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Friday, September 17, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
1,500 Cambodian refugees face deportation for crimes
By Lornet Turnbull
He was 14 when he and his family arrived in the U.S. as refugees from Cambodia. Within years, he'd be in trouble with the law.
Now a 38-year-old father of three, with his time already served for assault and DUI convictions, Beua is among 1,500 Cambodian criminal offenders in the U.S. being expelled to the Southeast Asian kingdom.
Some Cambodian advocates are trying to halt the deportations, saying the punishment is overly harsh. But immigration officials and groups that favor immigration restrictions insist the government has a right to force out those who've blown their chances to stay.
They are being returned in small waves: Beua's group of about six from the Seattle area will fly to an undisclosed location in the U.S. today before meeting up with other Cambodians who also are being sent back.
And while this region, home to the nation's third-largest Cambodian population, has seen other such deportations over the past two years, this current group mostly men in their 20s, some of them parents is the largest ever expelled at one time.
Memories of violence
Beua's native Cambodia holds fading but frightening memories memories of crossing minefields and wading through rivers, past dead bodies, fleeing the murderous Khmer Rouge in the late 1970s.
"I fled that country to get away from Pol Pot. Now they're taking me back," Beua said.
His family has distant relatives in Cambodia's countryside, but no one knows how to contact them. He has no friends there, no job prospects, and no real plan for his life once he arrives.
Once he leaves the U.S., he can never come back.
Frequently in trouble with the law, in and out of jail, Beua is no saint. He and his family admit that. But being exiled to a country that so profoundly changed all their lives is also something they can't comprehend.
"What will I do?" he asked. "I'll be lost there. My parents are here, and they're getting old. They'll die without me seeing them again."
Whether for criminal offense or their illegal status, people of all nationalities are expelled from the U.S. all the time.
But the story of the Cambodians is different, somehow, because as refugees they did not voluntarily leave their homeland.
Most were babies or young children when they came to the U.S., and some believe that because they were victims of the Indochina war, the U.S. government owes them something.
"These families have suffered far too much to be traumatized all over again by the very country that was supposed to give them a safe haven," said Jay Stansell, a federal public defender with extensive ties to the Cambodian community.
"I think it's unconscionable to split any of these families, particularly in the case of Southeast Asians, where the creation of refugees had so much to do with U.S. foreign policy at that time."
Jack Martin, special-projects director with the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington, D.C., said refugees who commit crimes shouldn't expect special treatment.
"Like any other immigrants in this country, refugees are taken in as guests until such time as they become citizens," Martin said.
"It is a legitimate function of the government to expel those who abuse their status by committing crimes."
As a refugee, Beua was entitled to permanent residency but neglected to seek citizenship, which would have saved him the fate he now faces.
His residency has actually been in jeopardy since 1996, when the U.S. expanded deportable crimes to include offenses such as domestic violence, drunken driving and shoplifting, and drew a large number of noncitizen immigrant offenders into the net.
The law was made retroactive, too, meaning someone who had already served time for offenses committed before the law passed could still face deportation. But initially, those new rules didn't apply to Cambodians. Because their country lacked repatriation with the U.S., immigration authorities had no place to deport them to.
In the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, however, the U.S. stepped up pressure on such countries. In 2002, it signed an agreement with the royal government of Cambodia. The agreement came more than a year after the U.S. Supreme Court, ruling in favor of a Seattle man, Kim Ho Ma, said immigration officials could not indefinitely hold detainees whose countries would not agree to take them back.
Since the repatriation agreement, about 100 Cambodians have been deported, including a handful from the Seattle area.
Stansell, a frequent visitor to Cambodia, said, "A lot of these folks didn't have a large bag of tools in the U.S. to do well. They are the product of the failure of the American dream for many poor people in this country. Now they are in a country where survival is all that and much more. Some of them are doing well. Others are sad and depressed."
The Southeast Asians gave the United States its first experience working with large numbers of refugees, and some believe it failed them.
"They hunkered down in these isolated enclaves ... had intensive mental-health issues and were traumatized to the extent most American citizens can't begin to imagine," said Stansell, who helped to represent Ma in the 2001 case.
"It would be like deporting survivors of Auschwitz. There's no high ground here. We don't cut off the hands of thieves in this country. As it is, some of these guys would rather have their hands cut off than live on the other side of the planet for the rest of their lives."
Beua imagines that his return to a country he has tried hard to forget will be similar to his arrival as a scared, traumatized teenager in Bellingham in September 1979.
His father found work as a custodian at Western Washington University.
Beua struggled in school: "I didn't even know a word of English," he said. "I sat in class and had no idea what they were talking about."
He was older than most of his classmates 19 and in the ninth grade when he dropped out in frustration. He tried to earn his GED while working but gave up on that, too.
Beua was living in Ferndale in 1996 when the incident occurred that would ultimately end his stay in the U.S.
He'd gone out with a cousin and gotten drunk, he said. Back at home, he got into an argument with his girlfriend. "I walked away, and she came after me and pushed me; I retaliated."
He left the house.
The next day, he was arrested on domestic-violence charges and spent four months in jail.
At the end of this sentence, immigration officials who make regular rounds of local jails to identify deportable criminals took him into custody.
His girlfriend bailed him out after a month.
It wouldn't be Beua's last brush with the law. He has several assault charges on his record and lost his license twice for driving drunk, most recently in 2002.
In 2000, an immigration judge ordered him removed from the country.
He said he was told by immigration officials in April that it would probably be five to 10 years before he would be deported.
After that, he didn't give it much thought. "I didn't think I'd get deported," he said. "I'm legally in the U.S."
Trying to mend ways
Beua said he had been trying to get his life back on track. He had a job he liked, and he and his fiancée, together four years, were in a stable relationship, she wrote in a letter to immigration authorities.
His older sister, Kelly Pomarca, said that, as a family, "We've been through so much together.
"It's hard to think he won't be here with us."
Last week, Beua's attorney called to say she had bad news: His number had come up. He was told to report to the Northwest Detention Facility in Tacoma at 9 a.m. today.
He struggles to imagine life without his three children 17, 14 and 8 and his parents and siblings, the family with whom he fled Cambodia all those years ago.
"Everybody makes mistakes when they're young," he said. "I can't undo what I've done. But I've done my time."
Him Chhim, executive director of the Cambodian Association of America in Long Beach said, "Just as Vietnam was a product of the U.S. government, these children are the product of the American social environment.
"When they committed their crime, they were sent to prison for five, six, seven years. It was the responsibility of the government to rehabilitate them whether they were Cambodian, American or anybody," he said.
"After all these years of incarceration, they are released back to the communities where they belong. And those communities should be Long Beach, Seattle, Los Angeles not Cambodia."
Seattle Times news researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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