‘That’s what I wanted for Christmas — to have my brother back’
Six months after he was deported to Cambodia, a country he has never visited and a place his family fled as refugees more than three decades ago, Phorn Tem returned Friday to the United States and his waiting family.
It was a surprise to his mother, Run Nhei, who thought she was at the San Francisco International Airport to meet a Cambodian embassy official. When Tem appeared at the arrivals gate, she wept.
“My son is here,” she whispered in her native Khmer as she kissed and hugged her eldest child for the first time in months.
Tem, 33, said he was “too tired to cry right now,” after an 11-hour flight from Taipei.
Last fall, Sacramento resident Tem was one of about 15 Cambodian nationals with criminal convictions detained for deportation in Northern California by federal immigration authorities during a nationwide sweep of between 100 and 200 individuals. Advocates describe the roundup as the largest targeted sweep of Cambodian nationals, many of them refugees, ever conducted by ICE. A federal class action lawsuit filed last year arguing the arrests are illegal is ongoing.
Since his detention and deportation, Tem and his family said they have struggled to maintain a semblance of normalcy in their life. Tem, who is not fluent in Khmer, spoken in Cambodia, struggled to find a decent paying job. He was able to make friends with other deportees, but generally isolated himself, he said. His days consisted of working out in the mornings, walking the streets of the country’s capital Phnom Penh, video chatting with family when he could, and watching YouTube videos.
“It was horrible,” he said. “I lost hope.”
His sister, Sarim Tem, said she’s been working overtime hours and holidays to bring in extra money to send to her brother abroad. Phoeun Tem, Phorn’s other sibling, said his brother was the “anchor of the family,” taking care of their mother and their Cambodian neighbors, their “aunties and grandmas,” while working two jobs. For the first month he was gone, his mother cried every night, Sarim Tem said.
“Now that he’s back she’s finally going to be able to sleep,” Phoeun Tem said. “Now that he’s back it’s a weight off our shoulders.”
Tem was born in a Cambodian refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled the violent Khmer Rouge regime. He was five when his family moved to the United States in 1990 as legal permanent residents.
When he was 24, he was convicted of possession of marijuana for sale and in 2011 received a final order for deportation. He was one of nearly 2,000 estimated Cambodian nationals living in the United States with similar orders against them, about 1,400 of whom have criminal convictions.
Prior to last year, the Cambodian government had been reluctant to accept deportees from the United States, rarely issuing the necessary travel documents. Hundreds of Cambodians with deportation orders were living in the U.S. with their families with periodic check-ins with immigration officials, said Melanie Kim, a staff attorney at the Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s Asian Law Caucus. She has been working with Tem and his family since last October.
The U.S. began visa sanctions on Cambodia, along with three other countries, in September 2017, to force them to accept deportees. Dozens of Cambodian refugees have since been deported.
On April 3, the largest deportation flight of Cambodian refugees in U.S. history, 43 individuals, departed from El Paso, Texas. Less than four weeks later, Tem was deported, just one day before a superior court judge would reverse his criminal conviction over a prejudicial error — that he was not properly notified of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty.
“We won the case but my brother had already been sent to Cambodia,” Sarim Tem said.
His criminal conviction was vacated but having already been deported, Kim and other attorneys were uncertain about whether they could reverse his deportation order in immigration court.
“But honestly his family has never stopped fighting for him,” Kim said. “I just felt so moved by how much they love their brother that I figured we should just file a motion to reopen” his immigration case.
Within a few months, his deportation order was reversed and Tem was able to secure national identification documents in Cambodia. Last month he received his Cambodian passport, and on Wednesday he received a returning resident visa — the kind a lawful permenant resident might receive if they lost their green card while traveling abroad, Kim said. Within hours, Tem gave away the few possessions he had accumulated and bought a ticket home. He didn’t even have time to tell the other deportees, he said.
“I’ll tell them when I get home to give some hope,” Tem said.
Tem’s return to the United States after living in Cambodia for six months is unprecedented, Kim said. She believes that it is the first example of a Cambodian deportee returning to the United States after overturning a criminal judgment and reversing the subsequent deportation order.
Most individuals in Tem’s situation don’t have the time, resources or legal representation to receive post-conviction relief that negates their removal order, even if their sometimes decades-old conviction is no longer a deportable offense, such as some firearm convictions or driving under the influence, she said. Many deportees never return to the United States.
“I’m hopeful that more people can come back,” Kim said. “Refugees that come here deserve to be with their families in the U.S. They don’t have another home.”
Detentions of Cambodian nationals are ongoing, and Kim said the current U.S. administration has made no indication of changing its policy. In late August of this year, about 60 Cambodian nationals were arrested by ICE, Kim said. A number of those individuals were living in California, and were sent to a Bakersfield detention center.
As for Tem, he said he wants to go back to caring for his mother, get a job and, hopefully, become a U.S. citizen.
“I feel blessed,” he said.
But before resuming his old life in Sacramento, he had one stop to make. “I’m going to get Denny’s right now,” he said with a laugh as he headed out of the airport.