Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Is Deportation of Cambodians from the U.S. Morally Right?

The Long Beach Press Telegram ran a three-part series of articles on the problems deportation poses for Cambodian people. You can read those article here or on KI-Media.

For those of you who won’t trouble with reading those articles – the long and the short of the articles is about Cambodian permanent residents of the U. S. who ran afoul of the law and were subsequently deported as the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1996 provides.

Needless to say this has been a subject of great passion among overseas Khmer. As the reporters say most of the responses received to the articles, however, were in favor of those deportations.

Others, and the reporters also seem to take that stance, hold that these people are all victims of the system and should not be lumped together with other nationalities as Cambodians came to the U. S. in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Pol Pot regime, which probably would not have come to power if the U. S. had not so blatantly violated international law by invading and bombing the territory of Cambodia, inflicting great harm and suffering on the Cambodian people.

According to those articles only 189 people have been affected so far, with another 1700 under deportation orders and another 1700 in the pipeline, while a total of close to 350,000 people were deported in 2008. So this is really a minuscule number of the total. But, of course, each number represents a person with loved ones and a greater family and their own very personal story behind it.

The law is clear and if enforced to the letter nothing can be said against those deportations. No matter whether or not the law is good, bad, too inclusive, politically motivated, or whatever, the law is the law, and it must be respected and complied with. That’s the premise of our living together as societies in every country. If a foreigner who has been living in Cambodia for years and commits a crime that foreigner will be sentenced to a prison term and thereafter be deported to his/her own country. A case in point was the deportation of that aging British rock singer from Vietnam, who was previously deported from Cambodia and then took up residence in Vietnam. We all seem to agree that those deportations are justified.

So, are the crimes Cambodians commit in the U. S. less reprehensible? I would think not. Are those people all from broken families with drunken fathers who regularly beat up their wives and children? Although I personally don’t know any of the families involved, it would appear from the article that none of those had a paternal criminal background. I would guess most of the families had their hands full making a living in the U. S. and raising their children as well as they could after they had arrived here from their refugee camps in Thailand. Many of them were, and to some extent still are, semi-literate, or worse illiterate. But the children all had their opportunities to attend a school, learn a trade, even go to college, and make a career for themselves. The U. S. census shows that the U. S.-Cambodian people have roughly the same percentage of college graduates as Caucasians, for instance. Of course, there are always weaker links in a society who choose a different path. And why should it be any different with overseas Cambodian? Some of the children just run with the wrong crowd, fall in with bad people who tell them selling dope is an easy way to make money. As everybody who ever raised children of their own knows, once they reach puberty some kids are just very hard to guide and will more likely listen to their buddies than to their parents. Add to that more or less uneducated parents and the path for their future may be marked.

Some of them are now grown people with families of their own, with children born in the U. S. and therefore U. S. citizens. One might take a different look at them if the crime was committed a long time ago, and they have re-integrated into society, become hard-working people, pay their taxes, and are good members of society. But the law is clear – if someone committed a crime, the permanent resident status will be revoked making them subject to deportation.

Is the law fair or just? Hardly, and although the U. S. still professes an open-door immigration policy, it has in reality become a very restrictive country in light of the large number of illegal immigrants mostly from South of the border. The prevailing mood among the population is to curb illegal immigration and favor deportation of criminals. The outgoing administration has been even stricter than the Clinton administration during which that law was passed.

Now what about the Vietnam War/Pol Pot era aspect? An official quoted in the article says the U. S. fulfilled its moral responsibility by accepting Cambodians to the U. S. under a blanket agreement with the UNHCR and giving them a new home country. This responsibility does not include tolerating immigrants breaking the law and excluding them from certain provisions of the immigration act. I tend to agree with that. It is also said that if families are torn apart by deportation this is an inhuman act. Again, the officials say those people made a choice to break the law and they must suffer the consequences. The families all have the options to join their husbands (I have never read about a female deportee) and live with them in Cambodia. As harsh as it may sound, it certainly is an option, although finding a job and making a living there will be hard, and next to impossible in the economic downturn, but nobody foresaw this, not when the law was passed, nor when the people committed their crimes.

It would, however, only be fair if the U. S. government put its money where its mouth is. They preach human rights and compassion with other people to the world, but when it comes to applying those tenets at home there are some very striking disparities. If somebody committed a minor crime, or misdemeanor 20 years ago, who has become a rehabilitated person, it surely is inhuman to tear this person from his/her environment and throw him into a vastly different society with which he/she has nothing but their ethnicity in common. And we all know native Khmer are not very beholden to overseas Khmer returning to their country. This even applies to people who come back under normal circumstances, though for different reasons, and certainly much less to criminals.

The article doesn’t give concrete numbers, but the majority of those 189 people deported were apparently either hardened career criminals and/or drug users, which pushed them into a life of crime. Although they deserve, by all moral standards, to be punished, and possibly be deported, but to send them to a country like Cambodia without any social services to speak of is certainly counterproductive. If it were not for that NGO mentioned in the articles these people would only live on the street committing more crimes. Many of those deportees represent one of the worst aspects of U. S. society – the ghetto gangs. This is the last thing Cambodia needs. As always, there will be young Khmer people who will emulate that kind of life style and find it ‘cool’. There is nothing cool in that swagger and the tattoos those gang bangers affect. One can only hope that the Cambodian government delays proceedings even more making the return of more deportees a mere trickle. Coming back to Cambodia won’t help the deportees or the country.

By choosing crime these people made themselves a burden to and put in distress everybody – their families, society, their host country, their native country. One must not forget that these people are considered criminals first and Cambodian second. Consequently, they will be treated accordingly. Though good and just answers are hard to find for this problem, it seems that when people make a choice they will have to bear the consequences of their actions, whether or not they know those consequences. This is how the system works. If someone tries to work outside the system, the system will bring them back into it by force. This is what’s happening here.

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