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Cambodia, US Agree on Deportation of Criminals - 2003-01-02

A recent agreement between the United States and Cambodia allows for some 1,400 Cambodians who committed crimes in the United States to be deported. Most of those affected were young boys who grew up in the United States, after being taken in as refugees during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. The deal marks the first time the Cambodian government has agreed to accept return of its nationals.

Until now there has been no extradition agreement between the United States and Cambodia. That has meant that Cambodians with criminal records were not deported. Immigration and Naturalization Service public affairs officer Peter Zirnit says under a new memorandum of understanding the two sides reached in March, that has changed. "As of the end of November, we had repatriated 33 Cambodians," he said.

The number is still relatively small, but Mr. Zirnit emphasizes that the program is just starting. "This is just the beginning, " he said.

The agreement between Washington and Phnom Penh allows for Cambodians who are legal U.S. residents, but are not American citizens, to be sent back to their home country if they have been convicted of a crime.

It is common for countries to deport aliens who have broken the law. But some immigrant rights advocates are expressing concern about the impact of the new agreement with Cambodia. They argue that a number of those affected are being deported after having committed relatively minor offenses. They also express concern because many have spent much of their lives in the United States, having fled here following the Vietnam war, and are strangers in their home country.

T.C. Duong, of the Washington-based Southeast Asian Resource Action Center - or SEARAC - emphasizes they know no other home. "And most of these people are, what we found is that most of these people have lived in the United States for over 20 years, came to the United States before they were age 10 and are primarily the primary breadwinners of their families," said T.C. Duong.

The political counselor at Cambodia's embassy in Washington, Vunyaung Tan, says his country has agreed to take back deportees, but he describes them as a burden on a government whose resources are already stretched thin. He says the problems only start with the fact that many of the Cambodian returnees have no family in the country. "They cannot speak Cambodian," he said. "Where [will] they live? Where can they find [a] job?"

Katherine Newell-Bierman, a staff attorney with the National Asian Pacific Legal Consortium, adds that changes made to U.S. immigration law six year ago are magnifying the impact of the new agreement with Cambodia. She says the law added to the list of deportable offenses, including some minor crimes, which she asserts should not have been included. "In 1996, Congress expanded the category of criminal convictions which makes someone eligible - legal permanent residents, non-citizens - eligible for deportation," she said. "Previously, it was a list of crimes that made perfect sense - like murderer, or terrorism or threatening the president. But after 1996, it was expanded to include what appear to be relatively minor crimes."

Ms. Newell-Bierman says the new law covers people convicted of minor drug offenses or crimes like shoplifting. In one case, she says, a deportee was a man who was convicted for urinating in public.

SEARAC's T.C. Duong says the 1,400 Cambodians facing deportation have served or are serving their full U.S. jail sentences before they are sent back. He says some of the deportation cases will have tragic results. He gives an example of a woman whose children were born in the United States and are therefore citizens. The woman faces deportation after serving three years in jail for disciplining her children with unlit incense sticks. "She's a single mother, whose parents just died, and the father of her children has left her and is nowhere to be found," he said. "And her children would be put in foster care when she leaves. Unless community members can raise the funds and send them to Cambodia to be with her. But the only choice is for the family to either move, or just have to rebuild their lives without their loved ones."

A U.S. official says in the past Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam had been reluctant to take back nationals who had originally fled to the United States as refugees following the Vietnam War. He says the agreement with Cambodia is the first of its kind, but only codifies what is already standard practice with other countries around the world.

The official, who spoke on background, added that the United States is in discussions with Vietnam and Laos, and hopes to reach similar agreements with them in the near future.