Cambodian refugees under deportation threat await their fate

The family of Chamroeun Phan sits for a portrait.
The family of Chamroeun Phan from left, brother-in-law Socheat Chum, wife Ketwalee Srisawat, daughter Leelawadee Phan-Srisawat, father Phan Khiev and sister Montha Chum, in Socheat and Montha's Rosemount home.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The story of eight Cambodian men who were detained in Minnesota last fall illustrates the complicated and nuanced development of U.S. immigration policy, especially as a new administration shifts its focus.

It also shows how immigration laws that were passed in the 1980s and '90s continue to have consequences on deportations and removals today.

"One of my clients arrived here when he was three months old," said Danielle Robinson-Briand, a Minneapolis immigration attorney who represents two of the so-called Minnesota Eight. "I think he's finding it very hard to foresee how he will survive in Cambodia."

Leala and Alexis jump on a bed together.
Five-year-old Leelawadee Phan-Srisawat, known as Leala, left, and her cousin, 10-year-old Alexis Chum-Phan play princess on a fold-out bed in the basement.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The limited data released by the Department of Homeland Security make it hard to get a complete picture of the process of removals or deportations. The transparency just isn't there. Pieces of past legislation, especially the 1996 IIRIRA law (the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act), continue to have consequences on present-day deportations.

During the last few years of President Barack Obama's administration, law enforcement agents gave priority to the deportation of noncitizens or unauthorized immigrants who were violent offenders. Those who either haven't violated the law or committed minor crimes would not be a priority for removals.

Immigration officials were also given discretion to pursue options other than deportation. The priority went to cases of importance to national security and public safety.

Under the Trump administration, things changed. Essentially, anyone who is undocumented is a priority for removal or deportation. An unauthorized immigrant or noncitizen might be made a priority for deportation just for jaywalking. ICE officers still have discretion under President Trump, but according to his executive order on "Enhancing Public Safety," noncitizens suspected of any crime can be deported, even if they haven't been charged or convicted.

Montha Chum rubs her father Phan Khiev's ear.
Montha Chum rubs the ear of her 87-year-old father, Phan Khiev, who suffers from severe depression.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The eight Cambodian men have drawn unusual attention because they're all refugees whose parents fled Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge, a Communist regime responsible for one of the worst genocides in modern history.

"These are children of war victims," said Montha Chum, whose youngest brother, Chamroeun Phan, is one of the Minnesota Eight.

He's 34, and is currently in a detention center in Louisiana.

"And the hardest part, for me, is to watch my dad not understand why he fought for this country, and they want to send his baby, the youngest, back to a country that he fled from," she said. Her father's name is Phan Kieve. He's 87. She calls him a freedom fighter who assisted Americans in trying to stop the spread of communism in Cambodia.

Chamroeun Phan, 34, came to the U.S. legally as a minor.
Chamroeun Phan, 34, is currently in a detention center in Louisiana. Phan's parents had brought him legally into the United States, but failed to naturalize him as a minor.
Family photo | Courtesy Ketwalee Srisawat

The freedom fighter is now frail, suffering from multiple illnesses and a brain injury. He uses hearing aids, and speaks slowly. He also suffers from PTSD.

"I just don't understand why they took my son," he said through a translator, who said he was trying to say more but was holding back tears.

Chamroeun Phan's wife, Jill Srisawat, was emotional too. "I just feel like someone just ripped half of me away," she said. "I know it sounds corny but to be without him is like being without part of my soul." Their 5-year-old daughter, Leala, started preschool without her father to escort her on her first day.

"She's so young," said her mother. "I just explain it to her, every time she asks, 'Why is my daddy in jail?' She doesn't fully understand it, but I just explain to her that 'Your daddy is a good dad. He did a mistake, and he already paid for it. And daddy's going to come back.' And that's what I tell her, even though I don't know."

Years ago, her husband ran afoul of the law. He was caught smoking marijuana. Then, in 2009, he got into a bar fight in St. Paul and broke three windows, resulting in a charge of criminal property damage. Phan was then classified as a criminal alien to be deported.

As was the case with the rest of the Minnesota Eight, Phan's parents had brought him legally into the United States, but failed to naturalize him as a minor. As an adult, Phan faced immigration consequences for breaking the law.

Jill and Leala sit for a portrait.
Ketwalee Srisawat, known as Jill, and her daughter, Leelawadee Phan-Srisawat, known as Leala, are the wife and daughter of Chamroeun Phan.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Once ICE ordered their removals, Cambodia refused to repatriate the eight men for a variety of reasons. That's why ICE released them, letting them live normal lives for years. When the eight men reported for their usual check-ins last fall, ICE agents suddenly arrested them.

The Rev. Mike Smith of Redeeming Love Church in St. Paul summed up Chamroeun Phan's case this way: "We're looking at somebody who broke a couple of windows."

Smith, who's also the new Senate chaplain at the state Capitol, has known Phan and his family for years. He said Phan was only "a teenager who lacked judgment."

"And it's almost like we're giving him a life sentence, away from his family, away from everything he knows in America," Smith said. "And we're giving him a life sentence, that on one side looks like justice, but on the other side ... the penalty is far greater than the crime."

Usually, anyone given deportation orders has very little chance of fighting his or her case. By all accounts, Chamroeun Phan should have been returned to Cambodia years ago. After nearly eight months in detention, he's now been told his case has been reopened.

Leala and Aylina paint their nails.
Five-year-old Leala has her nails painted by her cousin, 12-year-old Aylina Chum-Phan at her aunt and uncle's home on March 26.
Evan Frost | MPR News

It's a miracle, according to one immigration attorney. And it means Phan will soon have a hearing, and then a court date, to plead his case in front of an immigration judge.

In February, another of the eight men, Ched Nin, was released from ICE custody. An immigration judge concluded that his deportation would have created an extreme hardship for his family.

Katrina Dizon-Mariateque, immigration policy manager at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, said "there is a line between what is lawful and what is not lawful, but a lot of times what is lawful is not necessarily what is just."

"Our laws shouldn't be so black and white as to deport someone as soon as they make one minor mistake," she said. "What we are arguing for is to simply to allow these individuals to make their case."

The last four of the Minnesota eight were deported last week. The two men Robinson-Briand represents have been issued last-minute emergency stays, and their cases are pending.

Phan Kiev colors at the table of his daughter's home.
Phan Kiev colors at the dining room table.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"It's important that anyone at risk of deportation speak to a qualified attorney and try to find out whether there are ways to legalize your status," she said. "Find out whether there are ways to fight a removal before the emergency occurs, before being taken away and separated from your family."

She urged those with green cards and lesser legal status to work toward getting their U.S. citizenship.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.