A federal judge in Santa Ana issued a temporary restraining order Thursday preventing the Trump administration from deporting hundreds of Cambodian immigrants who have been convicted of crimes, including at least three men from the Sacramento area.
Over the past few months, an unknown number of Cambodians with felony records, possibly as many as 200, have been arrested across the country and targeted for deportation by the federal government. The Trump administration has been pushing Cambodia to repatriate these former nationals, many of whom fled with their families when they were small children or were born in Thai refugee camps.
There are more than 1,900 Cambodian nationals living in the U.S. who are subject to final removal orders, according to ICE. Of those, 1,412 have criminal convictions that caused them to lose legal status.
The first group of about 50 individuals was scheduled for expulsion on Dec. 18, according to court records. U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney said Thursday he was issuing a stay of removal until the court “can give proper consideration to the complex issues presented” by attorneys for the Cambodians.
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Holly Cooper of the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, representing long-time Davis resident Rottanak Kong, called the judge’s ruling “a huge victory for Cambodian immigrants whose criminal convictions are at least a decade old.”
Cooper said many Cambodians in detention have been moved between six or seven times to detention facilities in different states in the last 30 days, making it impossible for their attorneys to have meaningful access to their clients to review the legality of the removal orders.
For years, Cambodia has resisted repatriating felons like Kong from the United States, and the U.S is unable to send them back without the Cambodian government providing travel documents.
President Donald Trump’s administration has pushed aggressively in recent weeks to pressure Cambodia and other “recalcitrant” countries that don’t cooperate with deportations to change their stance and issue those travel papers.
In September, the United States stopped issuing visas to some high-level Cambodian dignitaries and their families to increase pressure, said Sophal Ear, a Cambodian expert and associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
Days later, Cambodian officials agreed to interview candidates for repatriation and may have issued as many as 80 travel documents to deportees, said attorney Kevin Lo of Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, part of the legal team that filed for the injunction on behalf of all 1,900 Cambodians potentially subject to removal.
Lo called the called the restraining order a legal “Hail Mary.” He said he didn’t expect to win, in part because the legal bar for stopping the deportations was high.
“We were pretty surprised; it was such a long shot,” Lo said.
Kong, the Davis resident, hasn’t been to Cambodia since he was a child and his family fled the brutal Khmer Rouge government, which slaughtered about 2 million people.
He was convicted of felony joyriding in 2003 in Stanislaus County at age 25 and sentenced to one year in jail.
Lo said the temporary order will give detained Cambodians under imminent threat of deportation like Kong time to potentially appeal or change the convictions that led to them losing their legal status in the first place.
One of the two lead defendants in the case, Mony Neth, 42, of Modesto, has appealed to Gov. Jerry Brown to pardon him — as have other Californians facing deportation.
Stanislaus County court records show Neth was convicted as a teenager in a 1995 case on a felony weapons charge with a gang enhancement, and a misdemeanor charge of receiving stolen property with a value of $400 or less. Court records also show that case was reopened on Dec. 8 and a Proposition 47 report entered into the court record – a possible sign that Neth’s case is being re-examined.
Cat Khamvongsa, Neth’s wife, said she last last saw her husband on Monday at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Facility near Elk Grove, where he has been held since October. She was allowed to deliver a suitcase to him and see him briefly before he was transferred to Texas for the deportation.
"We were able to just say goodbye through a glass window. We didn't get no hug or nothing," said Khamvongsa.
Their daughter, Angelina Neth, 16, was traveling in a separate car and didn't arrive in time to see her father.
Khamvongsa said she met Neth after he served his time in jail and married him shortly after.
"I met him when he came out and and we married two years later and he hasn’t gotten in trouble since then," she said.
She said Neth came to the United States when he was about 10 years old. Like Kong, his family had fled the Khmer Rouge regime when he was only a few months old, and lived for years in a Thai refugee camp.
After leaving jail, Neth worked as an electrician and later a solar panel installer. Khamvongsa said the couple is active in their church, Crosspoint Community Church, and members have been writing to Gov. Jerry Brown to urge him to grant the pardon. She is hopeful to hear news of that in coming weeks.
"I just feel like my husband deserves a second chance to be here with us and we just need him home," she said. "He keeps the family together."
The deportations remain clouded in secrecy. The government has declined to provide specific numbers of those detained or set for deportation. It also has not provided names of those to be deported.
Lo said his office had seen a letter from Cambodian officials confirming that that government expected a chartered flight with at least 50 Cambodians aboard to depart Monday, Dec. 18 at 1:30 p.m. from El Paso Texas and arrive in Cambodia on Wednesday.
“That flight was already set up,” said Lo. “We were almost dreading Monday.”
Lo said he has heard rumors that the flight was also scheduled to transport Vietnamese and Filipino deportees. Those individuals would not be covered by the Friday legal ruling.
ICE spokesman James Schwab said the government “does not comment on pending litigation, it’s too early to tell what is happening.”
The government has until Dec. 28 to file papers opposing the court order, and the attorneys representing the Cambodians will have until Jan 4 to reply. A court date has been set for Jan. 11 at 9 a.m. in the federal courthouse in Santa Ana.