Sophea Phea grew up as a refugee from Cambodia; that is where she lives today. But she never even set foot there until she was twenty-eight.
Phea was born in the sprawling Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand--at one time home to 140,000 Cambodians fleeing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime--and came to the United States with her mother when she was one-and-a-half years old. Like many, they were admitted as refugees, a direct result of the U.S. war in Vietnam and secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos.
Phea and her mom ended up in Long Beach, California. They struggled, and her mother didn't speak English. She also didn't talk about life back in Cambodia.
"I didn't really hear stories," Phea recalls. "All I knew back then was: She lost all her family members, she was by herself, and then had me at the refugee camp. That's all I knew.... She never went into details about what she had to go through in the camps."
New arrivals to America are allowed few missteps in their path to full citizenship, and Phea fell short. At twenty-three, she was convicted of credit-card fraud, and she served a year in prison.
That made her eligible for deportation as long as Cambodia would agree to take her--pending a judge's ruling. She was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and spent another nine months in ICE detention. But Cambodia didn't issue travel documents for her, so she was released back to Long Beach.
These and other details of Phea's case were affirmed by her attorney, Kevin Lo, with Asian Americans Advancing Justice--Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco.
For the next four years, Phea reported to ICE every quarter as instructed, got on with her life, and stayed out of trouble. She assumed she was safe.
"All of a sudden, the travel documents came in and I was deported," she says. That was in 2011. She abruptly found herself in Cambodia, an ancestral homeland she had never even visited.
"I had no luggage, I had no change of clothes, I had nothing... except for $150," she says. "I didn't know how to contact my family. I didn't know anything about Cambodia."
From California, her stepfather connected Phea to family members that had remained in Cambodia. "I was lucky that they were able to take me in."
Phea adapted as best she could. "The first five months I was in Cambodia I was in the countryside, so I had to do everything manually, from washing clothes to cooking on a fire," she says. No one spoke English, "so I was forced to use the Khmer I knew."
Then, in 2016, her mother back in the United States fell ill and passed away. Phea was unable to be present; as a deportee, she has no right of return. "That was a real struggle," she says. "Being away from our families--our parents that have been ripped from their families... it's history repeating itself
Southeast Asians are the largest community of refugees--more than 1.4 million--ever resettled in the United States. They've flowed in since the fall of Saigon in 1975. But more than 500 Cambodians have been deported for criminal convictions since 2002. That is when these deportations began--as the Bush Administration...