Cambodia doesn’t want Minnesotans if it means splitting up families

Sameth Nhean, Sokha Kul, and their three children had 11 years of bliss before Sameth was finally rounded up for deportation for nicking an ex-girlfriend with a knife 15 years ago.

Sameth Nhean, Sokha Kul, and their three children had 11 years of bliss before Sameth was finally rounded up for deportation for nicking an ex-girlfriend with a knife 15 years ago. courtesy of the family

Eight Minnesota men were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement almost six months ago, to be deported to Cambodia for various crimes they committed in their youth.

In each of the cases, the men had never actually set foot in Cambodia, and have few remaining connections there. They had been born in refugee camps in neighboring countries to parents fleeing the post-Vietnam War Cambodian genocide. After the war, when the U.S. opened its doors to Cambodians who had aided U.S. soldiers, the men followed their parents to Minnesota.

Growing up, they faced poverty, racism, and gang recruitment. Each had gotten into trouble with the law and served time for their crimes. They were flagged for deportation, but because Cambodia did not have an agreement with the United States to accept deportees until 2002, there was nowhere to deport them.

Years passed, and the men became productive members of society. They married American women, raised American children, and provided for their aging parents.

In August 2016, the men, dubbed the Minnesota 8, were re-arrested because the U.S. government believed that diplomatic conditions with Cambodia were ripe for finally processing their deportation orders. Their wives and children fought back, leading marches throughout Minneapolis and St. Paul while the men were held at Sherburne County Jail. They also met with the Cambodian ambassador, pleading for his help in keeping their families intact.

The Cambodian ambassador insinuated that he would do what he could.

In October 2016, the Cambodian government signed a letter to the U.S. embassy proposing to sit down and discuss the deportation of people to Cambodia who had never been there, according to St. Paul attorney Paul Lelii, who represents four of the Minnesota 8.

At that point, Lelii says, he filed a petition in federal court to have the men released because the letter showed that it was unlikely Cambodia would accept the Minnesota 8. Without a path forward in the deportation process, the men should not be imprisoned another day, he argued.

“It’s not legitimate for the U.S. government to keep anybody in jail longer than it’s necessary, unless there’s a flight risk, or they’re a danger to themselves or to society,” Lelii says. “In all these cases, none of them have been considered a flight risk. None of them have been considered a danger to themselves or society.”

According to the Cambodian newspaper Phnom Penh Post, the Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is reviewing its repatriation agreement with the U.S. because it had received so much public backlash against the deportation of people who have no ties to Cambodia. In the meantime, the Cambodian government has asked the U.S. government to postpone deportations.

Kosol Sek of IKARE, a St. Paul Khmer culture nonprofit that has been aiding the families of the Minnesota 8 through the past six months, said in response to the news, "As an organization, IKARE is happy to see the affected families will have the opportunity to tell their story. And the Cambodian Government is making the right move by seeking to amend the 2002 [memorandum of understanding]."

For the Minnesota 8, this means that their deportations will likely not be completed before they must be released, according to a Supreme Court ruling that the government should not imprison deportees for longer than 180 days at a time.

That 180 days benchmark was provided to allow two governments to work together to complete the process, Lelii says. Anything further is a violation of habeas corpus. He believes that the Minnesota 8 are likely to be released in two weeks, if not sooner.

However, even if they are released, they can be re-arrested in the future, so long as the U.S. government believes it’s possible that Cambodia would accept them.

“Yes, if your legal status is not a citizen or legal permanent resident, and you have some criminal case that you did, a felony, you could be removed someday if this law doesn’t change,” Lelii says. “To all Cambodians or Southeast Asian people, work toward your citizenship to avoid this happening because the government could rise up again in a new election and decide, ‘Let’s round up Vietnamese or Cambodians or Croatians or whatever and start sending them back.’”