A number of Minnesota men who came to the United States as child refugees from Cambodia may soon be forced to return to a country they scarcely remember.
That's because they were convicted of crimes as young adults, and the federal government is deporting them. The men's families are pressing authorities to let them stay, saying they've turned their lives around and have long been productive members of society.
More than 150,000 Cambodians sought refuge in the United States after the Vietnam War. Among them was Chan Om. Now 46 years old, he's among about 10,000 who eventually settled in Minnesota.
But on Aug. 26, his life here was turned upside down. Om went to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Bloomington for a regular check-in because of a past felony conviction. His wife Deena Parseth explained what happened next.
"Thirty-five minutes later, he called me, he said 'I got locked up now. Can you just come and get the car?'"
Parseth said Om doesn't talk much about his past. But court records show he was convicted in 2004 of taking part in the armed robbery of a St. Paul restaurant owner. A judge sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in prison.
But now her husband has a steady job. Parseth said he volunteers at a Buddhist temple and dotes on his young niece.
During rush hour Wednesday, Parseth stood in front of U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's office in downtown Minneapolis alongside dozens of protesters. They were there to demand the release of Om and more than a half-dozen other Cambodian men who also face deportation.
Since ICE detained Om nearly three weeks ago, his sister-in-law Sovanna Leang said it's been tough trying to figure out exactly where he is.
"Every time we call immigration ... they would just tell us they're going to here, here and here. And it's not really where they're at until we actually get a phone call from our loved ones," Leang said.
Just before Wednesday night's rally started, Om did call — from Modesto, Calif. He'd also made stops with immigration officials in Louisiana and Arizona.
Kosol Sek heads the International Khmer Assembly, a Cambodian-American advocacy group.
He said the deportations are the result of an agreement the U.S. and Cambodian governments struck in 2002. It allows refugees with criminal records to be deported. Sek said the Cambodians ICE is targeting for deportation are facing a second punishment for their crimes.
"These are victims from the Vietnam War. They're people that have served their time. They've been released into society. They have family members. They have wives," Sek said. "So they're fully functional members of society."
According to Sek, ICE has detained seven Cambodians who'd been living in Minnesota, and at least one is already back in southeast Asia.
Paul Lelii, an attorney who works with the Cambodian community, said the refugees facing deportation are caught up in an unfair system that fails to consider their individual circumstances.
"Asylum doesn't go away because the political winds of a law change," Lelii said. They're the children of people who assisted this country. We brought them here. The last thing we should be doing is sending their children back to the place we saved them from."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement refuses to comment on specific cases. But a Twin Cities spokesperson for the agency said in an emailed statement that people awaiting removal from the United States could be released from custody if ICE is unable to obtain foreign travel documents or carry out a deportation order for some other reason.
Klobuchar's office said in a statement that she's meeting with Cambodian community members "to see how we can help them."
MPR News reporter Tim Nelson contributed to this report.
Correction (Sept. 15, 2016): An earlier version of a photo caption incorrectly identified Stokely Phan-Quang.
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