More than 200 Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants across the Bay Area and nationwide were detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in October in never-before-seen roundups that have left communities shocked and in fear, according to local and national immigration activists.
Many of those detained have been transferred to detention centers in southern states as they await deportation. Others have already been sent back to their home countries, they said.
Activists and attorneys attribute the sudden surge in ICE activity to a White House administration set on doubling down on deportations across the U.S., particularly against immigrants whose home countries — in this case Cambodia and Vietnam — haven’t historically cooperated with U.S. removal orders. ICE officials are largely targeting Asian immigrants with previous criminal convictions who were subsequently issued removal orders — people who have established longtime roots in the U.S. and up until now had flown under the government’s radar year after year, organizers said.
“I think it shook the community in that we haven’t been attacked this aggressively at all,” said Nate Tan, a member of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee in Oakland. “This is the first time.”
In a prepared statement, ICE spokesman James Schwab said, “International law obligates each country to accept the return of its nationals ordered removed from the United States. The United States itself routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked, as do the majority of countries in the world.”
Schwab declined to provide further comment and did not answer questions about the purported deportations, nor requests for data on the number of Vietnamese and Cambodian immigrants deported from the U.S. so far this year.
Vietnamese and U.S. officials in 2008 signed a repatriation memorandum that in part said Vietnamese immigrants who arrived to America before 1995 would not be subject to deportation. Activists, however, said some of the individuals detained in October arrived before 1995, leaving them to wonder whether some of these deportations are legal.
Jenny Zhao, a staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucaus, said many of the immigrants who were detained were lawful permanent residents with valid visas but were subject to deportation because of past criminal convictions. ICE was previously forced to release them because their home countries didn’t honor U.S. removal orders, she said.
“The Trump Administration has been extremely aggressive toward countries that don’t take people back,” said Zhao, citing the visa sanctions. “We’ve been seeing a culmination in raids against these people.”
Staff with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in San Francisco and Los Angeles and Sidley Austin LLP last month filed a national class action lawsuit challenging the detention of Cambodian immigrants by ICE, saying they are unlawful.
Leaders from advocacy group VietUnity said the organization gets daily calls from Vietnamese community members whose relatives were recently deported.
“I think there’s this really common notion in the Vietnamese community that after the Vietnam War we all made it; we’re all U.S. citizens, we’re here and the government is going to support us,” said VietUnity activist Giao Tran. “We really need to dispel this myth that we’re here and we made it and the administration has our best interest in mind. We need to stand up for each other when our safety and daily life is at threat of being disrupted.”
Cambodia in 2002 signed a repatriation agreement with the United States which allowed for a certain number of Cambodian immigrants to be deported each year. But only this year have deportations amongst Cambodians spiked at these levels, according to activists. They said an estimated 500 Cambodians have been detained nationwide since the memo was signed, compared to 100 in October alone, making these the largest raids ever to target the Cambodian community. The Department of Homeland Security in September issued visa sanctions on Cambodia, Eritrea, Sierra Leone and Guinea, immediately halting all issuance of temporary visas.
ICE agents came looking for Cathee Khamvongsa’s husband, Mony Neth, in Modesto on Oct. 19 while the 42-year-old Cambodian man was at work.
“I had no idea why they would ask for him but I told them to come back later,” said Khamvongsa. The agents returned at 5:30 a.m. the next day and arrested Neth as he left for work, she said. He was later transferred to a detention facility in Louisiana where he awaits deportation.
“The first day they took him, I couldn’t stop crying,” said Khamvongsa, a Laotian immigrant. “It’s been hard since he’s been gone. He’s the one that’s kept the family together. He pushes us to do things.”
Neth came to the U.S. at age 10 with his parents and three sisters, according to his wife. Fleeing the Khmer Rouge communist regime, the family settled in Modesto, where Neth got into trouble as a teen, she said.
Khamvongsa said Neth was convicted of possessing stolen guns at age 19 or 20. That led to a removal order in 2002 — the year Cambodian officials signed a repatriation agreement with the U.S. But Neth had turned his life around as an adult, she said. The couple, who have a 16-year-old daughter, have been active in their church and volunteered in their community.
“I don’t think it’s fair because I feel like everyone deserves a second chance,” said Khamvongsa. “When they detain people, they don’t look at each case as a personal case. They just characterize them as people who break the law and deserve to be deported. I feel like he deserves to be with his family.”
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