Nearly 700 Cambodians have been deported from the United States since 2002.
1,649 Cambodians have deportation orders.
16,000 Southeast Asian refugees have deportation orders.
“It’s a love story. We fought to be together again. In the process of fighting together, we created a movement.”
Ched tried to calm down a hysterical Jenny through the glass window.
“Things will be OK.”
“I’m sorry that I didn’t go with you.”
Ched Nin came to the United States in 1986 as a six-year-old refugee from Cambodia. He was raised in several tightly-knit Cambodian communities in a number of Minnesota towns—Farmington, Rochester, Fairbault. After serving two years in prison, he turned his life around and worked hard to improve his carpentry skills.
On August 26 2016, Ched went to what he thought would be a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in St. Paul. Typically these appointments are fairly rote—he would ensure the officers that his paperwork was up to date and that nothing major had changed in the previous few months. Jenny usually went with Ched to each check-in, but this time, she couldn’t get out of a busy morning filled with meetings. Ched’s friend, Duane, went with him instead.
Later that morning, Duane called Jenny in a panic. “They took Ched.”
Jenny drove as fast as she could to the detention center.
Jenny grew up in Fairbault, Minnesota—a factory town of around 20,000 people 50 miles south of the Twin Cities.
She was into crafts, sewing and socializing. She often biked with friends along cornfields and cows, or caught the breezes coming off the Cannon River. The languid landscape stood in stark contrast to Jenny’s chaotic, overflowing home life. At one point, there were up to 17 people packed into her family’s six-bedroom house; young and old.
Jenny felt like a city girl trapped in a small town, but her parents welcomed the relative calm of Fairbault. Jenny’s mom, Rachel, is Native American; raised by missionaries who traveled the world to spread the word of God. Jenny’s dad, Muon, was a Cambodian refugee who settled in Joilet, Illinois working as a skilled technician in manufacturing. Muon lost his family during the tumultuous war in Southeast Asia and the horrific genocide of millions of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge regime. Rachel would go on to tragically lose two children; one being Michael, Jenny’s twin brother.
Family was important to young Jenny, but it was also a source of struggle: “My parents were dealing with their own personal trauma, so it impacted my childhood.” In fact, she couldn’t wait to leave home.
Seventeen and pregnant, Jenny moved to Oregon in the summer of 2000. She gave birth to her first son, JaVonni, and returned to her home state to attend the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. In her sophomore year, she became pregnant again with her second child, Aidan. She stayed active in college life; joining the Student Parent Association and as vice president of the Cambodian Student Association of Minnesota. Her dream was to be a midwife to help other teen moms who were going through the same experience.
In 2006, she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Family Social Sciences and a minor in Women Studies. She was a single mom with two small children, a college diploma, and a growing call to greater leadership.
Ched moved to Fairbault when he was 9 years old and Jenny remembers meeting him not long after that.
“All the Cambodian kids knew each other,” she says.
They got reacquainted as adults, after Jenny returned to Fairbault in 2013 to be closer to her siblings after the death of her father. Ched was building his career in carpentry and raising his daughter, Abbie.
They kept running into each other until they finally went on their first date—a peaceful walk through the Faribault Nature Center. They were engaged two years later, and got married in September of 2015. “He made me feel special,” she says. Jenny and Ched settled into a life both new and somewhat familiar: one overflowing with love and close-knit family. Their house was a full one—three children, Ched’s parents, and a new puppy to keep everyone smiling.
Jenny called her mother first, as she was driving to the detention center. She needed help finding a lawyer.
When Jenny arrived, infuriated and in tears, she saw two other Cambodians in the waiting area. It wasn’t just Ched—ICE was rounding up dozens of Cambodian refugees, as part of an unprecedented, organized push by ICE.
It didn’t matter that Ched wasn’t born in Cambodia, and had never been there. In September and October of 2017, across the country, over 100 Cambodian refugees were detained by ICE, most of whom had come to this country as refugees fleeing genocide.
It didn’t matter that Ched’s criminal offense happened over eight years ago. His offense fell into an obscure category of legal provisions that can lead to deportation, even for people with permanent resident status and years of good behavior, like Ched.
Jenny was told that Ched would only be detained for a few weeks before a review of his case.
It was a lie.
Here’s the truth: once someone is detained and served a deportation order, they have to clear an extremely high bar to get that decision reversed. Jenny, neither well-moneyed nor well-connected, was one woman up against a byzantine deportation system that has become ruthlessly efficient in recent years.
Nearly 700 people like Ched have been deported to Cambodia since 2002, and in September of 2016, there was no reason to believe that Ched would not be part of that statistic.
In the weeks following Ched’s detention, Jenny went through a series of attorneys before she met Linus Chan from the University of Minnesota Law School’s James H. Binger Center for New Americans. He became a kind and genuine confidant she could trust, and a guide through the complex legal systems that surround cases like Ched’s.
At Linus’ suggestion, Jenny created a long to-do list. Among its first items: contact all her friends, family and employers to write letters of support. She needed to demonstrate that her family would struggle financially without Ched. She needed to offer evidence that he was supporting his children, that he had a job, and that he was contributing positively to society. It was a difficult first hurdle, but also the first sign that perhaps Jenny’s story wouldn’t be the typical one.
Ched was taken by ICE on a Friday. By Monday, Jenny had collected 53 letters of support.
Ched was taken by ICE on a Friday. By Monday, Jenny had collected 53 letters of support.
It was only supposed to be a few weeks. But those few weeks stretched into several, and then stretched again into months.
Travel documents were issued for Ched’s deportation to Cambodia, but Jenny never stopped fighting for him. “I got obsessed. I wanted my husband to return to us.”
Jenny became an insomniac. She took to the streets, mobilizing the Cambodian Minnesotan community. She organized rallies in support of Ched and others like him, and soon a community of support surrounded her to build awareness of the deportation crisis.
Exhausted and running on adrenaline, she leaned on that community. At every rally, she kept picking up more organizers willing to fight alongside her. The media started paying attention, locally and nationally. Jenny went to Governor Mark Dayton’s office to advocate for Ched, and to Washington D.C. to testify to public officials about his story. Her growing community of organizers followed and rallied in solidarity. Within months, a group of around 13 people turned into a true coalition—one that is now a 501c3 organization called Release MN8, a non-profit that has been fighting for the eight Cambodians ICE detained in St. Paul along with Ched.
Her constant advocacy led to a hearing with a federal immigration judge—a rare but invaluable opportunity for Jenny and her family to make a final push to keep Ched home.
Parents Night at JaVonni’s school was the Valentine’s Day a few weeks before Ched’s hearing. Teachers invited parents down to the basketball court to receive gifts from their children. JaVonni gave Jenny a handwritten card that read:
Thank you for all you have done, you are a strong woman who manages to keep the family happy when things may seem down. Love you mom.
The hearing drew nearer. “I remember a few days before, I stared up at the sky and talked to myself: Jenny, you don’t know what else you can do. Have faith and just let it go.”
The morning of the hearing was intensely cold. The hearing went on for four hours, but by the afternoon, Ched was finally granted release after over 180 days in detention. Jenny—with the support of her close-knit community, her family, her own tenacity, and an unyielding resolve to fight for love—had won her husband’s freedom.
On his first night out, Ched wanted steak. But first, they had to make it to their son JaVonni’s last basketball game.
Jenny can move mountains because she doesn’t take no for an answer.
Her story is mountainous in its own right. A woman of refugee and native descent was able to mobilize community power and fight against a federal system that continues to target vulnerable refugees and immigrants today.
Jenny did the impossible and saved her husband from being deported to a country he’s never known. Organizers and legal advocates around the world call Jenny’s victory “nothing short of a miracle.” And that victory rippled beyond the shores of her own family.
She resurfaced a largely invisible deportation issue within Cambodian and other Southeast Asian communities. She changed the scope of what’s possible for families with detained loved ones. She amplified the narrative of troubled Southeast Asian refugees in Minnesota, and reignited a public conversation about the detrimental effects of deportations.
But Jenny is often reminded that safety is still far from guaranteed for Ched and others like him.
The Donald Trump administration has signaled its intent to ramp up deportations, even beyond the record numbers that marked President Obama’s time in the White House. Our immigration laws still include language that can be blurry at best and incredibly damaging for families at worst. Through executive orders, immigration policy can change suddenly and without notice, and ICE can and will find ways to imprison fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles—loved ones. Ched was able to avoid deportation, but immigration experts see his case as a notable exception, not the rule.
Only three men have been released from the original Release MN8. “It’s much more challenging than we imagined with our current leaders in office,” Jenny says. “It’s sad that we have to fight just to keep our loved ones with us.”
So the work continues. Jenny is creating a toolkit for families who are fighting deportations, pushing for immigration policies that help create pathways for those with deportation orders, and reminding our political leaders and the rest of America that humans aren’t illegal. But as long as America sees refugees as other, existing outside of what we call American, then the perpetual displacement will continue.
Before Jenny leaves the house now, she remembers to tell her kids she loves them. Ched is home, but Jenny’s fight isn’t over.
Movements are built on relationship—love and loss and returning back to love.
The layers of Jenny’s activism:
1. Love is worth fighting for.
2. Know what you’re good at in order to keep things moving.
3. If you don’t know how to navigate the system, find others to navigate it with you.
4. It’s important to find people who have passion with you.
5. You can go at it alone, but you can go far together.
6. No one can tell your story but you.
7. Speak up not because you have to but because you want to.
By definition, being an activist is more than a label. It’s a fluid verb informed by the community it touches. It’s being in action, moving, causing or initiating change, engaging, contributing, participating.
What do you love enough to be consumed by action?