At least two Sacramento-area Cambodian men have been detained for deportation by federal immigration authorities in what advocates are calling a targeted national sweep of the South Asian community, prompting a federal class action lawsuit arguing the detentions are illegal.
Sareang “Ryan” Ye, 43, and Phorn Tem, 27, both came to the United States with their families as children and obtained legal permanent resident status before they were convicted of crimes and lost that classification.
They were both detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on Oct. 19. In recent weeks, advocates say about 100 Cambodians with felony records have been arrested across the country, many of them with convictions dating back more than a decade.
Both men were held at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center in Elk Grove but have been sent to Louisiana this week for interviews with Cambodian officials to determine if that country would repatriate them, said attorney Kevin Lo of the Asian Law Caucus, part of the team that filed the federal lawsuit.
The suit centers on whether returning to Cambodia is a real possibility, said Lo.
Cambodia historically hasn’t cooperated with the United States when it comes to repatriating deportees. It often refuses or delays travel documents, said Lo.
With no place to send Cambodian deportees, the U.S. government is not legally allowed to hold them indefinitely: A 2001 Supreme Court ruling said the government couldn’t hold immigrants for more than six months without a realistic deportation plan.
For many immigrants convicted of felonies, deportation proceedings start as soon as their prison term ends. But for those from countries like Cambodia and more than a dozen others that don’t cooperate, immigration officials often release them back into their communities with open-ended final deportation orders, requiring periodic check-ins.
Many of those caught in the recent roundup, including Ye and Tem, have lived for years in that legal limbo and have built families and careers, said Lo.
There are more than 1,900 Cambodian nationals residing in the United States who have final orders of removal against them. More than 1,400 of those have criminal convictions, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
During his campaign, President Donald Trump repeatedly spoke about pressuring uncooperative countries like Cambodia to accept deportees. In September, the U.S. government began visa sanctions against four of those countries: Cambodia, Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“International law obligates each country to accept the return of its nationals ordered removed from the United States,” said Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Elaine Duke in a recent statement.
Cambodia recently responded by sending officials to the U.S. to review some requested deportations and meet with detainees, including Ye and Tem, said Lo.
But it remains uncertain whether Cambodia would accept the large number of Cambodians recently detained. The U.S. currently has 534 requests for travel documents pending with Cambodia, dating back to 2008, according to ICE.
The lawsuit argues that without that clear pathway to deportation, the detainees should be released.
It also argues that detained Cambodians “have received no adequate explanation of the reasons for detention, no opportunity to be heard regarding any purported reasons for detention and no individualized consideration ... regarding whether they pose a danger or flight risk.”
Lo said many of those detained this month were brought to the United States as young children after their families fled the Khmer Rouge regime.
Many, including Tem’s family, lived in refugee camps in Thailand or the Philippines before coming to America. Some were born in those camps.
Ye was 6 when he came to the U.S., said his wife, Rita Wages, and has no memories of Cambodia.
Ye and Wages live in Woodland. Wages said the couple has a 10-year-old son and Ye is also helping to raise her 15-year-old daughter after her father was killed by a drunken driver in 2014. Wages said Tem helps to care for her disabled father, who lives with the couple in a recently purchased home.
Media reports show a Sareang Ye arrested on suspicion of possessing stolen property and mail theft in 2001. He faced criminal proceedings in San Diego in 1994 and 2006, according to court records.
Wages said that Ye has lived a stable life since leaving jail in 2009.
“He might have got in trouble when he was younger but he’s not that person anymore,” Wages said of her husband. “He’s a good guy.”
For the past eight years, he has worked for a company that provides laundry service for hospitals, repairing the machines. Wages said Ye was on his way to work about two weeks ago when about 20 authorities pulled over his Toyota Tacoma about a block from their home.
“He thought they were just going to pass them because there was so many,” Wages said. “The next thing you know, they are coming from the side and from the front. He was like, ‘Who are you?’ and they were like, ‘We are with immigration.’ ”
Now, Wages said she’s worried how her family will get by.
“This is a real hardship,” said Wages. “We just bought a house. I don’t even know how I am supposed to make mortgage payments. We are normal people. We work paycheck to paycheck to paycheck.”
Sarim “Sophie” Tem, Phorn Tem’s younger sister, said her family came to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Thailand when her brother was about 5. They first moved to Modesto before relocating to Sacramento where her uncle had already settled.
She said her family faced language barriers when they arrived, and lived in an area with high crime – factors she thought contributed to her brother having run-ins with the law. She and her other brothers, one currently in the Navy, became citizens. But Tem couldn’t because of his convictions.
Tem served time for weapons and drug charges and receiving stolen property in multiple cases in Sacramento in 2007 through 2009. In 2010, he had two misdemeanor driving under the influence charges.
Neither Ye nor Tem has faced criminal allegations in recent years, according to family and a search of court records.
Sophie Tem said she and her brother graduated from Florin High School, and he was working as a food delivery driver.
Phorn Tem was also pulled over by immigration while driving, she said. Tem said she and her brother were at their mom’s south Sacramento home when he noticed a suspicious black car in front of the house. She said her brother had been anxious for weeks after a routine check-in with immigration authorities had gone differently than previous ones.
When he saw the car, “his whole body language and energy just changed,” she said.
Before he left for the gym that morning, he gave her his bank card in case something happened, she said.
“That’s the last I heard from him,” said Sophie Tem.