Protesters rally in Sacramento against feared deportation of Cambodians

Around a hundred people gathered at the state Capitol on Thursday to rally against the feared deportation and detention of Cambodian Americans by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Participants, mostly younger adults and students, held slogans that read “Solidarity with Khmer Refugees” and “Nobody is Illegal on Stolen Land.” Walking along L Street towards the field office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), protesters chanted, “We are not free unless all of us are free” and other slogans.

Some drivers passing by flashed thumbs-ups and honked in support. The protesters shouted more slogans after they reached the USCIS Field Office at the John E. Moss Federal Building.

Protesters hold slogans as they rallied against the anticipated deportations of Cambodian Americans on Oct. 3 in Sacramento. Theodora Yu

Nathaniel Tan, community organizer with the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, said the group turned out in support of keeping families together. He said Sacramento has a sizable Cambodian community, but that he hasn’t heard about raids here.

Deportations of Cambodian Americans have increased 279 percent since 2017 as a result of visa sanctions the Trump administration imposed on some Cambodian officials and families, according to an NPR report last year. Deportations of Cambodians began in 2002 after the Bush administration signed a repatriation agreement with the government of Cambodia, but stopped temporarily after the deal fell apart in 2017.

President Trump’s sanctions prompted a new agreement between the countries and Phnom Penh has since accepted Cambodian nationals in larger numbers. Many deportees are non-citizens who have committed crimes. Some have convictions that are decades-old.

In November of last year, Phorn Tem, a deported Cambodian refugee from Sacramento, returned home to his family after his criminal judgment had been overturned.

“This week, up to 16 Cambodian Americans are going to be checking into ICE buildings like these ones behind us,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, as the crowd assembled outside the USCIS field office. “They are likely going to be detained and potentially processed for deportation for crimes of youth and poverty served decades ago, back to the countries they fled as refugees. This for us is an injustice. That’s why today we stand with our impacted families scheduled for these check-ins. Folks dropped off their children this morning, not knowing if this is going to be the last time they see each other.”

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Protesters chanted slogans in support of Cambodian Americans at risk of being deported outside the USCIS Field Office on Oct. 3 in Sacramento. Theodora Yu

Dinh urged supporters to urge state policy makers to issue pardons to protect these families from separation, and to call on national lawmakers to find long-term solutions.

“My brother was detained for over a year while ICE tried to deport him,” said Montha Chum, co-founder of Release MN8, an organization that provides direct support to Southeast Asian families impacted by detention and deportation. “It devastated my family. U.S. foreign interventions – 2.7 million tons of bombs into Cambodia was partially responsible for the rise of the Khmer Rouge, one of the worst genocides in global history. Yet the U.S. continues to detain and deport Cambodians and southeast Asian American refugees to countries that many of us escaped from and some have never even known.”

Lan Nguyen of Long Beach said as a Vietnamese American, she wanted to stand in solidarity with her Cambodian family who are at risk of being deported.

“These people are survivors of genocide and war caused by the U.S., so the U.S. needs to take responsibility for their actions in bringing us here, and the least they can do is to keep families together,” Nguyen said.

“The Trump Administration and its ICE cronies continue to terrorize our communities,” said Assemblymember David Chiu, D-San Francisco. “It is cruel to target those who have lived in this country for many years, who have families that depend on them, and who have paid their debt to society. We must come together to protect our friends and loved ones.”

Cambodian anti-deportation demonstrations also took place in Boston, San Francisco, Tacoma, Wash., and other cities across the country.

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Theodora Yu covers Asian American issues for The Sacramento Bee. She is a Hong Kong native and a Columbia Journalism School alumna with an interest in immigration and climate change issues.