The fear of deportation is real in the Long Beach neighborhood of Cambodia Town where many refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge Regime continue to live.
In mid-December, the Trump Administration deported the largest group yet of Cambodian immigrants living in the United States to their home country. Many of those deported have few or no memories of Cambodia, since they were very young when their families fled from Khmer Rouge massacres. The people who were recently deported were convicted of a felony while living in the United States and lost their green cards as a result.
Forty-year-old Thear Sam is a husband and father who received a deportation order after he served two and a half years in state prison for helping a friend steal a car when he was a teenager. Since serving his time in prison, Sam says he has stayed out of trouble because he doesn’t want to hurt his wife and daughter.
“You don’t know when they’re going to come back and try to get you. You’re pretty much just scared all the time,” said Sam.
Sam, along with his parents and younger sister, fled the Khmer Rouge regime when he was about 5 years old. He says he was so young when he moved to the United States that he doesn’t have any memories of Cambodia. His family eventually resettled in Long Beach where his parents thought it would be a safe place to raise a family.
“Back in the 90s a lot of Mexicans and Asians didn’t get along. They would always chase each other down. My mom and dad didn’t know anything about that. I had to run and hide and fend for myself,” said Sam.
Sam recalls getting picked on and being called racial slurs. In order to protect himself, Sam says he hung out with people he thought could protect him.
“I started hanging with these other people who were helping me out or backing me up. If that’s what you want to call it,” said Sam.
Sam’s first run-in with the law was when he was 18-years-old when he says his group of friends stole a kid’s backpack. Sam was charged with robbery and was put on probation.
“I didn’t learn my lesson just because I got slapped on the wrist. I helped a friend steal a car from San Francisco. Drove it back down towards San Luis Obispo where I got arrested again. This time around, I ended up doing two and a half years for that,” said Sam.
He was charged with grand theft auto and was sent to prison at age 19.
“The only thing that ran through my mind was my parents had said to me one time... 'When we were over there in Cambodia, I gave birth to you in Cambodia in prison, now you’re going to come over here and you still want to go to prison. What’s wrong with you?' That really hurt me a lot. That’s the only thing I can think of. Nothing hurts me more than what my mom had said to me during that time,” said Sam.
He says his parent's disappointment stuck with him and he decided to work hard to better his future. What Sam and many other Cambodian refugees who committed crimes didn’t know, was their legal status in the United States would change and they would receive deportation orders. For more than 10 years, Sam checked in regularly with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In October 2017, Sam appeared for a routine check in appointment, when U.S. Immigration and Custsoms Enforcement agents handcuffed and detained him.
Sam was flown away multiple states and forced to stay in different detention centers for six months.
“We’re on the plan for eight to nine hours at a time. We can only go to the restroom when they want us to go to the restroom. We’re held in a cell 24 hours at a time with no place to sleep. It’s like a can of sardines. People are scrambling to sleep on the floor, sleep by the toilet,” said Sam.
Eventually, ICE let him go, but only after Sam paid $7,000 for an immigration bond.
“I don’t know when they’re going to decide to detain me again, or if they’re going to get detained again. I’m just hoping for my pardon to go through,” said Sam.
Sam’s case is in the United States Court of Appeals for the ninth circuit. He says he hopes a judge will help him put his delinquent past behind him for good so he won’t be separated from his wife and daughter again.
According to the Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, the government decided to halt its plan to deport up to 100 Cambodian refugees with final orders this month because of a class action lawsuit.