Upon reuniting with 17-year-old son Kobe (right), Sok Loeun (center) said, “He got tall. ... He still hugs and kisses his dad. He's still my baby.” Loeun's mother is on the left. (Stephanie Tangkilisan)
After landing in San Francisco International Airport from Cambodia last Wednesday evening, Sok Khoeun Loeun greeted a cheering crowd of family and friends with hugs and high fives, but he was scanning the crowd for his mother. When he reached her, he dropped to his knees, placed his head at her feet and bowed again and again with his hands clasped and fingertips raised to his forehead. Moments later, he did the same to his tearful father.
“I had to show that I respect and love them,” Loeun said, recalling last week’s emotional reunion. “They went there to support me after everything. They still showed up. It meant a lot and in our culture, that's the way to pay back our respect.”
Loeun spoke to KQED by phone from Bakersfield, where he attended a cousin’s birthday a few days later. He was making the rounds to visit with family members he hadn’t seen in nearly five years.
Until a few months ago, Loeun had been resigned to never stepping foot again in America, where his parents, three sons and six brothers and sisters all live.
Loeun, 35, had lived in Fresno since he was a baby, after his family was admitted to the U.S. as refugees. But in 2015, he voluntarily left for Cambodia after learning that the Department of Homeland Security had placed him in deportation proceedings because of a 2012 marijuana possession conviction. He said the prospect of spending months or years in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention seemed far worse at the time.
This past November, Loeun learned it was a choice he should not have had to make. After attending a legal clinic in Phnom Penh held by advocacy organizations, including San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus and the Oakland-based Asian Prisoner Support Committee, he discovered a shocking revelation: He was a U.S. citizen, and the government had no right to deport him.
His return home transformed the international arrivals lobby of the airport into a joyous celebration where over 50 community members anticipated his arrival. It felt like a typical Cambodian family gathering, where foil trays of egg rolls and pink boxes of donuts were passed around and people sang and danced to Cambodian ballads blaring from a portable speaker.
“The fact that Sok is here is really exceptional but it needs to be normal. Cambodian families need the opportunity to come together, be together and heal together,” Loeun’s attorney, Anoop Prasad, told the crowd of supporters. According to Prasad, Loeun is the third Cambodian ever to return to the U.S. after facing deportation.
Confronted with an increase in ICE raids and deportations of Southeast Asians, Prasad and other advocates are stepping up their legal advocacy in an effort to reunite Cambodian deportees, like Loeun, with their families. Under the Trump administration, deportation numbers have been the highest in a decade: Removals to Cambodia nearly tripled in 2018 and in January of this year alone, ICE deported an estimated 25 Cambodian immigrants — more than 30% of the total number of Cambodians deported in 2019.
Community organizers say these deportations fracture Cambodian families, many of whom still suffer from their experiences under Cambodia’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, which they fled in the 1970s. Advocates hope to bring more people like Loeun home by similarly identifying bureaucratic errors made in Cambodian immigration cases.
When asked about Loeun’s case, a spokesperson from U.S. Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on any pending cases as a matter of policy, and said that doing so “should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”
Because a majority of the Cambodians deported are legal residents with old felony convictions, many families struggle to understand the complexities of how the immigration and criminal justice systems overlap. That’s where lawyers like Prasad come in.
“It honestly took only two minutes of talking to him to realize that he had American citizenship,” said Prasad, a staff attorney with the Asian Law Caucus who first met Loeun at the legal clinic in Phnom Penh. He says the error of targeting Loeun for deportation was “clear cut.” But Loeun, like many Cambodian deportees, lacked legal guidance at the time, so it was hardly surprising that no one challenged the government's mistake, said Prasad.
When asked about whether American citizens have been placed into deportation proceedings or detention, ICE spokeswoman Mary G. Houtmann said in a statement that the agency only arrests individuals with “probable cause of alienage and removability from the United States.”
Houtmann added that the agency investigates immigration status by reviewing electronic and paper records collected by federal, state, local and international agencies, as well as conducting personal interviews. “When the agency receives evidence suggesting that information in its systems is inaccurate, steps are taken to ensure the accuracy of such information,” Houtmann said in the statement.
Houtmann said ICE last updated its policies and procedures for citizenship claims in November 2015.
Prasad said, however, that in some cases ICE had wrongly designated a person’s criminal conviction as a deportable offense. “Either some of [the cases] were straight up invalid, or the law wasn’t followed correctly,” Prasad said. Other immigrants, he said, didn’t get legal advice about the immigration consequences of having a conviction on their record at the time they were fighting a criminal charge.
In response to questions about whether criminal convictions could be wrongly classified as deportable, Houtmann said the agency does not make the determination if a person is removable. “That decision rests with immigration courts, which fall under the Department of Justice,” she wrote in a statement. “ICE officers carry out the removal decisions made by the federal immigration judges.”
A Family's Resilience Through Genocide and Deportation
Prasad first visited Cambodia in 2016 to provide legal clinics for deportees. He was part of a delegation that hoped to halt deportations by advocating for an amendment to a repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the U.S. After deportations increased under President Trump, the advocates shifted their tactics and began appealing for governor pardons. Both Gov. Gavin Newsom and his predecessor, Jerry Brown, have issued pardons of Southeast Asian immigrants facing deportation.
This past fall, Prasad returned to Cambodia and met Loeun and other deportees. Prasad estimates that there are potential legal problems with the deportation orders of nearly a quarter of the people he met there.
Though each case is different, Prasad said many Cambodian refugees who are forced to leave the U.S. share a similar childhood narrative as Loeun’s.
Loeun’s parents survived the Khmer Rouge genocide, which killed over two million Cambodians in the late 1970s. They fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, where Loeun, the eldest of seven siblings, was born in 1984. The family arrived in the U.S. as refugees the following year, and eventually resettled in Fresno. When Loeun was 12, his mother became a naturalized citizen. Under the Child Citizen Act of 2000, Loeun automatically became a citizen, too, though no one in the family knew it then.
Like many Cambodian refugees, Loeun’s family lived in a poor neighborhood with high crime, gangs and bullying. “We were the only Cambodian family in our neighborhood,” Loeun said. “Everybody picked on us, called us ‘ching chang chong,’ and they’d break into our house all the time.”
“Immigration judges were struggling to interpret all these new laws and, in general, they were interpreting them in the harshest way possible,” said Prasad. “It took years for the federal court to strike down these decisions.”
Though he had served his sentence years before, Loeun again felt the consequences of his drug conviction in 2015, when he was stopped by CBP agents on his return from a family trip to Cambodia. They seized his green card and informed him that he’d likely soon be picked up by ICE. After discussing the predicament with his family, Loeun decided to leave for Cambodia, hoping that he’d be able to work and financially support his boys from abroad. He left the children in the care of their mother and his own parents. His youngest son was just around 5 months old.
Loeun’s younger sister, Sokhum Lisa Loeun says her family had no resources to help them understand the nuances of immigration law. “No one advocated for him,” she said, her voice cracking. “I’m angry because someone should have told him, ‘Don’t go. You have a chance.’ ”
While she’s relieved to have her brother finally home, she said it hurts to realize that his five-year absence should never have happened.
The Loeun siblings often refer to each other by their birth order and some of them even have tattoos of their numbers in the sibling sequence. Loeun has a No. 1 on his wrist. As the first born, Loeun took a leadership role in the family, helping his parents run their doughnut shop, guiding his nieces and nephews and making key decisions for the family.
In his absence, Lisa, the eldest daughter, took on the role of “number one.” “We tried to raise the kids as best as we can but I know that without their dad being here, without them having a father role model, they had it hard,” she said.
Loeun’s eldest son Kobe, who turns 18 this month and is graduating from high school this spring, says his dad’s absence heightened his anxieties and affected his academic life.
“I would really be sad because not having my dad around put a lot of stress on me and I wasn’t really doing too good in school,” he said. “I would just be thinking about my dad and I was always scared something would happen.”
In Cambodia, Loeun also struggled. He said his darkest moments in Cambodia –– moments that included suicidal thoughts — were magnified when he could only watch his family holiday gatherings via Facebook Live. Many deportees there struggle with depression, as well as poor access to medical care and difficulty finding work, advocates say.
“The [deportee] community in Cambodia as a whole is struggling. I don't think anyone there who's been deported is OK,” Prasad said. “The solution needs to be a recognition that something has gone terribly wrong here for everyone, not just for the people with U.S. citizenship claims.”
Though Loeun feels relieved to be back in the U.S., the return is bittersweet. During his years in Cambodia, he started a new family. Returning to his family in the U.S. meant leaving behind his wife and his beloved 3-year-old daughter.
“My biggest hope is to bring my daughter here as fast as I can, for her to get here and grow up and know this side of the family,” Loeun said.
For now, Loeun looks forward to helping his parents with their business, reconnecting with all of his family members and, most importantly, attending Kobe’s high school graduation — an event he thought he would have to watch streamed on his cellphone in Cambodia.
“I just want to be the best father I can be,” Loeun said. “That's my mindset. ... I've always wished for that since I got [to Cambodia], to say, ‘If you guys need anything, I’m just a drive away.’ That’s all I want to be, just a drive away from my family.”