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Monday, December 29, 2008

Exiled to Cambodia

By Greg Mellen, staff writer

LONG BEACH - For the first few months afterward, whenever the doorbell rang, 5-year-old Dieon Rin rushed to answer yelling, "It's Daddy! Daddy's home!"

But it never was Daddy. Never will be. The truth is something even Dieon's mother has been unable to grasp, much less explain to her son - Daddy can never come home again.

The father, Phally Rin, was deported to Cambodia in April for a crime committed more than a decade earlier.

Under U.S. law, he is permanently barred from returning to this country.

Veasana Ath was a carefree young man. He wasn't a bad kid, just easily swayed by friends. His older sister, Sophea, would scold him and say he'd wind up in trouble one day.

Neither realized how right she was.

After being convicted of residential burglary in early 2004, Ath was put on a plane in December of that year and sent to Cambodia.

Rin and Ath are part of a growing number of Cambodian-American men who have been deported from the United States to the impoverished land of their birth.

Before deportation, the two had little or no connection to their 'homeland.' They fled the ravages of the Cambodian genocide with their families as young children.

They were raised and schooled in the U.S. and yet, from now on, they are forever Cambodian, with no hope of returning to their families and the land where they were raised, but not born.

Rin and Ath are just two of 189 Cambodian- Americans deported for a variety of crimes, ranging from murder and rape to lesser offenses like burglary and crimes committed long ago.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data on removals in

2008, of more than 111,000 criminal removals, 30 percent were for "dangerous drugs" and

17 percent were for violent crimes. The rest were for a range of lesser crimes, including traffic offenses.

Nationally, an estimated 1,700 Cambodian-Americans are under deportation orders and can be rounded up at any time. Another 1,700 may be eligible for deportation but have not been charged. Many live in Long Beach, which has the nation's largest population of Cambodian refugees.

Overall, nearly 350,000 aliens were deported in 2008, the majority to Latin America.

Innocents suffer

The families of Rin and Ath are the innocents caught in the aftermath of laws passed in 1996 that changed U.S. deportation policy and have resulted in a staggering increase in removals of immigrants, who became eligible for deportation when Congress expanded the list of deportable crimes.

ICE has ramped up its efforts to snare criminal aliens by working more closely with prisons and jails to identify incarcerated noncitizens.

It is a strategy endorsed by many in Congress.

"I would suggest that anything that is a felony, any behavior that causes someone to be convicted, is a good reason to deport them," says Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Huntington Beach, whose district includes portions of coastal Long Beach.

Rep. Laura Richardson, D-Long Beach, did not respond to several interview requests.

The Human Rights Watch estimates the deportation of legal immigrants has separated 1.6 million children and adults.

In Long Beach, a large number of Cambodians have been expelled. Their family members, many of them American citizens, are the collateral damage.

Suely Ngouy, the executive director of Khmer Girls In Action, which is involved in immigrant and refugee rights issues, says deportation has ripped a swath through the local Cambodian community, and crushed an already fragile segment of the population.

"It has devastated families emotionally," says Ngouy, who knows many affected families. "It takes away a son, a daughter, a sibling that has kept together the fabric of what little stability exists."

Since Ath's deportation, his mother has had a series of health problems, including minor strokes, that the family attributes to stress.

Kim Hok, 61, doesn't speak much English. But as she listens to the family talk about Veasana, she understands enough. Her eyes fill with tears. She excuses herself from the room and rises unsteadily. The only sound is her cane clicking on the tile floor.

For many families, the shame they feel over deportation leaves them suffering in silence and fear.

Tuy Sobil, a former Crips gang member convicted of armed robbery and deported to Cambodia, has become a success story in Phnom Penh. He has turned around his criminal life and now runs a successful nonprofit called Tiny Toones that helps children from the slums through break dancing, of all things.

Despite his turnaround and newfound celebrity, Tuy's parents turn down requests for interviews.

"It's just too hard for them," says Dabson Tuy, Sobil's brother.

Horrors revisited

Most Cambodian families are refugees from the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in the late 1970 s that claimed about 2 million lives. Most saw family members, friends, children and adults removed by a ruthless government. They fled to escape that.

"We came here because of U.S. intervention and involvement (in our country)," Ngouy says.

The damage is extensive, she adds - retraumatization from the removals, deepening of poverty from the loss of wage earners and additional mental health problems, such as depression.

"To have to go through this exhausts what little resources they have to survive and it's affecting the second generation that is supposed to be the hope," Ngouy says.

To her, the longer-term outcome has been to retard the growth of the overall community, because younger Cambodians see little hope and opportunity after witnessing their parents' struggles.

Lekha Khin, the brother-in-law of Ath, says he lost 50 to 60 family members in the genocide and is one of the few left. It dismays him that the United States is now tearing his family apart.

"The government, they don't feel nothing," Khin says.

Sakhoun Yim, Rin's mother, says she dragged her family for a week through rice paddies and minefields to escape the holocaust before reaching a refugee camp.

In 1997, Yim watched in horror from her porch in central Long Beach as her youngest son, Simona Rin, was shot in the back by a drive-by shooter as he was going to play basketball. A 16-year-old at Wilson High, Simona was described by as a "model kid," with no gang history.

Yim lost another son, Akhara Rin, to street violence in Lowell, Mass., in 1993, and a grandson, Kerry Ya, was fatally shot at a friend's house in Long Beach in 2003.

And now she has lost Phally.

"I hurt so bad in my heart," she says in a choking voice. "I have two kids killed here. I don't want to live any more. I want they kill me."

Admittedly, many Cambodian-American deportees led violent lives, spent long stretches in jail and were members of notorious gangs. Several we met in Cambodia said the U.S. has been right to deport them.

Still the one-size-fits-all justice that can treat a petty one-time criminal like Ath the same as a career gangster has many deportation-reform advocates dumbfounded.

"The laws are not only cruel in their rigidity, they are senseless," said Alison Parker, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch in a report for that organization. "How do you explain to a child that her father has been sent thousands of miles away and can never come home simply because he forged a check?"

Ghosts of crimes past

In 1989 as a teenager, Rin was in a friend's car in Massachusetts. When the teens were pulled over, a gun was found in the car and Rin did 18 months in state and INS custody on the gun charge.

He was ordered removed, although it meant little because Cambodia did not accept U.S. deportees.

Rin stayed out of trouble after the arrest and moved with his family to California.

Federal law changed in 1996, in the wake of the first bombing of the World Trade Center and widespread demands for immigration reform.

As part of the overhaul, a long list of crimes was added that made legal immigrants eligible for deportation, including crimes predating the law, such as Phally's gun charge. In 2002, Cambodia signed an agreement with the U.S. to accept deportable aliens.

Without knowing it, Rin had become deportable.

In 2004, neighbors called police during a domestic dispute in which Rin struck his wife, Solonly Kong. After being charged with spousal battery, Rin learned he was eligible for removal for the 15-year-old gun charge.

In 2007, Rin was fitted him with an ankle bracelet to monitor his movements and ordered to report regularly to immigration offices.

"They just put it on his ankle and said, 'Maybe in two years we'll let you go,"' Kong recalls. "They just lied."

Four years later, Rin was put on a plane to Cambodia.

Kong says Rin was the ideal husband, who stayed home and tended to his family.

"He make one mistake," she said in halting English. "If he was a bad guy, I don't feel this way. But he was always working seven days to support his family, even if he have an ache he did not stop. Any kind of job he would work."

Dieon is not the only child who is struggling without a father. Kong says she has a 15-year-old son from a previous relationship, who is "out of control" without the influence of a stepfather.

Kong feels lost and confused. She wants to join her husband in Cambodia after her oldest son finishes high school, but doesn't know how they would survive or what that would do to Dieon.

She wonders if Rin might be allowed to return one day.

"If he could come back in 10 years, I would wait," she says wistfully.

She asks if he can immigrate to Canada or Australia. She has no idea.

In the meantime, she calls Rin almost daily in Cambodia. Most of the conversations end in tears.

"Sometimes I go to places we would always go and I cry," Kong says.

She sees young families. She sees fathers with their sons and it all crashes in on her.

"That's why I don't want to go anywhere," she says. "I think I cannot live without him."

Kong says Dieon cries all the time for his daddy.

"I don't know what to tell him," she says through translation. "He's too young to understand that Daddy can't come back."

The last time Dieon saw his father, Rin was at a detention facility in Los Angeles. Dieon was weeping and kicking at the door, demanding that immigration officials let his daddy go.

Kong says she told Dieon his father had to go far away for work. She says when Dieon talked to his father, he pleaded with Rin to come back.

"He was saying 'I don't need any toys, Daddy, just please come home,"' Kong remembers.

Now Dieon often refuses to talk to his father on the phone because he thinks Daddy doesn't want to live with him.

No more tomorrows

Ath thought there was always tomorrow. While his older siblings worked hard, built businesses, went on to higher education and got jobs in government and private industry, Ath drifted through life.

His older siblings became citizens, but Ath never got around to it. Now, he never will.

It was stupidity that landed Ath in jail, then a series of legal missteps and ignorance that got him deported.

As Ath tells the story, he gave a friend a ride to the home of the friend's ex-girlfriend. She wasn't home, but while Ath waited in the car the friend stole her car keys. A neighbor recorded Ath's license plate.

Ashamed and embarrassed, Ath never told his family. A public defender negotiated a plea for a one-year sentence, of which Ath only had to serve a few months in county jail.

Possible immigration consequences never came up. Ath was transferred to ICE custody after serving his sentence and unwittingly signed documents, written in Khmer, accepting his removal.

Ath was released and thought if he changed his ways and proved he was responsible he would be allowed to stay in the U.S.

"I got a job and I worked every day," Ath says.

One day, however, ICE agents appeared at Ath's home, cuffed him and soon he was on a chartered flight with other deportees to Cambodia.

Life has been harsh and lonely in Cambodia, Ath says. At first he hung out with other American deportees, but tired of being ostracized. Now he says he spends his time alone.

When Ath first arrived in Cambodia, he found work but later gave up the job because co-workers who were Cambodian nationals harassed him, defaced his locker and slashed the tires to his bike.

After being unemployed for three years and existing off what money his family can spare, Ath says he recently found a job at a hotel. He is in his probationary period with the company.

The loneliness is one of the hardest parts for Ath, who has no relatives in Cambodia and misses his family.

"I just want a chance at least to visit my family," Ath says.

Sophea, 34, is able to keep a cool exterior when talking to reporters about her brother. But as she is walking to them to the gate of her home, the facade cracks.

"I'm just so mad at him for doing this to our family," she says, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.

TUESDAY: Some deportees to Cambodia find redemption, others despair and death.
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