In February, the White House selected a video titled “Asian Americana” to be 1 of 11 finalists for their contest on Asian American issues. What is notable is that the video features Cambodian-Americans who are exiled under questionable immigration reforms enacted during the 1990s, and stepped up after September 11. It also includes appearances from “Khmericans” who returned voluntarily to Cambodia.
The winners will visit the White House on April 5 to discuss an issue of importance to Asian Americans. The filmmakers group Studio Revolt, which made the video, was chosen as a finalist but didn’t make it to this month’s last tranche of six short films. But if the group did win, the deportees featured in the video faced a conundrum: they would not have been allowed to attend the meeting at the White House or tell their stories to President Obama. They are exiled for life.
A little background: In 1977, the US Congress arranged for Cambodians, who were fleeing from the Khmer Rouge, to become permanent residents of the country, eventually making them eligible for citizenship.
Then, in 1996, the Clinton administration signed into law immigration reforms intended to “crack down” on illegal immigration and terrorism. But after 9/11, severe anti-immigration sentiments and fear emerged, allowing for the US government to step up its criminalization of immigration. Then, in 2004, a new US government agency placed 1,500 Cambodian-Americans on a list to be deported to Cambodia. As of this year, nearly 300 have been exiled to Cambodia, never to return.
The problem is, many of these young men were tried and convicted for a range of misdemeanors and felonies, served their time, and have been deemed rehabilitated by local judges. Reports from Civil Rights Monitor, Leitner Center, Project Censored, and PBS provide a comprehensive review of how these policies violate basic rights, such as the right to a fair trial and protection from double jeopardy. This quiet, insidious campaign is breaking up hundreds of families, most of which continue to bear the psychological wounds of surviving the Khmer Rouge genocide.
The US is, in effect, breaking its promises to these refugees. Nearly all deportees leave behind children and leave to their spouses the burden of supporting their families. In some cases, a Cambodian-American family will remit money to support a deportee in a country of which he has little or no memories. Mothers and fathers of deportees too often report how they might not survive the heartbreak of being separated from their sons.
The video provided only a glimpse of the injustice suffered by deported Cambodian-Americans. Yet a Phnom Penh Post article published in late February shortsightedly announced the success of the Cambodia-based media group. Another article in the Phnom Penh Post published in January provided perspectives from a few deportees, along with groups working to “reintegrate” the returnees in Cambodia. View the video here.
Angel Ryono’s graduate research focused on local and grassroots capacities for reconciliation and peacebuilding in Cambodia. She is a co-contributor in the anthology, Peace Movements Worldwide (ABC-CLIO) and contributor in the book, Peacebuilding and Subjectivities of Peace: History, Memory, and Politics (Routledge).