It’s down to the eleventh hour for the Minnesota 8, a group of Cambodian men who have been jailed in Sherburne County since last August, awaiting deportation for youthful transgressions.
None of the men was actually born in Cambodia, but in refugee camps following the Vietnam War. They came to America as infants and toddlers, and know no other country.
In their teenage years they committed various crimes for which they served their sentences years ago. But because diplomatic conditions didn’t allow the United States to deport them to Cambodia before 2016, they were allowed to return to their lives. Over time, they grew up, married, and had children, becoming indispensable pillars of their families.
One man, Ched Nin, was released earlier this month because the government recognized that his five children and elderly parents would suffer extreme hardship without him.
Another, 34-year-old Chamroeun Phan, is still on the chopping block. The crime for which the United States wants to kick him out: drunkenly breaking three windows of a bar in 2009.
Under Minnesota law, property damage of more than $1,000 is considered a felony – a deportable offense. And those windows happened to add up to about $1,400.
Phan’s family says the crime falls extremely short of the punishment.
Husband to an American wife and father to an American daughter, Phan had been his family’s primary income and childcare source while his wife attended dental school. For the past six months that he’s been stuck in jail, his wife has been working double shifts to pay the bills. As a result, their daughter, four-year-old Leala, spends most of her time getting passed around to relatives.
Leala hasn't been able to focus on anything in school, says Socheat Chum, Phan’s brother-in-law. But anytime the girl gets a creative assignment that has something to do art, writing, or expressing her feelings, all she does is talk about her dad and how sad his absence makes her.
“This little story she wrote, and there was this ‘draw your favorite memory of something,’ everything was about her dad,” Socheat says. “She can’t stop thinking about him.”
Phan’s wife, Jill Srisawat, is harder to gauge. An introvert by nature, she has internalized her stress and depression, and rarely speaks, Socheat says.
If Phan is shipped off to Cambodia, his wife and daughter may be forced to self-deport in order to keep their family intact.
Cambodia issued travel documents for Phan on March 12. Two days later, he was transported to Louisiana in preparation for putting him on a plane. The same day, his lawyer Mai Moua filed an emergency stay and a motion to reopen Phan’s case.
On Friday, a judge approved the stay, granting Phan a momentary reprieve from deportation. The family is now awaiting the judge’s decision as to whether to revisit Phan’s case with the added knowledge of how much his family depends on him.
“[Friday’s] approval was a blessing to us. We weren’t expecting it to happen right now,” Socheat says. “We’re celebrating this approval, but the fight’s not over. We still have that motion to be granted and even after that, there’s court, and hoping the judge’s heart is moved to save this family.”