April 14 marked the first day of the 2018 Khmer New Year. 67-year-old Sophal Chuk was grocery-shopping at Viet Hoa Market in Monona that morning in preparation for the big day.
At home, Chuk’s wife waited for her husband’s return. But instead of welcoming a familiar face, she found herself answering questions from Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials searching for her husband.
“ICE came knocking at our door, and my mom didn’t know who it was,” Molly Bennett, Chuk’s daughter, recalled. “She was like, ‘Oh, he’s at the store’ — how did they know which store he was at?”
ICE tracked down Chuk and brought him to the Dodge County detention center, but he was “bounced around” from one place to another, Bennett said. The family did not get to see Chuk that day.
When Bennett and her family were finally able to see Chuk, he looked pale and had already suffered a minor stroke from stress. His family was worried about his physical and mental health.
“My mom was crying and crying, because she felt like this was happening all over again,” Bennett added. “When he got detained the last time … all he did was try to renew his green card, and they just locked him up.”
Chuk fled Cambodia for the U.S. and was lawfully admitted in 1985, ICE said. But a judge issued a final order of removal — a deportation notice — in 2004, 15 years after he was criminally convicted in Illinois and served time in prison.
Bennett said her father never got in trouble again, not even so much as a speeding ticket. Instead, he has volunteered at Freedom Inc., a Madison-based non-profit that serves low- to no-income communities of color. She questioned the timing of his detentions.
“Why now? Why all of a sudden now?” Bennett asked. “He served his time — that’s it. We follow the laws and the rules here. He was convicted and he served it — done. Let us be free now. Let us live our life.”
Chuk is not alone in this struggle, however. In September, the 4-day ICE operation in Wisconsin accounted for 83 detainees — 20 from Dane County — more than half of whom have criminal histories. One Thai man with a criminal conviction and one Vietnamese individual were taken.
Katrina Dizon Mariategue, director of national policy at the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, said the immigration and criminal justice systems have become more intersected in recent years as a result of legislative actions from the past two decades.
But this phenomenon disproportionately affects Southeast Asian immigrants. Today, they are three to five times more likely to be deported based on old criminal convictions than other immigrant groups.
This “resettlement–school–prison–deportation pipeline,” as Dizon Mariategue calls it, refers to the idea that these legislative actions neglect that Southeast Asian immigrants — most of whom came to the U.S. in the aftermath of American involvement in their home countries and have obtained legal documentation — face a resettlement process that’s fraught with poverty, racism and institutional barriers.
For example, Wisconsin, home to the country’s third largest Hmong population, has an average poverty rate of 8 percent; but the number increases to 19 percent when considering only Hmong Wisconsinites. Kabzuag Vaj, co–executive director of Freedom Inc., said the Cambodian community in Madison also faces disproportionate levels of poverty.
“The reality is [that some of them] have committed crimes — but again, people don’t understand the circumstances and their history of resettlement,” Dizon Mariategue said. “What we’re advocating for is looking at the individual case’s circumstance before making a deportation determination.”
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A troubled past
The year was 1975. The last U.S. troops retreated from Southeast Asia after nearly 20 years of involvement. Between those years, the U.S. devastated the region with more bombs than they used in Europe and Asia combined during World War II — at least 10 million tons in total in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
But the end of the Vietnam War and the secret bombings in Laos and Cambodia only jump-started another saga for the region: The unrest of the war had strengthened the communist Khmer Rouge insurgency. The same year, the communist faction would emerge victorious in the Cambodian Civil War, setting the stage for a campaign of calculated brutality.
The genocidal Khmer Rouge ordered civilians to evacuate the city the very afternoon they seized Phnom Penh, the country’s capital. Intellectuals, professionals and minorities were murdered. Families were separated, and the entire population was categorized by age groups, each of which were forced to work “from dusk till dawn,” Savang Chhrom, Khmer gender justice coordinator at Freedom Inc., recalled. Chhrom also fled Cambodia as a child.
This was the reality confronting Chuk until Khmer Rouge’s defeat in 1979, Bennett said. In its aftermath, Cambodians searched anxiously for their families, and many were on the verge of starving to death.
Like many other civilians whose homes were destroyed during the wars, Chuk, at 34 years old, fled Cambodia for a resettlement camp in Thailand. In 1985, he was lawfully admitted into the United States and was placed in a housing project that accomodated “very low-income” individuals, Bennett said. He did not know anyone in the U.S. except for some friends he had made along the way. He did not have a support system.
“Our community holds a lot of weight on our shoulders in terms of trauma, and I feel like that’s forgotten because Asians in general are usually clumped into a big group, and that’s normally seen as East Asians. But Southeast Asians — they come from really traumatic, tragic experiences that aren’t recognized.”Solinna Chong
Anna Oltman, a UW doctoral student whose dissertation examines the international politics of refugee protection and who worked at a refugee agency, suggested this lack of a sustainable support system is commonplace. She said although the federal government allocates funding — around $1,000 per person — to agencies supporting refugees, they are often left to fight their own battles just a year after arriving.
“During that time it was like another struggle — you basically start all over again. You’re in a place where you don’t know the language and the culture, and you basically live in poverty,” Chhorm said. “A lot of gangs started because it was a form of protecting themselves. So a lot of people got into trouble because they know that the system does not protect them.”
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This “system” underscores various intertwining, “long-term negative” consequences for immigrants, Yang Sao Xiong, UW social work and Asian American studies professor, said.
For example, he said many Southeast Asian immigrants are kept in low-income neighborhoods — such as the project Chuk was in — that have few stable and high-income jobs, which in turn perpetuates their poverty. These areas also receive greater societal and police surveillance, he said, leading to more frequent arrests.
As a result, Cambodian and Laotian youth are incarcerated at respectively four and nine times the rate compared to the national average.
Chuk himself also fell into the criminal justice system. In 1989, just four years after he first stepped foot in the country, Chuk was convicted in Illinois for sexual assault of a minor and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
But the trial, Bennett described, rendered his father defenseless: He did not speak any English, nor did he have a translation service, resources or help for his situation.
“If you’re accused of something you should have someone to speak on your behalf. But he had the accuser speaking on his behalf, all he could do was shake his head — ‘okay’ — because he had no idea what they were saying,” Bennett said. “That’s all he could do. He didn’t want to get deported.”
It was perhaps not just the lack of resources that affected Chuk, though.
UW sociology professor Michael Light found in his 2017 study that noncitizens are “far more likely” to be incarcerated even after accounting for criminal history and offense severity. The lack of citizenship is as — if not more — salient a factor in determining punishment as race and ethnicity. The discrepancy, he said, is partially tied to the idea of resentment.
“I have had a U.S. judge tell me, ‘Why are you screwing a country that has taken you in? It actually pisses me off,’” Light said. “We can see it also in political rhetoric. If there’s a homicide that occurs that involves an immigrant, that is oftentimes construed somehow as an indictment on immigration itself … But we don’t see that very often if it’s a homicide that involves no immigrants — usually it’s a problem with that person.”
Still, this is only another facet of the challenge confronting Chuk.
Even after serving his 10-year sentence more than three decades ago, Chuk will, for the third time, face the risk of deportation when his “stay,” a legal request that temporarily postpones the deportation process, reopens next year.
His circumstances make a case for a brewing debate about the intermingling criminal justice and immigration systems: Whether rights like due process and protection from double jeopardy are afforded to immigrants facing deportation.
Like Dizon Mariategue, Jenny Zhao, staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, suggested the origin of this debate can be traced back to the 1990s, when the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act were passed under the Clinton administration.
Double the consequences
Indeed, deportation in the Southeast Asian community soared after Congress passed AEDPA and IIRIRA in 1996. Dizon Mariategue said these laws retroactively expanded the definition of “aggravated felony” to include crimes that are sometimes neither “aggravated” nor “felonies” under state criminal laws.
As a result, many immigrants with criminal history are now subjected to the consequences of aggravated felony under today’s definition, even if their convictions predated this redefinition and even if they have already served their sentences.
In one instance, she said, an immigrant is facing deportation for having broken some windows.
“It doesn’t matter your individual circumstances, it doesn’t matter if you’ve already served your time, it doesn’t matter if you’re a completely different person, [or if] you committed your crime decades ago,” Dizon Mariategue said. “According to this law, you have to be deported.”
Zhao concurred, saying these laws neglect to consider the unique circumstances leading up to an immigrant’s conviction, which in turn prevent judges from granting immigrants pardon from deportation. As a result, she said, immigrants often do not have meaningful hearings and are summarily ordered deported after “very, very short” hearings with judges.
“[But] there is no one right way to be an immigrant, and just because they didn’t commit a crime, or just because they are undocumented versus having a green card, that doesn’t make them more or less deserving to be living in this country.”Katrina Dizon Mariategue
She added many immigrants with past criminal convictions are being punished multiple times: Not only were they first punished in the criminal justice system, they often spend quite a bit of time in “immigration jail” because the same laws prohibit detainees from being released while their cases are pending. And the final stage of this three-part punishment: deportation.
“I think what makes matters even worse is because their countries wouldn’t take them back. People were allowed to continue living in the U.S., and of course they built up expectations during that time,” Zhao said. “So now it feels like they’re being punished for a third time yet again … They’re just kind of torn from their lives.”
It is not uncommon for Southeast Asian countries to deny deportees entry. Dizon Mariategue said because the U.S. was at war with many of them just a few decades ago, they did not accept deportees back until the U.S. began creating repatriation agreements after the ratification of the 1996 laws.
But the Trump administration, she said, has initiated a series of “aggressive bullying” of foreign nations who have either refused to take deportees back or have been slow in doing so.
For example, she observed that some immigrants were deported back to Vietnam last year although they had arrived in the U.S. before 1995 — an agreement between the U.S. and Vietnam stated that the latter would not accept pre-1995 refugees. The administration also issued a visa sanction on Cambodia last year to pressure the government to more quickly issue travel documents for deportees.
As a result, more Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants are deported. Whereas 35 Vietnamese were deported in 2016, the number rose to 71 in 2017. Dizon Mariategue estimated that 72 Cambodians have already been deported this year, and she projected the number will increase by the end of the year.
Today, at least 16,000 Southeast Asians have received final orders of deportation. This means that, while only a fraction of them will be deported, some are detained in immigration jails, and others are on “stay” like Chuk.
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But besides the deportation process itself, the consequences of it are yet another challenge deportees are forced to surmount.
For example, when Vaj visited Cambodia and talked to U.S. deportees in 2016, she found the Cambodian government provides no support or social welfare for them — in part because they did not want to accept anyone not returning voluntarily.
Southeast Asian countries often do not recognize deportees as citizens because many of them had come to the U.S. as babies and children, sometimes even born here.
Because of that, Dizon Mariategue said, they are stuck in “limbo” — accepted by neither country, stateless.
“They get there … and they are just dropped off at the airport with no documentation,” Vaj said. “So to get documentation they basically have to lie about where they were born … or buy documentation off somebody else.”
As a result, many deportees struggle with securing employment and housing.
This also concerns Bennett. She fears that if Chuk were deported, he “wouldn’t make it there anyway.”
Resolving issues faced by Southeast Asian immigrants will require the cooperation of many entities — locally, federally and internationally.
Fabiola Hamdan, Dane County’s immigration affairs officer and an immigrant herself, said it was important for her role and for other immigrants that the Madison Police Department and the Dane County executive held a press conference in support of immigrants.
Mayor Paul Soglin and the Madison Common Council also condemned ICE’s actions as “racist and xenophobic,” which have “terrorized and traumatized” families and children.
But many who are fighting for the rights of Southeast Asians in Madison say there isn’t adequate support from the local government and the Madison community in light of recent news.
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Paving way for rehabilitation
Journey Mental Health Center announced in September that it would discontinue funding for Kajsiab House and Cambodian Temple, culturally-specific mental health programs for Hmong and Cambodian Madisonians respectively.
The announcement came at a sensitive time, as recent ICE appearances in Madison stirred up anxieties within the Southeast Asian community. Vaj said she considers Journey’s decision “a distrust and retriggering of the refugee experience.”
But the city council recently approved $40,000 to assist Kajsiab House until the end of the year, and Soglin has proposed $100,000 in transitional funding for the program in his 2019 budget. If the budget is denied, however, Kajsiab House will face the risk of termination.
In light of such a risk, Vaj said she and some other community members have decided to establish a new non-profit, the Southeast Asian Healing Center, to continue the services of Kajsiab House and the Cambodian Temple.
She said culturally-specific services are particularly instrumental for preventing community members with mental health concerns from feeling “othered.” Instead, it makes them feel like they’re “a part of surviving together,” she said.
Solinna Chong, a member of Kajsiab House’s emergency budget team and a UW graduate student in social work, said these services also eliminate “power dynamics” that exist in non–culturally-specific services.
“When you go to just your everyday provider — usually these providers are white, too — they’re not looking for [trauma caused by the history of resettlement] … So they might skip over that and come down with a misdiagnosis,” Chong said. “When your clinician doesn’t understand that, that could also be very retraumatizing.”
But, these services are not only important to Southeast Asian communities in terms of recovering from the traumas of resettlement. They are also important for breaking the vicious cycle — the “resettlement–school–prison–deportation pipeline.”
Citing a psychotraumatology study, Patti Coffey, UW psychology professor, said unaddressed trauma — especially those triggered by poverty and witnessing violence — are linked to offending behavior, therefore “likely” incarceration.
As for breaking the cycle by combating poverty, Xiong said achieving higher education remains one of the few possible paths to economic mobility for Southeast Asian communities. Albeit, he said, schools that enforce elaborate filtering and gate-keeping practices often make achieving higher education difficult for them.
Vaj also pointed out schools have “failed” young Southeast Asians in Madison, as evidenced by their low graduation rates and the achievement gap. But until schools desegregate data between the achievements of East and Southeast Asian students, Vaj said, these issues cannot be adequately addressed.
But Xiong said some institutions — for example, the education and legal justice systems — are “taking an extremely long time to change just a little.”
The journey ahead
But Dizon Mariategue said public discourse on the topic often neglects the ways in which immigration also affects the Southeast Asian community.
She said although the issue of family separation at the border has rightly garnered a lot of media attention in the past year, people “don’t seem to be up in arms about that” when it comes to Southeast Asians, who have dealt with it for the past two decades.
She said this is in part because a smaller number of Southeast Asians are affected by deportation compared to the Latinx community, but also because of the current political rhetoric about immigration.
“For Congressional leaders who are Democrats, they … push this narrative around immigrants wanting to live the American Dream … that they’re model citizens. But for a lot of Southeast Asians, they don’t always fit this specific, perfect mold,” Dizon Mariategue said.“[But] there is no one right way to be an immigrant, and just because they didn’t commit a crime, or just because they are undocumented versus having a green card, that doesn’t make them more or less deserving to be living in this country.”
Chong, too, said Southeast Asians are often left out of the conversation because of the persisting image of what an immigrant looks like.
She attributed this in part to the “model minority myth” — the stereotype of Asian success and excellence that in effect neglects the struggles confronting the diverse community.
“Our community holds a lot of weight on our shoulders in terms of trauma, and I feel like that’s forgotten because Asians in general are usually clumped into a big group, and that’s normally seen as East Asians,” Chong said. “But Southeast Asians — they come from really traumatic, tragic experiences that aren’t recognized.”
Between 2004 and 2014, the U.S. has accepted and resettled more than 75,000 Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar as a result of the country’s mass persecution against the minority.
Precedent suggests another 75,000 Southeast Asians may be subjected to social inequities, unaddressed trauma from resettlement, and subsequently the flaws of the current criminal justice and immigration systems.
But the fates of these refugees will lie largely in the hands of American voters and legislators — many of whom struggle to understand that escaping trauma and devastation from an ocean away sometimes leads only to another one-way ticket back.