Khmer Girls in Action, a nonprofit organization in Long Beach that works with the city’s sizeable Cambodian population, is joining numerous organizations and individuals every Tuesday in phone banking Immigration and Customs Enforcement to demand the release of immigrants being held in its detention facilities, especially those with underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to coronavirus.
The ICE detention facilities are often overcrowded, and diseases can spread quickly among detainees. The Center for Disease Control reported a significant outbreak of mumps that spread to 57 different ICE run detention facilities from 2018 to 2019.
While most Cambodian immigrants arrived in the United States with refugee status and are legally considered permanent residents, their residency can be easily lost if they commit a crime, including non-violent ones. In many cases, decades pass between the offense and when those who committed them are deported. Middle aged people who are now productive community members and parents are being deported for crimes they committed when they were teenagers.
Cambodian immigrants who have been convicted of crimes but not deported have to regularly check in at ICE facilities, in order for the federal agency to monitor them. In the past, they would be free to leave after reporting. But in recent years, without warning ICE has been arresting and detaining immigrants who come in for their regular check ins. Often the only sign these immigrants have that they are about to be arrested is that the rooms and times given in their reporting instructions are different from past check-ins.
Until recent years the Cambodian government has been reluctant to cooperate with the United States government in accepting deportees sent to them. Although the United States considers these people to be Cambodian citizens, many were born in refugee camps in Thailand when their families were fleeing the violence of the Khmer Rouge and The Cambodian–Vietnamese War, and have never been to Cambodia themselves. Oftentimes, these refugees have no surviving family in Cambodia and are unable to speak Khmer, making assimilation after deportation extremely difficult.
President Donald Trump began pressuring Cambodia to begin accepting higher rates of deportees once he entered office. The Southeast Asian nation complied after visa sanctions were placed on it.
The deportation of Southeast Asians, especially Cambodians, has now increased exponentially under the Trump administration. ICE reported a 279% increase in the number of Cambodian immigrants deported from the country between fiscal year 2017 and fiscal year 2018. In fiscal year 2017, ICE deported only 29 Cambodian nationals, compared to 110 in fiscal year 2018.
“As children and grandchildren of survivors, we continue to collectively heal and rehabilitate our community,” Khmer Girls in Action posted on Instagram on Genocide Remembrance Day, April 17. “On this Day of Remembrance we acknowledge that resettlement was not easy. Many of the 1.5 generation refugees who resettled here as children were impacted by the harsh laws and policies that [have] and [continue] to criminalize immigrants, refugees, poor communities and youth of color. The impact of war is still felt today as the administration places new executive orders to detain and separate families.”
Khmer Girls in Action asked their followers to stand in solidarity with immigrants detained by ICE during the coronavirus pandemic by joining in the weekly Tuesday mass calls to ICE. ICE has the authority to release many of these detainees immediately.
The Asian Prisoner Support Committee has provided an online list of immigrants who are being held by ICE, as well as information about them and which numbers to call each Tuesday to request their release. The list includes immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa.
The page also contains a list of those who have successfully been freed from detention, to be updated as efforts continue.
The threat of coronavirus has heightened efforts to release immigrants from detention centers, but Long Beach activists were fighting deportation proceedings against immigrants before coronavirus arrived in the country. The Asian Prisoners Support Committee and Sanctuary Long Beach hosted an educational seminar on Tuesday, Feb. 18 at the United Cambodian Community’s building to teach Southeast Asian residents of Long Beach how to fight the deportation of community members.
While the event was geared towards Long Beach’s Southeast Asian community, activists of numerous backgrounds attended to show support and learn how to help.
“The movement should really be built on love and that we radically love our communities,” Sanctuary LB organizer Sevly Snguon told the crowd on Feb. 18, “because structurally and historically, our communities are not meant to love each other, whether that be amongst Asian American and black communities or amongst communities of color. […] But we’re seeing these intersections of criminalization and immigration happening [that] our communities are constantly being displaced by. Mobilizing our communities together is really what’s going to happen. It’s what we need, and that also takes love.”