On Monday evening, a flight chartered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement is scheduled to take off from Texas, carrying dozens of Cambodians whom ice has ordered deported. Many of them came to the United States as refugees from the Khmer Rouge—the brutal regime that took control of Cambodia in the seventies, after the U.S. secretly bombed the country during the Vietnam War—and lived here legally for decades. They became eligible for deportation because of past criminal convictions. The Cambodian government sought to halt the deportations last year, but the Trump Administration has reportedly informed the country that it should “prepare to receive 200 new arrivals each year for the next several years.” In recent weeks, advocates have sought stays and gubernatorial pardons to prevent individual deportations, with some success; they have called on Omni Air International, the airline that ice has contracted, to cancel the flight.
Sear Un, a forty-one-year-old father who has lived in California since he was seven, was arrested by immigration authorities in September. Twenty years ago, he was convicted of felony residential burglary. While two friends robbed a house in San Diego County, Un waited for them in a car; according to a writ of habeas corpus that was recently filed by his attorneys, his friends paid him twenty-five dollars in gas money plus a hundred dollars from the proceeds of the robbery. He was sentenced to a year in county jail. After he was released, he was arrested by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, but, at the time, Cambodia was not accepting nationals removed from the U.S. He stayed in the U.S. under an order of supervision, and his conviction was eventually expunged.
Last week, Un learned that he was scheduled to be on Monday’s deportation flight. His wife, Soeun Neat, is twenty-seven weeks pregnant, and has been fighting her husband’s detention since it began. She found a civil-rights law firm, Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Asian Law Caucus, to take the case; recently, she quit her job to take care of her health problems and spend more time working on her husband’s behalf. “If I don’t do it, no one will,” she said. “What’s going to happen if he does get deported, with me having the baby, and all the medical conditions I have?”
On Saturday, Un called me twice from ice detention in Arizona. He said that last week, between Monday and Friday, he was detained in several different facilities where he lacked access to a shower, bed, or change of clothes. He took short naps on a concrete bench and a couch made from hard plastic. “I was sleeping like a zombie,” he said. He was on a flight to Texas, preparing to be deported, when he learned that a last-minute legal effort would allow him to remain in the U.S. His account has been condensed and edited for clarity.
“On Tuesday, they woke me around three o’clock in the morning. My deportation officer told me that my wife was coming to give me my luggage. My wife dropped off shoes, underwear, clean undershirt, stuff like that.
“I try to stay strong in here. But once I heard I was getting on that plane, and I went back to wait in the holding cell, I just broke down. It was, like, ‘Is this really happening?’ There was some Indians that was getting deported also, and they were just looking at me. Some of them don’t speak any English. They just gave me a thumbs up.
“After she dropped off the luggage, I snuck my way in to call her. I didn’t want to stress my wife out. She’s six months and two weeks pregnant, with complications with the pregnancy, and she has some medical issues herself. I was just, like, ‘I’ll be fine. I love you, and I’m scared. But I think we’ll get through this.’
“I’ve never been so scared before. I wasn’t scared of death. I wasn’t scared of anything. But I was scared to go on that plane to go to Cambodia, because I was scared that my daughter might never see me, and forget about me. And my other daughter would never know her dad.
“I didn’t leave the facility until around three o’clock in the afternoon. Twelve hours in the holding cell. They shackled us like thirty minutes before we got on the bus. Then we got on the bus and drove to the airport.”
“My crime is a twenty-year-old crime, the only crime I have ever committed. It is no longer an aggravated felony, so my crime is no longer deportable. But for some reason there’s a lot of obstacles that was placed in the way.
“I was twenty years old, in San Diego. Even today, I can’t justify why I did it. I plea bargained to it because I didn’t want to point fingers at my friends. I didn’t know the consequences. I didn’t know what felony means until later on in life.
“I served six months and twenty days in county jail. About a year and a half later, Immigration and Naturalization Service picked me up from work. They just showed up, said they were arresting me, and said, ‘Do you have your green card?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s in my wallet.’ They took my green card. They put me on supervision, and they told me I had to have a work permit to work.
“I was devastated. I was afraid to have kids, and commit myself to my wife. We had our son, and I was afraid to have more kids, because I don’t know my future. Oh my goodness. What kind of foundation can I lay if I don’t know what’s going to happen?
“I was born in Cambodia, but all my family is here. I don’t know the culture. I speak Cambodian, but I can’t read or write it. I can barely read and write English.
“My parents migrated from Cambodia when I was learning how to walk. They left because of the Khmer Rouge. I remember stories they told me, like, when they were migrating. I was crying because I was hungry. They was gonna leave me, because they didn’t want me to make so much noise, and get everybody else caught by the Khmer Rouge. The only reason why I’m still here is because somebody helped out, and gave me some rice.
“Growing up, I thought this was where I belonged. I knew I was Cambodian, and my parents brought me, but in my heart I’m American. This is my home, my country. It’s heartbreaking. I grew up believing America was the country that stands up to bullies, that helps people when they’re in need. To go through this, and see what’s going on inside, it’s, like, oh, my God. Why was I so naïve? It’s not just Cambodians, but people coming here to live a better life, and trying to save their families from persecution. It’s a sad story. The system is broken.”
“I got to Arizona on Tuesday night. The plane to Texas don’t leave until Thursday, so we were just held here—we can’t shower, we can’t make phone calls, we can’t do anything. Thursday morning, we get on a plane to Louisiana. Then we get on another plane to Texas.
“In mid-flight, I could see that an ice officer was looking for someone. He came by me and said, ‘Are you Un?’ I’m, like, ‘Yes, I’m Un.’ He pulled me into a different aisle and said, ‘Good news for you. I don’t know the details, but you’re not going to get off in Texas. You’re going to go back to Arizona.’
“I was happy. I’m not going to be in Cambodia. I’m not going to be there for months before my case gets heard.
“When the plane lands in Texas, I see my countrymen going off the plane. I was heartbroken. I didn’t know whether to be happy or to be sad. It was hard for me to look at them and tell them. What do I say?
“I told them I’m not exactly one hundred per cent sure what’s going on. Some of them are still waiting for a stay. Some of them are still waiting for a pardon. I just told them to keep their hopes up.
“I’m not a religious person, but I’ve been praying for them. Not just my Cambodian people, but everybody that I see struggling. This is not what America is about. America is about freedom, about second chances, about the American dream, about living life without fear.
“If you give up, and you don’t fight, you’ll never get to come back. If you have a chance to fight it, fight it, fight it all the way through. I don’t care how long it takes. I don’t care if I’m in here for two years. I will fight it until the end, because of my family.”