It’s only been a few days since an Omni Air flight carrying 36 deportees, rounded up and detained by ICE earlier this year, landed in Cambodia. But already, immigrant communities in the Bay Area and across California are bracing themselves for more.
As the year comes to an end and the dozens of new deportees get acclimated to a country many of them had never set foot in, organizers are doubling down on their warnings to local Cambodian immigrants living in the country illegally, urging them to get documents in order, call family members and legal hotlines, and start setting money aside.
“The ICE raids are essentially happening every four months,” said Kevin Lo, an immigration attorney with the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, which works closely with Cambodians at risk of deportation. “We’re starting to warn people now.”
Cambodians have become particular targetsas the Trump Administration looks to deport immigrants with criminal records, even in circumstances in which their home countries have traditionally refused to accept U.S. removal orders.
In the past, immigrants in that situation have been allowed to stay in the U.S., but the Trump administration has been pressing Cambodia and Vietnam, in particular, to take back their deportees.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to comment on whether more raids are planned but said “every country has an international legal obligation to accept its nationals that another country seeks to remove, expel, or deport.”
There are an estimated 10,157 Cambodians and 195,568 Vietnamese living in the Bay Area, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
This year, there were 1,855 Cambodians in the final stages of deportation living in the U.S. as of Sept. 17, the vast majority of whom had criminal convictions, according to the most recent ICE data.
On Monday, one of the largest deportation flights of Cambodians in recent history left the U.S. from Texas for the capital, Phnom Penh. ICE has told Cambodian officials to expect about 200 deportees a year, according to Lo. The agency didn’t confirm that.
“I don’t want that to have to be the standard,” Lo said. “There are a lot of people in the Cambodian community who deserve to stay here.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Vietnamese refugees also could face deportation as President Trump looks to amend a long-standing agreement that in part protected Vietnamese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before 1995 from deportation. Activists, however, have said some of the individuals detained in recent years arrived before 1995.
“This hasn’t been new,” said Giao Tran, an organizer with the grassroots organization, VietUnity in San Jose. “It’s just that the U.S. is being a lot more public and aggressive in terms of what they’re pushing for.”
Because their families escaped war and political turmoil in their home countries and fled to refugee camps in neighboring countries, many of the immigrants deported to Cambodia and Vietnam have never been there and don’t speak the language.
Borey “Peejay” Ai was born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Cambodian parents who fled genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime.
On the day he was freed from San Quentin — having served 20 years for the 1996 slaying of a Berryessa liquor store owner when he was 14 — ICE was waiting outside. Ai, who became one of the youngest people in California to be given a life sentence for murder, spent nearly two years in ICE detention. The state Supreme Court on Monday blocked Gov. Jerry Brown’s attempt to issue him a pardon, which could have kept him in the country. Ai’s case still sits in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. But deportation looms.
“I’m in limbo,” he said. “I’m not moving forward. I’m constantly thinking about my vulnerability to being deported.”
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During his time in prison, Ai became a state certified counselor for domestic violence victims through a group called Guiding Rage into Power, which gave him a job after his release. He’s worked extensively with Kid CAT, a rehabilitative program at San Quentin praised for its focus on self improvement through education and counseling. Ai is also part of the Asian Prisoner Support Committee in Oakland, which works to rehabilitate former convicts as they re-enter society.
As he helps community members facing deportation, he deals with the reality that he, too, can be deported at any moment.
“I think about that everyday,” he said. “Everyday since I got out it’s been on my mind.”