think everyone is a citizen now except maybe my middle sister and, obviously, my brother.”
Of those ICE has selected, those with old criminal charges have been among the first removed. Many came to the United States as children escaping the Khmer Rouge. As a result of their chaotic childhood, many turned to crime and gang membership but have since turned their lives around. The stories of those being removed can sometimes come down to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Chivy’s brother, Khemera, had been in prison for 27 years; most of his life. As a youth in the United States, Khemera had been in and out of trouble with the law. Even though he escaped the Khmer Rouge he is still affected by it. Those who have turned to violence are merely a reflection of having spent an early childhood surrounded by mass genocide and civil war.
In 1990, Khemera was a 19-year-old high school student and a member of a local street gang. At the school was a group of about forty students who called themselves the “Cowboys.” They wore Western clothing, listened to country music, and drove pick-up trucks. Tensions grew when one of the Cowboys made a rude remark and gesture toward one of Khemera’s gang members. The following day, Khemera told some of the Cowboys to meet at the local pizza restaurant following a football game. That night, escorted by a group of gang members, Khemera fired a gun twice into a crowd in the parking lot hitting two students and a bystander who was parking his pickup truck. None who were injured were members of the Cowboys.
At the age of 19, Khemera was convicted to a life sentence with the possibility of parole for three counts of attempted murder with enhancements for the use of a firearm. Khemera consistently maintained his innocence. In 2010, he was denied parole. But, under a new law Khemera was found eligible for having been convicted of a crime under the age of 23. Late 2017, Khemera was granted parole based on earning an associate degree, remaining free from disciplinary action, and being designated “low risk” by the prison psychologist.
Immediately following the news of his release came an order for Khemera’s deportation back to Cambodia. Chivy’s fight to win her brother’s freedom began early in her life. The majority of their interactions have been during his incarceration. Chivy shared her account of her visit with her brother during his detention by ICE.
Q: “Did you live with your brother?”
A: “When I was a kid. Because, he went to jail in 1990, and I was born in ‘86.”
Q: “So, you visited him in holding, how were the conditions there?”
A: “I got a phone call saying my brother's going to be here for another night. The only day I can visit him is Monday between 6:00 and 8:00 at night. So, I took work off and I went with my boyfriend Daniel and drove out there. They wouldn't let anybody in until 6:00 pm, but what I noticed was that everyone there was Southeast Asian. I think around 80% of the families who were waiting were Cambodian.”
Q: “When was this?”
A: “This was around Christmas time when I went to visit him in an ICE center.
“I was waiting there for a while. There were two people working.”
“One left and there was just one security guard checking everybody in. As soon as we get through the metal detectors they have us in this area. Then they open this gate and let you kind of roam around freely. It was really weird. He just stood there and pointed to what building whoever you wanted to see was in, by yourself. I kind of just followed the people who looked like me honestly. So, we all get to this room with telephones. When I used to visit my brother in prison you were in a cafeteria, there were vending machines, I could give him a hug. You’re there with him; it’s like you and me.”
“It was the first time I had actually gone to a place that was like the movies where there was glass and a telephone. So, maybe 15 or 20 prisoners came out, and you had around 45 minutes to talk. It was kind of sad. I saw one man, I think he was Cambodian, super old man, I don’t think he did anything wrong. I think someone knew he was not a citizen and took him away. His family was there, children were in there. It was strange to me how few guards there were.”
“[My brother] was only in ICE for 5 months.”
Q: “What happened when he was released from prison?”
A: “He was released and flown down to LA for the Adelanto detention facility, for months. Then they moved him up to Sacramento, I think to be closer to the capital. Because my parents met him that morning to give him clothes and shoes, basically, and a cell phone. He didn’t take the cell phone because he had heard from friends who had gone through the same process that they take it away. He didn’t take anything of value with him. So, when he went to Cambodia he didn’t have anything.”
Q: “They take it away?”
A: “Yeah, he heard that people with cell phones or people with nice electronics would have them taken away by the guards. I think they do it just to be mean.”
“So, we got him a new phone. I think he has it now because my parents just got there [to Cambodia]. They’re setting him up in a house kind of by the temples. I heard he was offered a job in the capital. But, my parents want him to fix up the house first. He also got work painting some murals in restaurants. He painted two murals already which was pretty cool. And, so I don’t think he’s having a tough time finding work.”
This story is only one account of a family whose lives have been disrupted. Chivy waited nearly her entire life to be with her brother only to have him caught in the politics of immigration at the last minute. This should be a reminder that those who seek refuge in a new place are fighting their own battles against the memories of the places they left behind. And, sometimes immigration policies are on the wrong side of the fight.
April 22, 2018 | Permalink
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