FILE - In this May 26, 2010 file photo, men sit in the sun in the health ward at the Otay Mesa immigration detention center  in San Diego.
FILE - In this May 26, 2010 file photo, men sit in the sun in the health ward at the Otay Mesa immigration detention center in San Diego.

BANGKOK - Until last Friday, Soeun Neat had been tearfully preparing her children for their father's deportation from the United States to Cambodia.

Her husband, Sear Un, is being detained at the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego under a resettlement program that has seen scores of Cambodians who have settled in the United States - mostly refugees - deported for felony convictions since 2002. Un has a 20-year old criminal conviction.

One hundred ten Cambodians were deported in Fiscal Year 2018, up from 29 in FY2017, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.

It had been a miserable few months for the heavily pregnant Neat since Un was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement on September 5.

"Most of the nights I would cry myself to sleep just because it was hopeless. You know how can I help my husband if I have no knowledge about the legal system?” she asked.

Neat did find someone with a forensic knowledge of immigration law:Asian Law Caucus staff attorney Kevin Lo. Her husband's fortunes began to change.

ALC and its affiliates are litigating a class action lawsuit challenging the detention of Cambodians with final orders of removal and have secured stays for at least 15 of them since October 2017.

Sear Un is seen in this undated photo provided by
Sear Un is seen in this undated photo provided by his family.

Un was convicted in 1998 for residential burglary, then considered an aggravated felony.He stayed in the car during the actual theft and was offered a misdemeanor charge but took a felony instead so that his friend, who already had a prior conviction, could avoid a second strike.

Lo and his team quickly recognized that Un's charge had been reclassified and was no longer a deportable offense - opening a ray of hope.

On Friday, Un was granted a last minute stay before a plane loaded with 36 Cambodian deportees took off for Phnom Penh from El Paso, Texas, four days later. The five-month stay allows his case to be considered by a court.

Lo said they were able to secure temporary stays for five of the Cambodians scheduled to be deported on that flight - which carried one of the largest groups of deportees ever sent back.

"I would say that it is absolutely certain that there are other people on board who could have reopened their removal orders," Lo said in an email.

"Asian Law Caucus attorneys have taken on clients from Northern California and the Central Valley of California in each ICE raid, and we have always identified people with options and then successfully helped some of them fight it out in the courts."

FILE - In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a vehicle
FILE - In this June 9, 2017, file photo, a vehicle drives into the Otay Mesa detention center in San Diego, Calif.

Under the Trump administration, ICE has been directed to pursue deportations of convicted felons aggressively.

In 2017, Cambodian officials, who have routinely expressed disgust at the program, started refusing to accept deportees.

But their defiance was short-lived. After the Trump administration imposed visa sanctions on high ranking government officials and their families, Cambodia agreed to resume deportations in February.
"As a result of these sanctions and ongoing diplomatic efforts, removals to Cambodia increased 279 percent from Fiscal Year 2017 to Fiscal Year 2018," ICE Public Affairs Officer Brendan Raedy told VOA.

Raedy said that "despite this progress" there are still 1,855 Cambodian nationals present in the United States with a final order of removal, of whom 1,362 were convicted criminals as of September 17.
Cambodian officials could not be reached for comment for this story.

ALC attorneys have been identifying deportees in Phnom Penh who they believe have strong arguments to have their cases reopened. In November, Phorn Tem, a Cambodian deported in April for a possession of marijuana for sale conviction, became the first deportee allowed back into the United States.

A day after he was deported, Tem's conviction was overturned. A judge found he had not been properly informed of the immigration consequences of pleading guilty.

ALC used this ruling to reverse his deportation order and hopes soon to help make him the first Cambodian deportee to be issued a green card.

They are hoping more of those on Tuesday's flight will also return after pardons have been requested from outgoing California Governor Jerry Brown.

"Even though the flight has left, a gubernatorial pardon could bring people back, erase their convictions and reverse their deportation in a very real sense," Lo said.

With her husband still detained but safe from deportation at least until May, Soeun Neat's hope of reuniting her husband with her children rests with Governor Brown.

"This Friday, December 21st I believe Governor Brown will announce the pardon because on Monday it's going to be Christmas Eve and I don't believe the governor will come out on Christmas Eve to announce it," she said.

If that does happen Un would be home two days late for his daughter Soraneen's fourth birthday, but at least in time for the holidays.