A new bill would provide immediate relief to Southeast Asians facing deportation—a threat that advocates say has harmed and burdened the largest refugee community ever to be resettled in the United States.
The Southeast Asian Deportation Relief Act (SEADRA), introduced in Congress in September, would limit the Department of Homeland Security's ability to detain and deport individuals from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
“To actually have legislation that explicitly calls for a stop to the deportation of Southeast Asian refugees is pretty huge because the community is actually being seen through potential policy and legislation to address a lot of the harm that has impacted folks through deportation,” says Kevin Lam, a campaign coordinator with the Southeast Asian Freedom Network, which advocated for and shaped the bill.
“The community is actually being seen through potential policy and legislation to address a lot of the harm that has impacted folks through deportation.”
The Southeast Asian community has been affected by immigration detentions and deportations for decades. The community has seen a steady rise in deportations with each presidential administration, says Kham Moua, director of national policy for the civil rights nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center’s (SEARAC).
After the establishment of repatriation agreements between the United States and Cambodia in 2002, and the U.S. and Vietnam in 2008, Southeast Asians also saw large spikes in deportations for a few years after, Moua adds. The agreements formalized the process for removing Cambodians and Vietnamese.
Approximately 15,000 Southeast Asian community members have final orders of removal, according to SEARAC. They remain in limbo and in the United States because Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have generally not wanted to receive any of those individuals, Moua says. He adds that it’s only been because of U.S. pressure that the three countries have begun accepting more individuals.
From fiscal years 2014 to 2020, the U.S. has deported a combined total of more than 900 Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese nationals, according to reports from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The agency did not respond to a request for comment.
The effects of immigration policies on the community have been consequential.
A 2018 report by SEARAC and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum found that the detention and deportation of a loved one strained finances and mental health of Southeast Asian American women and families.
“This is like a fight for my life because my life is my family. It's hard to sleep at night knowing anything can happen to me the next day.”
Ai, 42, a resident of the Texas panhandle who prefers we not publish her last name, has been in deportation limbo since receiving a final order of removal in August 2020. Her parents fled Laos and arrived in the United States in 1981 when she was 10 months old.
Unlike the United States’ relationship with Cambodia and Vietnam, there is no repatriation agreement between the United States and Laos. But Ai remains constantly worried because there’s always the possibility that Laos could agree to accept nationals who are being deported. If she were sent to Laos, she would leave behind four children, her husband, her dad, and brother.
“This is like a fight for my life because my life is my family,” she says. “It's hard to sleep at night knowing anything can happen to me the next day.”
Sophea Om, 40, a Long Beach resident, was deported to Cambodia in 2011 for a 2005 conviction that she served one year in prison for. Following her release, she spent nine months in ICE custody.
The deportation caused Om to be separated from her family and negatively affected her relationship with her son, who was 8 when she was deported to Cambodia. Being physically absent from her son's life caused him to develop and harbor resentment that still exists, even now that he's 19 years old, she says.
She said if SEADRA had been in place at the time she faced a final order of removal, she would not have a fractured relationship with her son. She would also have been spared the financial and emotional toll that being in deportation limbo and being deported caused.
“That just breaks the family apart because the children don't understand what was going on,” she says. “So they blame the parents that are deported.”
Moua says SEADRA is historic for multiple reasons. One is because it’s the first bill that specifically addresses the removals of Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese refugees. No previous legislation specifically included Cambodians, Moua says.
In creating the bill, the Southeast Asian Freedom Network spent about two years learning from community members affected by immigration policies what would be most helpful for them in legislation, Lam says.
“It would actually structurally shift people’s lives on a daily basis around work permits, around limitations with ICE check-ins, and actually is putting a stop to deportations.”
If passed, another change under SEADRA would be permanent work eligibility for Southeast Asians with final orders of removal with a five-year renewal period. This would save impacted individuals hundreds of dollars spent on annual renewals. SEADRA would also end in-person ICE check-ins on order of supervision and limit virtual check-ins to no more than once every five years.
“These are ways in which it would actually structurally shift people’s lives on a daily basis around work permits, around limitations with ICE check-ins, and actually is putting a stop to deportations,” Lam says.
The bill was introduced shortly before the 16th anniversary of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Moua says the law is a big part of the reason Southeast Asians are in the immigration crisis they face today. The legislation, along with the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, mandated detentions and deportations; broadened the scope of what crimes could lead to detention and deportation; allowed for that expanded definition to apply retroactively; and limited judicial discretion for many immigration cases.
The United States was successful in its efforts to resettle Southeast Asian refugees, Moua says, who came to the country en masse after the end of the Vietnam War, Khmer Rouge regime and Secret War in Laos in the mid to late 1970s. But the country fell short in assisting them with adjusting to their new neighborhoods. Many were placed in impoverished areas rife with gang violence, racial tension and failing schools; with little economic or educational support, and insufficient access to culturally or linguistically relevant mental health access.
Adults and children who fled conflicts in Southeast Asia carried unaddressed trauma and sought various ways to address it, including through substance use and high-risk behaviors, Moua says.
Many were placed in impoverished areas rife with gang violence, racial tension and failing schools; with little economic or educational support, and insufficient access to culturally or linguistically relevant mental health access.
“Generally, our communities just kind of fell through the crack,” he adds. “And a number of them became entangled with the criminal legal system.”
Moua attributes that entanglement with several things, including the tough-on-crime policies during the ’90s, the war on drugs, and the prison boom of the ’90s. He added that there was a significant increase in Asian American and Pacific Islander incarcerations between 1977 and the ’90s.
“We know that Southeast Asian youth were arrested at rates significantly higher than expected, given their respective population sizes,” he says. “All that, in conjunction with the 1996 immigration laws, just created the sort of fiasco that we're seeing today, and this humanitarian crisis and concern.”
During a press conference announcing the legislation in September, Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), who introduced the legislation, said the United States has an obligation to protect refugees and that SEADRA would end “unjust deportations once and for all.”
“Why should a person who has built a life in the United States, who has community ties, who has responsibilities and people who count on them, be whipped away and sent to a country they no longer know, or maybe never knew?” he says. “Furthermore, it is profoundly wrong for us to send refugees back to countries where their human rights are not protected and guaranteed.”
“Why should a person who has built a life in the United States, who has community ties, who has responsibilities and people who count on them, be whipped away and sent to a country they no longer know, or maybe never knew?”
Lam says SEADRA is among other legislative priorities that are part of its policy platform that speaks to a larger narrative around the need for U.S. accountability in the role it played in the conflicts in Southeast Asia that led to the mass resettlement of Southeast Asian refugees.
Another bill in the platform is the New Way Forward Act, first introduced in 2019. The measure proposes an overhaul of U.S. immigration policies that would end mandatory detention in certain cases, redefine convictions and restore judicial discretion, ensuring immigration judges are no longer forced to automatically deport individuals.
Moua says advocates have been using the bill as a vehicle to build support for it, as well as to educate and mobilize community support.
“Our hope is that next congress, we can build even more support and eventually pass this bill. But it's going to take a little bit more time and effort,” he says.
Two other pieces of legislation in the platform include one that would provide relief to Vietnamese people affected by Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War, and another that addresses mass bombings on Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.
“Those three pieces, we see as longer term relief, because it tells a broader narrative around the need for U.S. accountability and responsibility around deportations,” Lam says. “But also around the U.S. military intervention that destabilized the three countries that really created the refugee resettlement waves to the U.S. That really ended up funneling folks from prison to deportation.”
Lam adds that proponents of SEADRA hope it will pass by 2025, the year that will mark the 50th anniversary of the end of U.S. conflicts in Southeast Asia.
Published on October 29, 2022
Words by Agnes Constante
Agnes Constante is a freelance journalist whose byline has appeared in NBCNews.com, Los Angeles Times, Women's Health, KCET, Inquirer.net, Prism, TimesOC and Asian Journal. Her work has been recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and Philippine American Press Club. Agnes is currently a Carter Fellow and board member for the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association.