Porthira Chimm

Recorded by Robynn Takayama
Cambodian Deportation

Porthira Chimm::14 Ok, I am Porthira Chimm and I was a New Voices fellow at Cambdian Community Development where I ran a project called the Cambodian American Project for Empowerment. And I actually met Andrew through my work there. He had come in to :30 do volunteer with our agency to do some community service and I was his immediate supervisor.

And when he came to us, we had him come in a couple hours a week to do administrative stuff, but we quickly realized that he was very articulate and talented. :47 And we had him start working with youth and ironically enough, got him involved with our citizenship program and naturalization services. And he actually worked with a number of our seniors as well. 1:00

1:06 Well the CAPE was something that I created as part of my fellowship was directed towards xxx and advocacy around issues that impacted CA, specifically because my background is immigration law, around the detention and deportation of CA. 1:27 And Andrew had heard about some of the work we had done. He had come into the office because he’s someone with a final order of removal against him. 1:36

1:52 A lot of the situations and circumstances that people like Andrew face are really related to their history of arrival and re-settlement in the US. So few people understand the circumstances of CA and an understanding of the political history of US involvement in C and our history her in America, which is very short lived 2:23. Most C arrived during the ‘80s as part of the largest influx of refugees ever admitted into the US. And very few people understand that. So the situation of Andrew is rather tragic because but for US involvement in SEA, he might not have ever come to this country. Many thousands and thousands of people might not have ever come to this country and 2:52 often times when looking at the criminalization of individuals, we forget to have an understanding of their history and a deeper sense of the obstacles that they had to overcome to be here. 3:11

3:29 C is situated between VN and Laos in SEA and was a neutral state. However, it was drawn into the war because of its geography and troop movements of the VC through the C borders. And between 1968 and 1972 during the Nixon administration, an illegal bombing campaign was undertaken by the US govt. to stop these troop movements. And what happened was the US government illicitly 4:15 dropped 10s of thousands of bombs and landmines across the C countryside.

Now this has been argued by a number of academics and scholars and historians that it was one of the most significant factors towards the rise of the Khmer Rouge who were subsequently responsible for the genocide in 1975-9. The anti-American sentiment from these bombings were really increased the numbers of KR supporters. So that’s one of the most important things that the US did specifically 4:55 to exacerbates the situation in C.

So what happened in ’75 when the US finally left the country, it was so unstable that the KR just marched right in to the capital and took over. And what we see over the next 4 years is the worst genocide in the history where 1 out of every 3 people were killed or murdered. 5:30 so it was quite devastating and we’re still recovering to this day.

5:50 What happened in ’79, the VN actually invaded again…There had been reports…One of the most frustrating things that I think C feel is that no one did anything. There was very little international response when the killing fields were going on and it actually took the invasion of the VN into C to usurp the KR where we saw the greatest number of refugees fleeing to the border camps and leaving the country and being able to seek refuge 6:34 in places along the T border. And most C spent year in refugee camps before they were finally able to find sponsorship in countries like the US, Australia, France. So it was a very difficult thing.

Often times they were moved from the unsafe refugee camps and 7:04 inserted directly into urban American poverty and that sort of part of Andrew’s story is understanding that he and his family had a very difficult situation and they were taken from a refugee camp and really put into an impoverished situation. 7:29where survival was difficult.

And then we have US policy where we think of being humanitarian focus and that’s definitely part of it, but the other focus of the creation of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in 1980 7:48 which was a direct response to this massive SEA refugees, was a very practical need to deal with these folks and make them employable and get them off the welfare doles. And so employment has always been a primary focus of the refugee resettlement experience.

And really in the early ‘80s America in dealing with the refugees, was really learning for the first time how to deal with such a population. And a lot of the lessons learned on the backs of Cand other SEA never really benefited the community. The need for holistic services 8:32 the need for mental health services, the need for social work and social services wasn’t necessarily at the forefront where you would be able to get a job within 6 months. So you had a lot of parents leaving the homes to find work. Leaving the kids with grandparents who spoke little or no English. 8:53 The kids really having to figure things out for themselves and schools that were not the best schools and often times not in the best neighborhoods. So there were a lot of obstacles faced by those like Andrew. 9:07

9:22 I wouldn’t say there is a crime problem any more than you would say that in poor communities, there is crime. But the question in looking at C is, what kind of situations were they put into and with connecting that with our history of arrival and resettlement, there was little choice. There’s little volition about where we could chose to live, and there was little mobility. That these kids had a lot going against them, so their choices were limited. 9:51 Their situations were limited and they were put into areas where they needed to survive and so they really had a lot of things that were challenging them. But to say that they are specifically PRONE to crime, that’s not the case. 10:08I think it’s really more a question of environment.

10:33 That’s a really good question. When you talk about demographics. One of the big challenges in dealing with the issues in our community is the lack of understanding and statistical information that we have about our community. 10:49 What we do have is practical knowledge, practical information, but in getting these demographics from the government, actually asking the DoHS for what are these numbers, what are the demographics.

I mean there are suspicions in our community that deportation is being utilized a way of controlling gangs. And that is one of the fundamental problems that 11:19 that many individuals have with the usage of immigration laws to further be an extension of the criminal justice system, which they shouldn’t be. They should be two separate things.

Each and everyone of these individuals who’ve committed crimes have 11:38 paid their debt to society and served their time and just by where they were born, are being treated separately or differently than if they were citizens. And when you look at refugees who arrived at a very young age, sometimes as young as 1 or 2 years old, what exactly is the difference and what is the connection between your birth, where you were born, and recidivism? 12:02 And so to talk about crime outside of this issue of recidivism, whether they are more likely to commit a crime, in my mind makes no sense whatsoever12:18

12:39 There’s definitely are a number of individuals that I’ve worked with where theft has been an issue. Tragically, there’s a number of folks who have crimes of violence like assaults and like things like that. Thefts and robbery are some of them. But then there are some really outrageous ones of folks that have indecent exposure, things like that. 13:09 that are also being in danger of deportation.

13:38 the laws were passed in 1996 and implemented in ’97 but the issue with Cs is that for many years was that of indefinite detention. And C became the poster children for this issue of indefinite detention because 14:04 C, prior to the agreement in 2002, was one of the few countries in the entire world distinguishing itself in that regard that didn’t accept deportees.

And a lot of that was this history of genocide and the fact that between 1975 and 1979 under the KR regime, the entire country was literally destroyed. I mean, that was one of the mottos of the regime was to create a year zero. To turn the country back into an agrarian socialist state where folks were forced out of the cities and into the countryside to farm14:43 Where millions died from mass starvation and thousands and thousands were targeted for death because of their political background, their educational background, their religious beliefs or their ethnic background.

And the country, all documents were destroyed 15:05 birth records, school records, bills, anything we take for granted in modern society. So there’s no way to specifically identify these people as being C in any regard. So for many years, the govt said we’ve got no way to tell whether they’re C and so it was one of the few countries in the world that didn’t recognize deportation.

And so the situation 15:39 rose where the ’96 immigration laws required these folks that had committed crimes to be deported, but the country they were to be deported to would not accept them and so instead of being humane and letting people out of detention, the US govt said well we can keep these people forever and many people spent years in INS, what they call detention facilities that were the same as being in jail and in many instances, they were contracted jails. 16:21 And they were mingled with other inmates just as if they were still in prison, even though they had already served their time and many of these folks had committed such minor offences that they didn’t even have to go to prison. So being in immigration detention was much worse than their 16:40 initial punishment for their crime.

So in 2001, there was a Supreme Court case of 2 individuals. One was a C named Kim Ho Ma and 16:54 a stateless person. It was basically challenging the legality of the US govt ability to detain people indefinitely. 17:10 and when KHM went in front of the SC, it found that the INS was acting illegally. And that it was unconstitutional to detain somebody indefinitely if it wasn’t foreseeable for them to be deported.

So the result of this, this is before 9/11 (the summer of 2000) was basically to create a big Xmark on the foreheads of C and 17:55 the response was to persue negotiations with C in particular to make these deportations come about, to make an agreement happen. And this went on over the course of the next year.

So almost to the month of the anniversary of the SC case, you have a signed agreement with C and some of that was one of the things that the US govt did was to deny the visas of C nationals from traveling so that folks from C couldn’t travel to the US directly. They had to go to some third country. 18:45 But that was a big stick to really encourage the C govt to do that. Also, there was an agreement that money would be paid per deportee to help with the processing. So that actually were the two incentives the C govt had to begin accepting deportations. 19:20

19:49 There’s no doubt that the taking away of children and being sent back to a country where they fled genocide where a number of the perpetrators of the genocide are still in government is very traumatizing to parents. 20:08 For C, there’s never been a Neuremburg. There’s actually a KR tribunal that’s in the process of being undertaken. But CAs still view C as very, they didn’t know what was going to happen to their children when they get deported. So it was very traumatizing for parents and grandparents. And a number of people that my agency serves 20:44 were retraumatized and needed mental health counseling because of the danger of deportation that were happening to their children and that’s actually very tragic. It feels, many people have said to me, it feels just like Pol Pot all over again. 21:03 having the govt take their children away. So it’s a very traumatizing thing.

21:27 It’s always a very challenging thing, and it’s something as an organizer and advocate that’s one of the challenging things that we face is that the messaging around the issue of deportation and detention and the criminalization that is often attached to it is very 21:57 it really breaks the community apart. It makes it more difficult because the issue is viewed in a certain way and people don’t often time want to deal with history and the past and making the connections that I spoke to you earlier about. 22:24 And so it’s easier to vilify these individuals. So from an organizing stand point, it’s been very challenging because the CA community, maybe because of its history and dealing with its history and trauma from KR, it has a difficult time organizing and standing up against the govt, especially when the govt might just be wrong.

22:58 so it’s a very challenging thing for the community overall to wrap its head around the idea of detention and deportation. There are a lot of different ideas about it. And so that’s one thing. Socially, that’s confronting the community that there still needs to be a better education and outreach, more understanding, more willingness to open and deal with these skeletons in our closet regarding our past and our history, which to this day haven’t really been fully addressed.

23:35 And this brings it right to our front door. So that’s always challenging and some people just don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to talk about genocide. Or look at these kids as genocide survivors. They’d rather just see them as villains and perpetrators of crime and not the human beings that they really are. So that’s one of the big challengees.

I think you had talked about the 24:03 ideal of the economic impact. A lot of these folks remain bread winners for the family. Many of these folks committed these crimes years ago. And one of the things is this law is retroactive.. That’s like…what you need to understand about that is it’s basically changing the rules of the game in the middle of it. At the time that many of these guys committed their crimes, they weren’t deportable offences. 24:31 In ’96, the law was changed so they became deportable offenses. So instead of taking a fair view of that, the US govt said we don’t care. We’re going to retroactively apply these laws. And still make you deportable, even though you plead guilty to a law that wasn’t a deportable offense. Had you known you were in danger of deportation, you might not have plead guilty to it. 24:55

So subsequently, these guys have been living lives, they’ve paid their debt to society, they’ve been rehabilitated, they have their own businesses, they work for a living, they’re taking care of wives and children. 25:11 and all of a sudden they go on a trip, they come back, and they’re stopped at the border and told you’ve got this offense from 1987 or ’89 and we’re going to put you into removal proceedings. So it’s been very challenging thing economically on these families whose fathers are being taken out of the household. So many 25:43 are the main breadwinners. 25:50

26:22 I’m not the best person to talk with you specifically about that. I can tell you that there has been a number of groups, and usually it’s the young people, youth groups, who are leading the charge and are willing to most stand up and I think that that’s really, it’s been a positive thing. A lot of that work came about 26:55 indefinite detention.

And indefinite detention was not something specifically benefiting Cs. When KHM’s case won in front of the SC, it wasn’t just ending i.d. for C, it was ending it for all immigrants, all-non-citizens. So there was a wide coalition 27:22 of groups, refugee, immigration, ethnic groups that were organizing and working with the C community to bring about an end to indefinite detention.

And so that’s one of the 27:41 really good things that happened was that C were suddenly center focused and a lot of people were really interested in mobilizing the community. But then what we had happen after the Ma case was sort of this really strange response where after deportation started to occur, people 28:09 had this feeling that we couldn’t advocate strongly about one community. That it’s not fair that we talk about ending deportations of only Cs if people from Guatamala or Honduras or other really terrible places are being deported back as well.

28:30 And so, that’s a really challenging thing because a number of the organizing efforts that came out of the i.d. movement that was focused on Cs after C were in …US govt, that these groups weren’t so interested in advocating on behalf of C. And that’s been one of the real challenging things.

So now we’re trying to figure out how do we move forward now. What can we do? And how can we work in these larger groups, these larger coalitions. How do C mobilize and that’s still a question that needs to be addressed 29:10

29:35 After ’96 immigration laws, there were a lot of resources that were put around naturalization and citizenship and those things. And so we’ve seen, my own agency, had a successful naturalization and citizenship project and we’re very happy to do that, but that really doesn’t undermine the real 30:05 context for this. That it’s great to encourage naturalization and citizenship, but not at the expense of fear of these deportations. And the consequences are simply not fair.

A number of these kids came at such an early age that 30:24 some of the reasons they’re not citizens is their parents inability to become citizens. These are folks that suffered through mass starvation. That were highly traumatized. That were called to be farmers and told not to learn by a regime that murdered you if you were educated. And they were expected to come to America and learn history and learn how to read and write, when many of these folks didn’t know how to read and write in C! 30:55 And so these are the parents of these kids that were expected to naturalize. And had these parents naturalized, these kids would probably be citizens today and wouldn’t be in danger of deportation.

So we continue to encourage naturalization 31:07 and citizenship, but we want people to understand that that doesn’t answer this problem. That’s not what this is about. It’s a lack of understanding about a community that has special needs. That deserrves to be recognized and not be tossed aside by immigration laws that are overbroad and over harsh. 31:34

32:08 You need specifically need to be able to look at the crimes and which of thse are deportable offenses. And I don’t think that you can lump them all together and say, because you’ve committed misdemeanors and things like that, basically with our immigration laws, it’s one strike you’re out! So it’s not so much that he’s a repeat offender, 32:33 it doesn’t matter that …it doesn’t take 1 crime or 2 crimes or 3 crimes or 4 crimes. It just takes 1 crime is the way the immigration laws work. So it’s not really about recidivism in that regard at all. And I’m going to say this again: 32:50 that there’s no connection between a person’s birthplace, especially if they arrived here as a very small child, and grew up here and is a product of American society, and their likelihood to commit a crime. And I think that Andrew’s situation is no different. That I don’t’ think that he’s any more likely to commit a crime than a person that was born here. And so I question the legitimacy of saying that he’s undeserving because it’s simply not fair. It’s like saying that we’re going to treat you differently for the color of your skin. And I don’t think that people make that connection at all. 33:33

34:39 Looking at US policies and understanding that durin ghte ‘70s there was a real outpouring of kindness and recognizing that US involvement in VN and SEA was a no win situation and the US withdrawl from these countries led to a vacuum and recognizing of the need of humanitarian aid and make amends for the things that happened in SEA and there were really promises that were made to those groups. Many C fought with CIA, worked with US military and supported US efforts. And coming to America was in many ways this massive resettlement throughout the ‘80s was a recognition of those contributions made by SEAs

However, it was a little schizophrenic because as I mentioned to you, 36:12 that the creation of the office of refugee resettlement wasn’t just about humanitarian resettlement. There were very specific expectations that was basically to be an employment agency to get these folks employable in a short period of time. 36:36 And so the American dream is about making your way, but for many of these folks, it was either sink or swim and what we see with deportations of these young people, children on arrival, is it can be argued the shortsighted affects of resettlement policies.

37:10 And the question of when you’re taken out of unsafe refugee camps and put directly into American poverty where it’s not uncommon to share the mattress on a floor in a 2 bedroom apartment with 15 people, what real opportunities do you have? When you’re hungry all the time, when you’re impoverished, how well can you learn?

And so 37:34 I would say when did people wake up and realize that the American dream might not be for them? Well almost immediately.

38:05 it’s really very much like we don’t care about you. In many ways the laws out of 1996 wsa targeted at…it wasn’t just immigration, but welfare reform. All this came out together and there was this sense at that time that the blame for our welfare ills was on non-citizens, on immigrants. So the immigration laws, the 38:44 these horrible deportation laws go hand in hand with 38:49 the restructuring with the welfare state/system. And the illimination of benefits and medicare and health to immigrants went hand in hand with deportation. And it was clear, looking at the retroactivity and the lack of judicial oversight that America was telling immigrants that we don’t care about you and we blame you for our welfare ills.

And so 39:22 what we know is to be completely false. We know that immigrants actually benefit America. We work and we own businesses and we buy homes and all those sort of ideas or misconceptions are the basis for these anti-immigrant and immigration and welfare policies. So the message is that we don’t care about you and we’d rather use you as an excuse than really understand you. 39:57

40:09 I know there’s been a lot of efforts made. In C, there’s one project (RAP) and subsequently within the past few weeks, US AID (the US agency for international development) announced $800,000 that’s going towards the resettlement of deportees and hopefully better accultulturation.

41:38 There’s a real big movement to look at refugees and hopefully say that if you arrived here as a small child as a refugee you should be treated as a citizen when it comes to deportation. But it’s really hard to say what’s going on the hill these days if there’s any traction about it. But there’s the KR tribunals that you should be aware of that will have impct on policies and there’s been recent articles that talk about the ongoing trauma of mental health issues that CA face. …

43:42 He’s just an amazing guy, an incredibly spiritual guy. Definitely a guy whose turned his life around and doesn’t deserve to be sent back at all. He’s just one of those really amazing guys that can become something wonderful if given the opportunity.

44:10 It was really interesting because I think that the fact that when he first came to our agency, there aren’t that many…my agency, CCDI in Oakland is the only C led ethnic based organization in the Bay Area. And when he came to our community, he didn’t know that much about the work or non-profit work. But to see him learn about issues, read up on immigration law, 44:50 learn about his situation, learn about citizenship and naturalization and teach other people about it and speak up and speak out about the dangers and need for naturalization and see him empower himself was really amazing over the course of time I spent with him over a year. And he became more and more 45:18 interested in standing up and doing what he could to make sure other people were made aware and so that’s been one of the amazing things about him. He’s given so much time and he went above and beyond his time to work and support our agency so I’d like to support him any way I can.