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As ICE Deports More Cambodian Refugees, Some Find Hope in Pardons

The Trump administration has deported Cambodian refugees with criminal records at an unprecedented pace. Liberal governors are using pardons to fight back.
Nheb Thai, a Cambodian refugee who was deported from the U.S., carries plates with pizza as he serves a meal to a group of other deportees in Cambodia.

Nheb Thai, a Cambodian refugee who was deported from the U.S., carries plates with pizza as he serves a meal to a group of other deportees in Cambodia.

When Ruth Seng's partner, Kang Hen, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last month, she didn't know what she would do. Seng was recently diagnosed with kidney and heart failure, and she may not survive her illness. As her health declined, she had been relying on Hen to take her to doctor's appointments, bring her healthy food, and take care of their three-year-old son, Kayden. Now, she feared that Kayden would end up without parents.

"I'm coming home every night, looking at the entrance to my house, and I start sobbing," she said last week, as Hen sat in a northern California jail, awaiting deportation to Cambodia. "A place that used to be so much laughter is now all quiet and sorrow."

But everything changed on Monday, when California Governor Gavin Newsom pardoned Hen for the decades-old robbery conviction that had stripped him of his green card 20 years before. Now, Hen will have the opportunity to reopen his deportation case in immigration court. That means he'll likely be able to stop his deportation—and stay with his family in San Francisco.

The pardon comes amid a renewed push by ICE to deport Cambodians with criminal records, many of whom came to the United States as refugees in the 1970s and '80s. When the Cambodian government temporarily stopped accepting deportation flights in 2017 because of concerns about families being separated, the Trump administration retaliated by implementing visa sanctions against the country, and Cambodia eventually gave in. Since then, ICE has been arresting Cambodian immigrants at an unprecedented pace, and last fiscal year the U.S. deported a record 110 Cambodians.

This spring, ICE conducted yet another round of arrests in Cambodian communities, and immigration advocacy groups say as many as 60 people were detained. Advocates expect the next deportation flight to go out as soon as next month, though they're hoping more refugees will be spared by receiving pardons or having their convictions vacated. (ICE says it won't confirm or deny the deportation flight due to concerns about operational security, and the agency didn't respond to a request for comment on Hen's case.)

Hen's pardon gives hope to immigration advocacy groups, who for the past couple years have been urging governors to grant clemency to the many Cambodian refugees facing deportation for old criminal convictions. Of about 1,800 non-detained Cambodian immigrants with final deportation orders, nearly 1,300 have been convicted of crimes. Last year, former California Governor Jerry Brown and Washington Governor Jay Inslee pardoned a handful of Cambodian refugees on the brink of deportation. Now, it appears Newsom is following in his predecessor's footsteps. On Monday, he granted a pardon to another Cambodian immigrant, Hay Hov, as well.

Hen, like most Cambodian refugees now facing deportation, originally came to the U.S. as a child after his family fled the Khmer Rouge genocide. In 1985, they resettled in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in San Jose, California, where violence was common. According to Anoop Prasad, a senior staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus who is representing Hen, his client was often bullied by kids at school and beaten up by older men in the neighborhood. Eventually, he decided to join a gang so that he wouldn't be picked on anymore.

Kang Hen, Ruth Seng, and Kayden.

Kang Hen, Ruth Seng, and Kayden.

Prasad says his client's story isn't unusual. Many of the Cambodian refugees now facing deportation had childhoods shadowed by poverty and violence, and many ended up joining gangs to find a sense of belonging, setting them on a path toward criminal convictions in their teens and twenties. Though they entered the U.S. legally, the convictions cost them their green cards.

Hen's arrest came in 1994, just after his 18th birthday, when two friends asked him for a ride to an apartment complex. While he was outside, his friends committed a robbery, and one of the victims died of a heart attack. Although Hen knew they had committed a crime, he agreed to drive the getaway car anyway, and he was arrested soon after. Prosecutors charged him with robbery and murder, arguing that his role in the robbery made him partly responsible for the death.

Hen ended up spending four years in pre-trial detention as two separate juries failed to convict him. Finally, prosecutors offered him a plea deal that would allow him to get out of prison soon with just the robbery conviction and avoid a third trial. What he didn't know was that the deal would make him eligible for deportation—and that after he'd served his sentence, he would be released into the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service—the precursor to ICE—and ordered deported.

Since the U.S. didn't have a repatriation agreement with Cambodia at the time—it wasn't until 2002 that Cambodia began accepting some deportees—Hen spent two years in immigration detention. In 2001, he was finally released after a Supreme Court ruling that prohibited the indefinite detention of immigrants who can't be deported. But he knew that at any moment he could be detained and sent back to Cambodia.

One day not long after Hen's release, he visited the donut shop where Seng worked. Seng had been friends with Hen's brother, so she knew about his robbery conviction, but he didn't fit her image of someone who had just been in prison: He was caring and exceptionally well-mannered, she says. They started dating soon after, and they've now been together for more than 17 years.

Hen found a job at a seafood business in the Bay Area, where he's now been a beloved employee for more than a decade. In his free time, he's been helping out at a local Buddhist temple and volunteering with the homeless. When Kayden was born, he became a devoted father, Seng says, taking his son to the park or the arcade when he got off work. "Who he was back then does not define who he is now," Seng says.

Many of the Cambodian refugees asking for pardons tell similar stories of rehabilitation. They say their crimes were committed decades ago, and since then they've tried to make amends to their communities. They often argue that deportation is a form of double jeopardy, punishing them again when they've already served time for their crimes.

Now, it seems like public officials may be starting to listen. In Monday's pardons, Newsom said that both Hen and Hov showed evidence of having rebuilt their lives and noted that deporting them would permanently separate them from their families.

"Their deportation would be an unjust collateral consequence that would harm their families and the communities," the governor's office wrote in a statement to the Associated Press.

After Newsom announced the pardons, Prasad urged California's governor to continue using his clemency power. "We hope to continue working with Governor Newsom on setting an example for the rest of the country," he says.