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The Trump Administration Is About To Deport Nearly 50 Cambodian Immigrants. Attorneys And Activists Are Trying To Stop It.

A plane of detained Cambodian immigrants is set to take off from the US Monday in what attorneys believe is the largest deportation flight to Phnom Penh under the Trump administration.

Posted on December 15, 2018, at 10:43 p.m. ET

Don Thompson / AP

More than 40 Cambodian immigrants are set to be flown out of the United States on Monday in what attorneys believe is the largest deportation flight of Cambodian immigrants under the Trump administration.

The Omni Air International flight carrying 46 Cambodians is set to leave from El Paso, Texas, to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, one of several repatriation flights taking immigrants back to a country many left as young children, Kevin Lo, a staff attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus, told BuzzFeed News.

"Instead of taking 12 to 20 a year, we're talking about 50 to 100 every time [US Customs and Immigration Enforcement] detains Cambodians," Lo said.

For more than a year, the Trump administration has drastically increased the deportations of Southeast Asian immigrants, as it pressures countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to accept more repatriations of immigrants detained in the US.

In the case of Cambodians facing deportations, many immigrants have been living in the US for decades, having fled their birth country as children with parents escaping a series of bloody wars, as well as the brutal rule under the Khmer Rouge. Some lived for years in refugee camps in Thailand before eventually relocating to the US as refugees.

Matt York / AP

"Every country has an international legal obligation to accept the return of its nationals whom another state seeks to remove," ICE spokesperson Brendan Raedy told BuzzFeed News. "The United States routinely cooperates with foreign governments in documenting and accepting its citizens when asked."

The Cambodian deportations are yet another example of the Trump administration's hardline immigration policies, which have pushed to increase the number of deportations. And despite the public focus on the southern border, this shows the administration's effort to target immigrants for deportations on multiple fronts.

Since October 2017, Lo said immigration attorneys have seen a steady stream of Cambodian immigrants in the US being detained and deported, with ICE deportation flights occurring about every four months.

The deportations increased rapidly after the US announced on Sept. 13, 2017, that it would be implementing visa sanctions against several high-ranking Cambodian officials because of the country's previous refusal to accept some deportees from the US.

The sanctions proved effective and in the following fiscal year, deportations to Cambodia increased 279%, according to figures from ICE.

Immigration officials point out that most of the Cambodian deportees have been convicted of crimes that put their immigration status in jeopardy. But Lo told BuzzFeed News that ICE's practice of suddenly detaining and deporting Cambodian immigrants has meant many Cambodian immigrants have been forced out of the US despite having viable legal options to contest their deportation orders.

"In every raid cycle, we notice there are people that should not be deported," Lo said.

The deportations have occurred about every four months, he said, significantly increasing the workload of immigration attorneys who have focused on Cambodian immigration cases.

"We're hoping they stay in these four-month cycles, but if they accelerate, I don't know that we'll be able to keep up with it," Lo said.

According to ICE, there are currently 1,855 Cambodian nationals in the US with orders to be deported.

Just before Christmas last year, the civil rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Asian Law Caucus obtained a last-minute order stopping another deportation flight from heading to Cambodia with about 50 immigrants, arguing that most of the immigrants scheduled to be onboard had not had their cases or legal options reviewed before they were suddenly detained and put on the plane to Phnom Penh.

"The fact is ICE is picking up people with no warning not giving them any opportunity to explore how things might be different now," Lo said.

Immigration officials dispute that, saying its the agency's duty to execute the removal orders if the migrants' legal options, including requests for legal counsel or asylum and use of the appeals process, have been exhausted.

AAAJ does not plan on seeking an order to stop the entire flight scheduled to depart this Monday, but the organization has been trying to exert public pressure on Omni International Air, the airline contracted for the flight.

Using the hashtag #StopOmni, activists have hoped to generate enough pressure to convince the airline not to take part in the flight, potentially giving attorneys additional time to review the immigrants' cases.

Omni did not immediately return BuzzFeed News' requests for comment.

It is shameful that a week from Christmas, the Administration has scheduled the largest deportation flight of SE Asian refugees in U.S. history. APALA sent a letter to @OmniAir demanding that they stop working with ICE. Join us to tell them to #StopOmni: https://t.co/05FDxkMK5J

Soeun Neat, whose husband Sear Un was set to be on the Monday flight, said he has been detained since September. Un was the primary income source in the home with two children, she said, and without his help she has had to resort to living with relatives and borrowing money to keep the family afloat.

"I've always tried to be hopeful but, yes, it's tearing me apart," she told BuzzFeed News. "When it first happened, I'm thinking, 'Here it is. My family, that's it. It's no longer a complete family.'"

Un received a deportation order in 1999 after he was convicted of taking part in a burglary just before his 21st birthday.

Lo, who is representing Un as he contests the deportation order, said his client had been driving with his friends when they decided to enter a home and steal several items, including a television. Un didn't enter the home, Lo said, but was arrested with the group as the suspected getaway driver.

He spent roughly a year in county jail.

The conviction was considered an aggravated felony at the time, putting Un's immigration status in jeopardy. But California, where the crime took place, has changed the definition of the crime, and it is no longer considered an aggravated felony, meaning Un could have a case to argue that his deportation order is no longer valid.

Un is one of at least six migrants expected to be deported Monday who, Lo said, may have valid cases to contest their deportation order.

"A lot of the people that are getting in these flights and being deported have good options to stay here," Lo said. "The main thing is they're not getting access to legal counsel."

On Friday, an emergency stay for Un's case was approved, and he will be allowed to argue his case.

Soen Neat and her husband Sear Un.
Courtesy of Soeun Neat

Soen Neat and her husband Sear Un.

Neat said the decision gives her hope her family might be reunited, but that the ordeal has left her shaken, unsure of her own status in the country although she has lived here for most of her life.

"I never felt like this before, felt like I didn't belong here," Neat said. "This administration is making it very clear I don't belong here. If I ever make a single mistake, yes, they won't treat me like this is my home."

She hopes her husband will be eventually released, but they have had to weigh their options in case he is deported. Un doesn't speak or read Cambodian, so making a living there would be a challenge.

The couple has considered moving to another country so their family, and their US-born children, can stay together, she said. If Un is not deported, she added, she'll try to move forward with gaining her US citizenship, although she might wait a few years to do so.

"I'd rather wait until [President Trump] is out of office or being impeached until I apply for citizenship," she said. "I don't want to do it under his administration."

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