Local Cambodians are nervously waiting to hear whether they could be deported to their native land if a recent agreement between the United States and Cambodia goes through.
Hundreds of Cambodians in Lowell could be directly affected by the agreement, which calls for non-US citizens convicted in this country of ”aggravated felonies” to be deported, according to Joseph Sexton of the Cambodian American League of Lowell. Indirectly, he said, the deal affects thousands in the city.
“I would say several hundred individuals are facing deportation. Some of these people have families, many have wives, parents, children, brothers, and sisters,” Sexton said. “It’s not just the people being deported, it’s people who have families who are dependent primarily on them for support.”
The agreement was signed by both countries in March, but not publicly disclosed until early May. Until now, Cambodians who were deemed deportable would be held in detention centers because the Cambodian government refused to take them back.
“The new step now is they have to go to their country. They’re no longer going to be in limbo,” Sexton said.
Although Southeast Asian activist groups were aware this agreement was on a fast track, many were caught by surprise when the announcement was made, according to KaYing Yang, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center in Washington, D.C. She said details on the agreement have not been released. The accord still requires ratification by the US Senate.
“No one is saying anything to us. We are outraged by that. We are the communities’ primary contact. To hear it from the newspapers is alarming,” Yang said. “Our job now is not to panic as a community.”
Lowell has the second-largest Cambodian community in the United States, and many of the 30,000 local Cambodians who are not sure how the agreement will affect them and their families.
Yang said she would like to see any deportations delayed until a process to review cases is in place. She estimated there are 1,400 cases nationwide. She said many Cambodians here have become Americanized and would not fit in once they returned to their country and could face a backlash.
She is also hopeful for passage of the Federal Family Reunification Act of 2002, which would allow the US attorney general to cancel an order of removal for a legal permanent resident who is not a threat to the community.
However, Sexton said, this act would not be of any help to someone who has been convicted of an aggravated felony, because they would have been already stripped of permanent residency status. The chances of having their cases reopened to cancel deportation are slim, he said.
“[The act] would help prospective people who have not fallen into this situation, people in the middle of immigration cases, but not people who were found deportable five years ago. The US has been holding a lot of people who’ve already been determined deportable. Some people are sitting in INS detention – people whose sentences have already been completed – just waiting for deportation,” Sexton said.
Cambodians who have already served sentences for their crimes could still be deported, due partly to a 1996 expansion of the aggravated felonies category in immigration law, Yang said.
Previously limited to serious crimes such as rape and murder, it now includes lesser crimes, such as shoplifting and breaking and entering. In Massachusetts, misdemeanors such as larceny of $250 or assault and battery could be considered aggravated felonies by the INS, Sexton said.
“Many are forced to leave. People are being deported for things that were not a deportable offense at the time they committed them. That changed definition was extended retroactively. The INS came along and said `We’ve changed the rules,” Sexton said.
US Reprsentative Martin Meehan, a Lowell Democrat, said, “This is not a sensible law-enforcement policy, whether applied to Cambodians or other immigrants.” He said while people convicted of violent crimes should be deported, “deporting legal immigrants who had but minor brush-ups with the law years ago and have since proved themselves productive and law-abiding, contributes little to public safety while devastating families.”
Yang urged local Cambodians to contact their state representatives, but those who are not permanent residents will probably just have to sit and wait.
“There’s really not a whole lot that people can do,” Sexton said. “The INS will be coming out and contacting these folks. If you were declared deportable, you are no longer a permanent resident, and you have to be a permanent resident in order to apply for citizenship.”