US immigration policy touches countless communities in Minnesota and across the country, but the historic roots, present-day political battles and long-term human impact are still invisible to many of us. To effectively create change, we all need important context on this complex and far-reaching issue.
Deportation exacerbates existing oppression and historical injustices.
Many immigrants and refugees to the United States, including members of Release MN8, sought refuge in the US because of instability and war in their homelands. It is no secret that the conditions they escaped are connected to US military and political involvement abroad. Such is the recent situation with Central American unaccompanied minor migrants leaving Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. That thousands of young people from this region now seek asylum at the US border, only to be turned away, highlights the dangerous contradictions inherent in US foreign and immigration policies, particularly given the history of US interventions that destabilized these nations, specifically connected to the drug war.
This tragic irony is also present in the case of Cambodian refugees who fled war and genocide in Cambodia over 30 years ago. The Khmer Rouge regime oversaw the “killing fields” period of Cambodian history (1975-1979). Prior to the Khmer Rouge’s takeover, Cambodia (and neighboring Laos) experienced massive US bombings raids across its countryside in the early 1970’s. US military forces sought to disrupt Vietnamese communist supply lines, disregarding the neutrality of both Cambodia and Laos during the Vietnam War. These bombing raids both devastated Cambodia’s agricultural infrastructure and contributed significantly to political instability that eventually gave rise to the Khmer Rouge.
Ched Nin and other Southeast Asian refugees are essentially all children of the US-Vietnam conflict. Most Cambodian American deportees were young when they arrived in the US. Some were babies. As Eric Tang observed in his book, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the NYC Hyperghetto, there has never been an adequate resettlement policy for Cambodian refugees. And with inhumane immigration and deportation policies, the US continues to fail this community. Something is critically wrong with a system that deports individuals who arrived here as refugee infants and toddlers.
Immigration is a federal policy but local decisions matter
For lawful permanent residents (LPRs—i.e., green card holders) with removal orders, as was each of the MN8, their convictions for state crimes lead to deportation. The types of offenses that can trigger a removal order are part of a very broad category called “aggravated felonies.” An offense is deemed an aggravated felony when it earns a criminal sentence of at least one year. As legal scholar Bill Ong Hing noted in his book, Deporting Our Souls, the aggravated felonies category has been broadening ever since the term became part of immigration laws in 1988. It includes things ranging from rape, treason and murder, to relatively minor offenses such as criminal damage to property or selling small amounts of marijuana.
The interaction of state and local authorities—like police, district attorneys, and judges—with immigration policy matter for LPRs. Local and state decisions, including enforcement and prosecution, carry significant implications for immigrants and refugees who are not US citizens. Jenny Srey and the ReleaseMN8 coalition are preparing to introduce legislation in the Minnesota Legislature that would allow individuals to challenge their state convictions if they were not notified of the deportation consequence of the conviction or plea bargain (see US Padilla v Kentucky). And the Minnesota Immigrant Rights Action Committee have put forth a 13 point sanctuary city platform for Minneapolis that includes funding legal representation for immigrants detained by ICE, and promotes active ordinances to deter local cooperation with ICE.
The consequences of separating families are severe.
Deportation doesn’t just affect those caught up in the criminal justice web of current immigration policy. It causes severe harm to those left behind, including young children. Ched Nin and his wife, Jenny, were raising five children and leading ordinary lives when Ched was detained in 2016. The impact of his deportation would have been catastrophic for his entire household: his wife, three daughters, two stepsons and his parents. Ched is a respected carpenter and the loss of his union salary and health coverage would have been devastating for the family.
Beyond the financial challenges, it is difficult to fully assess the ongoing impact of such an absence on a family, though one can imagine that cycles of poverty, reliance on social services, and contact with the criminal justice system are intimately connected to the disruption and disintegration of family systems.
Not all family members with removal orders are able to share the type of progress narrative that Ched is able to convey—a story of mistakes made, and of redemption. In fact, many individuals caught up in this immigration-criminal justice web are being directly transferred into immigration detention after serving prison sentences. Many are subsequently deported without ever seeing their families, even though they had children, spouses, parents and siblings desperately awaiting their return.
It is important to acknowledge that these individuals, all of them, also deserve to be with their families. It cannot be overstated that deportation creates more problems for families and communities. These families, now more than ever, need their loved ones home.
Vichet Chhuon is Associate Professor of Culture and Teaching and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota. His work centers on the teaching and learning needs of immigrant and marginalized students, and the relationships between educational institutions, families and social context.