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Expecting 'largest groups' of U.S. deportees ever, Cambodian aid org expands services

The Returnee Integration Support Center said it expects more than 70 Cambodian-American deportees to arrive in the near future.

A Cambodia-based nongovernmental organization that aids deported Cambodian Americans is preparing to accommodate an influx of new deportees expected in the coming weeks.

Bill Herod, an adviser to the Returnee Integration Support Center (RISC) headquartered in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, said the group has been informed by U.S. and Cambodia government officials to expect new arrivals in the “near future.”

“In the next few weeks, we expect to receive more than 70 individuals in the two largest groups we have ever encountered,” Herod said in an email. “This will dramatically strain, if not completely overwhelm, our ability to provide appropriate and urgently needed services.”

U.S.-based nonprofit Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), founded in 1979 to help settle post-Vietnam War refugees, last week issued a statement stating deportations would begin this month, citing an article from Cambodian newspaper The Phnom Post.

"We are incredibly saddened and appalled that the U.S. and Cambodia would be so heartless as to deport so many community members right before the holidays,” Quyen Dinh, executive director of SEARAC, said in an email.

Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation did not respond to requests for comment. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson said it does not confirm details of removal flights until they have been completed and the State Department did not offer a comment specific to the reported deportations.

“The United States believes that each country has an obligation under international law to accept the return of its nationals who are not eligible to remain in the United States or any other country,” a State Department spokesperson said in an email. “The United States itself routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked.”

More than 1,900 Cambodian nationals in the United States are subject to a final order of a removal, 1,412 of whom have criminal convictions, according to ICE data.

Many Cambodian Americans are war refugees who came to the U.S. starting in the ‘70s during and after conflict in Southeast Asia. According to the 2010 Census, more than 270,000 people of Cambodian descent lived in the U.S. Approximately 158,000 Cambodians — mostly refugees — arrived in the U.S. between 1975 and 1994, according to research by Sucheng Chan, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara department of Asian-American studies.

Since Cambodia and the U.S. signed a repatriation agreement in 2002, more than 500 Cambodian Americans have been deported due to criminal convictions, Herod said. Most individuals arrived in groups of about 10, he added, a manageable number that has enabled RISC to effectively assist individuals transitioning to life in Cambodia.

Herod said the volume of expected deportations will be a “huge challenge.” But many of those expected to arrive are older than those in previous groups, he noted, and may already be fluent and literate in Khmer, which may allow them to better adjust to the culture and customs.

RISC helps deportees find housing, acquire legal documentation and provides care to those with long-term special needs. It has helped more than 100 individuals secure jobs as English teachers, tour guides, interpreters, security guards, and taxi drivers. Some have established small businesses, such as restaurants.

To accommodate the new deportees, RISC has rented additional space to provide transitional housing, Herod said. It has also secured financial support from the United States Agency for International Development and is calling in former staff, some of whom are former RISC clients, to work with the incoming groups.

“As we face such a dramatic expansion of our client base, we will try to cope by expanding our staff and services, but there will certainly be tragic consequences for some of those who come as well, of course, as for their families and loved ones in the U.S.,” Herod said.

Katrina Dizon Mariategue, immigration policy manager at SEARAC, said in an email that the organization is providing affected families with any information it has and is connecting them with RISC.

The group has urged families to contact their representatives in Congress to express their opposition to the deportations. The organization is also gathering signatures from organizations for a letter to the Department of Homeland Security to stop the deportation of Southeast Asians and signatures from individuals for a petition to stop deportations in the Cambodian and Vietnamese communities.

“Although these pieces may not help in the immediate impact of deportations, we are hoping they build up a platform to continue elevating and amplifying this issue until we can change the laws that make these removals possible,” Mariategue said.

The expected removal of Cambodian nationals comes after the U.S. in September imposed visa sanctions on four countries — including Cambodia — for refusing to accept deported citizens. Shortly after the sanctions, the Cambodian government said in a statement that it would interview 26 nationals facing deportation.

In October, the Cambodian community saw what advocates called “one of the bigger roundups” in the community's history, with more than 100 with final orders of removal being detained. By late October, two non-profits and a law firm filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government to challenge the detention of Cambodian nationals.

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