IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Decades after resettlement, Cambodian refugees vulnerable to prison-to-deportation pipeline

As the U.S. commemorates the 45th anniversary of the refugee group's arrival, Southeast Asian American refugees still face hardships.

Saray Im didn’t know where to go on his first day of elementary school.

He remembered his dad dropping him off and that he struggled to navigate campus grounds on his own. Nobody told him where to go, and he didn’t speak any English at the time.

Im, who is now 45, had recently arrived in the United States with his father, stepmother and sister after spending a few years at a refugee camp in Thailand. They had fled the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, under which more than 2 million people died. Among those who perished was Im’s brother, he recalled his father telling him.

Im was 9 years old when he came to the United States in 1984. His family settled in Stockton, a city in California’s Central Valley, where drug dealers and shootings were part of everyday life, he said.

Saray Im's fifth grade school photo.
Saray Im's fifth grade school photo.Courtesy Im family

He remembered being bullied for his ethnicity, hardly seeing his father because he was frequently working, and his stepmother being an absent figure because she had a gambling problem.

Without the adults in his immediate family present in his life, Im turned to neighborhood kids who banded together to form a gang. They became a family that went fishing, shot birds at the park and cut class together, he said.

His affiliation with gangs carried on throughout high school. Although he tried to leave that life behind later on, it caught up with him when he became involved in an incident that landed him in prison and has now put him at risk of deportation, he said.

Im’s experience of building a new life in an impoverished neighborhood after fleeing a war-torn country and finding support in a gang mirrors that of many Southeast Asian refugees, said Kevin Lam, organizing director at the nonprofit Asian American Resource Workshop. As the U.S. commemorates the 45th anniversary of the refugee group's arrival, experts point out that many are now vulnerable to deportation and detention.

The group began migrating en masse to the United States following the end of Southeast Asian conflicts in the 1970s: the Vietnam War and Secret War in Laos in 1975, and against the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in 1979.

The United States at the time did not have a standardized system to resettle refugees. It was conducted ad hoc, with voluntary agencies assisting the State Department.

That changed with the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, which established a standardized resettlement system. It specified sponsors, where refugees would be resettled and how many months of federal government support they would receive, Sam Vong, curator of Asian Pacific American History at the Smithsonian Institute and former Asian American studies professor at the University of Texas, Austin, said.

Still, some say it fell short of serving Southeast Asian refugees.

Eric Tang, an African and African Diaspora Studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto,” said that the government didn't directly resettle refugees, but instead subcontracted nonprofit agencies, which were provided money to do so.

“If you’re working at a refugee agency and your job is to house these people -- house them together and house them quickly with very little money -- you’re going to look for apartment buildings that have a lot of vacancy that will rent to you for cheap and will keep people together,” he told NBC Asian America.

As a result, refugees were by and large resettled in derelict apartments, Tang said.

But it wasn’t just housing that colored refugees’ adjustment to life in the U.S. They also struggled with finding jobs.

Tang noted that Southeast Asian refugees came from rural backgrounds and did not have skills that matched the U.S. labor market. Many lived in working poverty from the 1980s to the early 2000s, and Cambodian refugees had some of the highest welfare participation rates, he said.

That experience is one Im and his family had. He said they received welfare checks of about $200 to $300 per month. And for their first two years in America, they lived with other people.

He also remembered feeling unsafe in his neighborhood and being reluctant about playing at the park. He worried that someone might come by and start shooting.

“It was just that bad back then,” he said.

After living in Stockton for 12 years, Im decided to move to Massachusetts in 1996, where his sister lived, to escape the violence that plagued the city.

But the life he wanted to shed followed him.

Shortly after he moved, Im was involved in a crime where gunshots were exchanged. He was arrested, served three years in prison and spent two years in immigration detention. The incident has also put Im at risk of deportation, a threat that looms over his wife and their five children currently living outside of Boston.

Saray Im and his family at his daughter Jassy's high school graduation in front of Lynn City Hall in 2016.
Saray Im and his family at his daughter Jassy's high school graduation in front of Lynn City Hall in 2016.Courtesy IM family

The crime took place in 1996, the same year the U.S. government passed an immigration law that expanded the definition of what types of crimes could result in detention and deportation. It also allowed for that broader definition to be applied retroactively, resulting in more than 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans receiving orders of removal — 80 percent of which were based on old criminal records.

According to civil rights nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, the insufficient support Southeast Asian American refugees received when they were initially resettled, along with the increase in immigration detention and deportation in the United States, has made the community vulnerable to the prison-to-deportation pipeline.

Tang said that the Refugee Act of 1980 was an important law and noted that about 1 million Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in the United States, the largest group resettled in U.S. history. At the same time, it fell short of addressing the group's realities and experiences from the wars and in refugee camps, he said.

“If we were to take a different view of refugee resettlement and if instead we were to say, ‘Hey we engaged a war in Vietnam, we bombed Cambodia into the Stone Ages which paved the way for the rise of the Khmer Rouge' -- if we were to recognize our role, then maybe refugee resettlement wouldn’t be about humanitarian largess but about reparations, about redress. And then maybe we wouldn’t have put all these conditions into the Refugee Act, which insisted on a wildly unrealistic expectation that they would somehow find livable wage jobs overnight and become economically independent,” he said. “Maybe we wouldn’t have just left them out there to fend for themselves.”

Follow NBC Asian America on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.