PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Sitting in a dingy bar down a small back alley in the Cambodian capital, Ros Choun struggled to explain how he ended up here.
“They took my whole life, and there is nothing I can do about it,” he said.
Despite the location and his Cambodian appearance, Choun had spent almost his entire life in the United States. In fact, at 35, he refuses to consider himself anything but American. His family, he recounts, sought refuge in America in the early 1980s after fleeing the genocide and devastation of the Khmer Rouge period, which left Cambodia in ruins and almost 2 million people dead.
“I was 6 months old when I left this country – I’m American – but no one told us if we go to prison we could get deported back to Cambodia,” he said, his eyes downcast and his voice filled with anger.
Since 2002, hundreds of ethnically Cambodian men and women have been deported from the United States to Cambodia in barely recognized fallout from a tough immigration law passed in 1996 during the administration of President Bill Clinton and an agreement, reached after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that allowed the deportation of any Cambodian convicted of an aggravated felony who hadn’t earned U.S. citizenship.
Few of those who arrived in the U.S. as traumatized refugees in the late 1970s and 1980s realized that asylum and residency were not the same as citizenship.
“I didn’t know anything about any of this until 2011,” said Aun Khoy, 51, a deportee who arrived as a teenager in the U.S. and who was deported back to Cambodia two years ago for a decades-old manslaughter conviction.
What started as a trickle of deportations has, in recent years, turned into a flood, with the number of deportees increasing dramatically since 2009 and the total number now estimated at around 400.
“It’s averaged about 10 deportees a month between 2009 and now,” said Keo Sarith, the program director at the Returnee Integration Support Center, a Phnom Penh-based nonprofit set up to help those repatriated.
Another 2,000 ethnic Cambodians in the U.S. are on the deportation list because of their criminal records and could be picked up at any time.
“Many individuals are going about their ordinary lives. Working, studying, raising their families, but any knock on the door could be the immigration officers,” said Bill Herod, an American pastor who lives in Cambodia and has been involved in helping the returnees since the first groups arrived in 2002. “It’s a terrible injustice, but it’s legal.”
Choun was picked up three years ago from his family’s home in Atlanta and, after a year and a half wait in detention, put aboard a plane to Cambodia. His crime: As a 16-year-old he had fired a gun at school to intimidate a group of bullies. He was tried as an adult and spent seven years behind bars, but on release he thought he could put it all behind him.
“For a decade after I was released I had no issues with the law. Ten years working, paying taxes and not even a traffic ticket,” he said, shaking his head.
Choun said there are other returnees whose plight is even worse. “We have a 72-year-old grandfather here. He hit his son for joining a gang in 1986,” he said. “He was a teacher and now he drinks his life away. You can’t get a job here if you are 70 years old.”
According to the Returnee Integration Support Center, the returnees range in age from 25 to 82, with a significant number having spent time in jail for gang activities, drug dealing or violent crimes.
“These people were put in big cities in the U.S. and left to their own, which led to drugs, violence, gangs,” said Herod.
Most of the deportees arrive in Cambodia with little more than the clothes on their backs and what money they have in their pockets. U.S. marshals escort them off the plane, but there’s very little to sustain them when they arrive.
Many spend their first few weeks in one of the small, bare rooms above the support center’s office near Phnom Penh’s airport. After that, they must make a new life in a country where poverty is common.
“The Cambodian government has enough people to worry about and just isn’t interested in them,” says the center’s Keo.
Ken Touch arrived in Cambodia just over a year ago. It was the first time the 39-year-old had left the U.S. since arriving from Cambodia as an infant.
“I’m living day by day,” he said, sitting in a small coffee shop on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, his elaborate tattoos distinguishing him from those around him.
In 2000, Touch was involved in a bar fight and shot someone in the thigh. After 10 years in prison and another year in an immigration detention center, he arrived in Cambodia.
“I knew after being released I would get deported. The whole time I was in prison I had that hanging over my head,” he said.
Money is tight. His family sends him a few hundred dollars a month, and the rest of his money comes from picking up paying passengers on his motorbike.
“I have another 13 days to make it to end of the month. I hate eating the same thing every day, but I will survive,” he said.
Like many, one of the biggest difficulties for Touch is knowing that unless the law changes he will never be allowed back into the U.S., even on compassionate grounds.
“Those who get sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. at least get to see their families at weekend visitations, and if someone dies they take you to the funeral,” he said. “If my parents pass away I won’t even get to attend their funerals.”
Many of the returnees struggle with their enforced new reality, far from everyone and everything they know. Few speak Khmer when they arrive, and it can be hard to find employment.
“About 10 percent of the returnees do OK, they get settled, find jobs and start families,” Herod said. But for others, life is a constant struggle.
“We’ve had suicides, overdoses – around 17 are in prison right now for crimes they have committed since arriving in Cambodia,” he said.
In 2003, Herod lost the sight in his right eye after liquid splashed into it while he was wrestling a bottle of Drano out of the hands of one of the returnees who was attempting to drink it.
“He later successfully committed suicide,” Herod said sadly.
Choun said life is particularly hard because he left his three children behind in Atlanta. There’s no money for them to visit.
“I can’t bring myself to explain everything to my kids,” he said. “I just tell them I am on work leave and then hope that one day I can return, even if just for a visit.”
Gillet is a McClatchy special correspondent.