Refugees the Minnesota 8 face deportation to a land they've never seen

Chamroeun “Shorty” Phan has been in jail since August, awaiting deportation. His four-year-old American-born daughter may grow up fatherless because Phan broke three windows eight years ago.

Chamroeun “Shorty” Phan has been in jail since August, awaiting deportation. His four-year-old American-born daughter may grow up fatherless because Phan broke three windows eight years ago. Den-Zell Gilliard

Montha Chum didn’t know it then, but the carefree night of August 26 was the last memory she would have of her family intact.

Montha was at the State Fair, leading a contingent of California relatives through livestock and snacks on sticks as her phone buzzed with calls and texts. A Cambodian friend wanted her to write a letter of support for her husband, who’d been arrested for deportation that evening during a routine check-in with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The call made Montha worry about her brother, Chamroeun Phan — a.k.a. Shorty — who was also on supervision with ICE.

He’d arrived on St. Paul’s West Side in 1984. Two years earlier, Shorty was born in a Thai refugee camp that offered safety to his parents, who had fled a murderous Cambodian regime that slaughtered one-quarter of its citizens.

But one night in 2009, a quarter-century after his arrival, Shorty drunkenly placed his U.S. residency in jeopardy. He shattered three windows at the Lucky Fox Bar on West Seventh. The bartender, who knew Shorty as a mild-mannered regular, said he’d never seen him act that way before.

U.S. immigration law holds zero tolerance for crimes of violence, drugs, or property damage of $1,000 or more. The broken windows combined with an old charge of pot possession cost him his refugee status. He was ordered deported. 

Ched Nin, Jenny Srey, and their blended family in happier times

Ched Nin, Jenny Srey, and their blended family in happier times courtesy of the family

Cambodia wasn’t interested in taking Shorty at the time. Relations between the two countries have long been fickle, depending upon the diplomacy of the moment. And since ICE couldn’t jail him indefinitely, he was ordered to check in with the feds every six months.

He’d done that without fail for the last eight years, Shorty assured his sister. He never received any indication ICE would carry out the deportation. It had been years since he’d gotten into any trouble. In the meantime, he’d become a father and bought a home. The feds had to know he was doing well.

Montha put aside her worries. But an ominous letter awaited Shorty in the mail that night. It ordered him to report to the ICE office at Fort Snelling.

A restless weekend went by. Shorty woke early Monday morning and kissed Leala, his four-year-old daughter, as she slept. He promised his girlfriend he would go to work and be home in time to make dinner.

By mid-morning, Shorty was in shackles.

As the news coursed through the family, brothers and sisters, grandparents and cousins flooded the federal building. They crowded into a visitation room and were given five minutes to say goodbye through a glass partition.

As Montha closed her eyes and prayed, she could hear Leala’s cries and a gentle beating on the glass as the girl reached for her father’s hand.

The Minnesota 8

At the end of August, ICE detained eight Minnesotans of Cambodian descent. All were refugees who’d arrived legally as children, swaddled in the arms of parents fleeing the Khmer Rouge. Born in Thai refugee camps, they have never set foot on Cambodian soil. Most don’t even speak the language.

Each committed crimes in their youth deemed nefarious enough to warrant expulsion. Because the U.S. has never had a very straightforward diplomatic relationship with Cambodia, the men could not be deported.

So they were released after serving time for their crimes. In the borrowed years that followed, they grew up, married, had children, and became bedrocks for their families.

The eight men were spirited across the country, warehoused in regional jails as agents carried out a nationwide sweep of Cambodian refugees with criminal records. Together, they were presented to the Cambodian consulate in California, then remitted to Minnesota’s Sherburne County Jail.

There they will stay there until the U.S. receives travel documents from Cambodia, when they will be shipped to Phnom Penh.

Children of genocide

In the spring of 1970, with America entrenched in the Vietnam War, an anti-communist general took power in Cambodia. He invited American soldiers, shoulder to shoulder with CIA-trained Cambodian allies, to strike the North Vietnamese hidden in the previously neutral country.

Ched Nin’s August arrest threatens the ability of his children, step-children, and elderly parents to stay together as a family.

Ched Nin’s August arrest threatens the ability of his children, step-children, and elderly parents to stay together as a family.

The campaign wrought turbulent demonstrations stateside as students protested the war’s expansion. When the Ohio National Guardsmen shot 13 people during a Kent State protest, hundreds of campuses shut down as students took to the streets.

Congress cut off funding for operations in Cambodia, and U.S. soldiers withdrew after just a few months. Their Cambodian allies were shocked. Then they were slaughtered.

The Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s communist movement, began as a diminutive guerilla group without much capacity for destruction. But when Americans entered Cambodia, North Vietnam equipped the Khmer Rouge to lead a proxy resistance.

When the Americans left, the Khmer Rouge turned its firepower against its own people. It installed a communist government that executed ethnic Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai, not to mention Christians and monks, doctors and teachers, anybody who had an education, and even those who just wore glasses. The regime’s greatest ire was saved for those who’d fought beside the Americans.

The survivors were forced into labor camps, where they were beaten, raped, or made to disappear. By the time it was over, more than a fourth of Cambodia’s population lay packed in the earth beneath “the Killing Fields.”

The lucky ones fled. In Thailand, they eked out a life in refugee villages built in remote mountains, cramped in stacks of wooden huts with infrequent visits from aid organizations. When the war ended, 150,000 resettled in America.

“Our parents were trying to cope,” says Socheat Chum, Montha’s husband. “They were trying to start again in a totally different country, learn a different culture, and at the same time they needed to heal from their own trauma.” 

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.

The generation that witnessed the atrocities threw themselves into work in canning and meat-packing, driven by the urgency of making a basic living. Some fell to the anesthetizing lure of alcohol and gambling to fill a void. Their children fended for themselves against pressures they couldn’t recognize.

In St. Paul’s pre-clique days, the Bloods netted a multiethnic blend of kids on the West Side, Crips the East Side. Unlike more established gangs, these didn’t grow from racial divides and bloody generational retaliation. They were simply about geography.

Boys who lived on the same street and attended the same schools ransacked cars, burglarized homes, and sold drugs together. They called themselves gangbangers, but they were more shitheads than shooters.

There were times Socheat felt anxious walking four blocks to the community center after school. One day when he and Shorty went fishing by the river, a car packed with white teens charged by. They threw rocks and called the boys “chinks.”

A language barrier inevitably grew between parents who were slower with English and children whose broken Cambodian disintegrated by the day. Even if he wanted to talk to his parents about what happened down by the river, it wasn’t worth the trouble of stuttering through the story just to pile on their worries.

“It’s really not an excuse,” Socheat says. “It’s just the reality of what happened.”

When he was younger, he got into the same sort of petty nonsense as Shorty, without a thought as to how it would affect his future. But a few months’ difference clinched their fates long ago. Whereas Shorty was brought to the United States just shy of his second birthday, Socheat made the odyssey in his mother’s womb, born into citizenship.

Since Sameth Nhean’s arrest, Sokha Kul says her children barely speak at home or at school. They are prepared to self-deport if Nhean is ordered to Cambodia.

Since Sameth Nhean’s arrest, Sokha Kul says her children barely speak at home or at school. They are prepared to self-deport if Nhean is ordered to Cambodia.

Their transgressions weren’t so different from those of their native-born peers, save for one small distinction: When everyone grew out of their problems, the eight would still be paying for old sins.  

The illusion of a future

The Faribault home where Jenny Srey and Ched Nin are raising their family is awash with evidence of a vivacious life. Musical instruments litter the den. Books and posterboard projects cram countertops. Interspersed among children’s artwork, poster-sized photos on the wall depict the lush summer day when Jenny and Ched were married. Wedged between the beaming couple are her teenage sons, Jovanni and Aidan, and his daughter, Abbie.

On any normal Sunday morning, the kids would be tumbling around the living room while Ched, dressed in full purple regalia, encouraged their budding Vikings fanaticism. But by the time the Cardinals came to town in late November, Ched had been detained a full two months. The children watched that game too, but with little enthusiasm.

In the absence of the father who unleashed wet dogs when they over-snoozed alarms for school, who screamed like a nut in the stands at basketball games and swim meets, who hawkishly supervised their music practices, a sedentary silence loomed.

Seven years ago, Ched was marked for deportation for second-degree assault with a BB gun.

He’d been watching his young daughter that day when they ran out of gas. He called his ex-wife to pick them up. She arrived accompanied by her new boyfriend. The two took the child and marooned Ched at a Kwik Trip.

Seeing red, Ched climbed into a car with friends. Together they chased his ex-wife through the streets of Faribault. At a red light, the driver pulled abreast and handed Ched a BB gun. Ched yelled at his ex to stop the car. Then he fired. One pellet shattered the rear window where his daughter sat.

When he finally caught up with them, he slugged the boyfriend twice in the face.

A guilty plea bought him two years’ imprisonment.

Koeun Nin, who is younger than Ched by five years, recalls a time when he didn’t want anything to do with his troubled brother.

Growing up, their parents were consumed with work, guarded to the point their own children had to learn how they became refugees in school, the same as everybody else. Ched surrounded himself with neighborhood kids who could relate, who emboldened each other’s recklessness. 

It wasn’t until Ched met Jenny Srey, a social worker involved in violence intervention with refugees, that he found a way to cut ties with trouble. Ched became a different man, Koeun says.

When his aging father was diagnosed with a range of colon diseases, Ched took on the daily duties of lifting, cleaning, and grooming. He became coach and father to Jenny’s sons, working construction to support them. Then he sought custody of the three girls he had with his ex-wife.

The youngest, Abbie  also the child from the BB gun incident  was the first to choose to live with Ched. When she arrived at her new school, so delayed were her math and language skills that she was tested for disabilities. Nothing was wrong. 

Then Ched and Jenny uncloaked Abbie’s attendance record, finding the girl had skipped an enormous amount of school under her mother’s care. When Child Protection investigated, social workers found a month’s worth of trash stockpiled in mom’s house. They declared it uninhabitable.

Ched’s middle daughter suffers from a deformed heart valve. Doctors say the multiple surgeries the 14-year-old has undergone will only extend her life another decade. It’s Ched’s hope that with close monitoring, she will live long enough for science to find a permanent solution.

When ICE detained Ched along with the rest of the Minnesota 8 in August, he’d been fighting to take custody of the girls. But if he’s deported, and Child Protection finds the mother neglectful, the girls could be dumped into foster care.

Jenny’s eldest, Javonni, can barely stand to watch his mother’s manic determination take its toll. Since Ched’s arrest, she’s been mired in depression, losing sleep, overeating, and spending long hours on the computer. When she speaks, she drags her words in a spiritless monotone. There’s a concussed quality about her, as if someone has punched her hard in the face.

“If Ched did get deported, my mom would probably move to Cambodia because she really loves him,” Javonni says.

At 15, he’s only started to think about college prep. He now faces the grim possibility that he won’t finish high school in America.

The prospect is so daunting the family rarely discusses it.

The big blunt hammer in the toolbox

As far as the U.S. government is concerned, second chances are reserved for citizens.

Immigration authorities believe that since so much of the world desires entry to America, it’s a shame to shelter criminals while more deserving applicants are turned away. Take the Dreamers, who were brought into the country by parents, who know no other life and have committed no crimes.

Yet refugees, as permanent residents, enjoy greater safeguards than those who entered the country illegally, says ICE spokesman Shawn Neudauer. Each case is calculated on a host of factors, including family hardship.

On November 23, some 50 friends and family members of Ched Nin surrounded Jenny as she led a prayer outside the Rice County Courthouse. They filed in from the rain in a tidy rush, packing a second-floor courtroom.

Ched entered in handcuffs, his hair speckled with more white than in the photos hanging throughout his house.

An attorney made his case: When Ched pleaded guilty in the 2010 shooting in order to get a shorter sentence, he didn’t know he was sacrificing his immigration status in the process. Otherwise, he would have fought the charges.

Moreover, the Minnesota Supreme Court recently ruled that BB guns were not the same as true firearms, resulting in overturned convictions across the state.

The point wasn’t to argue that Ched was innocent, but that there were extenuating circumstances to the severity of the fallout. The judge would need time to weigh his decision.

As Ched was led from the room, a bailiff motioned the family into the hall. Whereas the Sherburne County Immigration Detention Center offered only video visitation, the Rice County Court allowed Jenny and the children to share 10 minutes with Ched in a holding room.

“We were all just crying and hugging and kissing,” Jenny says. “He still had handcuffs so he couldn’t hug us back. And they wouldn’t let him kiss us. But everyone was just kissing his face. I think we spent the whole time just hugging, because no one had been able to touch him for almost three months.”

Free by any means

The tireless wives of the Minnesota 8, with little experience in protest or public speaking, spent the fall staging rallies in front of the ICE field office at Fort Snelling, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office, Congressman Keith Ellison’s office, and the Minneapolis Urban League. They attended every march for Jamar Clark and Philando Castile in support of those who would show up for them.

In November they traveled to Washington, D.C.,to meet with California Congresswoman Judy Chu, a proponent of immigrant protections. Then they met with Cambodian Ambassador Chum Bunrong, who has the authority to issue the travel documents for deportation — or withhold them.

The U.S. Supreme Court allows ICE to imprison deportees for up to 180 days. If the Cambodian ambassador produces papers within that frame, the Minnesota 8 will be jettisoned from places unknown, the exact location hidden to prevent families from last-ditch rescue missions.

But if the documents are not delivered in time, the men must be released.

In 2002, the U.S. and Cambodia signed a repatriation treaty in which they agreed to “act in a spirit of mutual cooperation.” There are no real repercussions if either party decides to ignore the deal. 

When the wives of the Minnesota 8 appealed to Ambassador Bunrong, the ambassador assured them that he would try to help keep the families together, says Hoeun Hach, executive director of the International Khmer Assembly (IKARE) in St. Paul.

IKARE, which champions Cambodian genocide survivors, introduced the families to Bunrong at the risk of alienating other Cambodians.

The last time a large wave was deported from Minnesota was in the early 2000s. Nobody protested then. The families retreated in shame. Survivors of the Khmer Rouge had little sympathy for the sons stupid enough to get themselves sent back.

“Those who were not involved in the deportation... say let them go because they are criminals,” Hach says. Even now, many hesitate to support the Minnesota 8. He suspects this stems from the Buddhist notion that life is a sea of misery. The point is to seek enlightenment to escape it.

The difference now is that the families aren’t backing down.

The second time is not a charm

Sokha Kul carries a coil of worry in the hollow of her gut. Meek and mild-mannered, she agonizes over finding the words to express her private thoughts. It’s just as well, because Sokha doesn’t have much time for reflection.

Her husband, Sameth Nhean, 34, has been imprisoned for five months.

Sokha works six days a week to support their three children. The couple used to alternate day and night shifts so one would always be at their St. Paul home with the kids. Now, 13-year-old Cianna and 10-year-old Arson must look after themselves until twilight. Four-year-old Nautica is offloaded to an elderly grandfather whose patience for rearing young children expired long ago.

Sokha met Sameth 11 years ago at a party. Conversation came naturally. The two started hanging out. She didn’t really expect to fall in love, Sokha says, but for one thing.

She’d been raising Cianna alone when they began dating. Then two, the girl envied her cousins who had fathers. She wanted to know if Sameth was “daddy.”

Embarrassed, Sokha shushed the girl. But Sameth said “daddy” would be just fine. He’s treated her as his own ever since.

When Sameth was 19, he got into a fight with his then-girlfriend. They’d both been drinking. She wanted the keys to the car, but he wouldn’t let her have them. During the struggle, Sameth grabbed a knife and held it to her neck. She was nicked twice on the chin. He was convicted of second-degree assault.

Fifteen years later, he may be sent to Cambodia for those few menacing moments. Sokha and her children have decided to follow.

Though Cianna can only weep at the prospect, brother Arson, whose bloodshot eyes contradict a fixed smile, says he would do it for dad.

Only the wives of the Minnesota 8 can understand her pain, says Sokha. She tends to avoid the topic of Sameth’s deportation. Which makes it all the harder to explain that Cianna’s biological father was deported to Mexico, the reason the girl never knew him. 

“My family knows this might be my second time,” Sokha says. “I don’t want to go through it again, but then I guess it happened for a reason.”

Fatherless children

Jill Srisawat always wanted that princess wedding. She was willing to wait to get it just right.

Graduating from dental school was more pressing. So Shorty, her boyfriend of 14 years, would cook, clean, and take care of their daughter while she studied, his income keeping the family afloat.

Jill hoped that graduation would bring a stable job. But Shorty’s arrest forced her from part-time to double shifts. To avoid losing the house, she spent 14 hours straight on her feet, adjusting jaws as a dental hygienist.

Relatives take turns looking after Leala. But the elders can only help so much. The week after Shorty’s arrest, his mother became so depressed she was rushed to the hospital for an emergency blood transfusion. His 88-year-old father, a former freedom fighter who carried arms alongside American soldiers, cannot intellectually comprehend his son’s situation.

A small respite came when Jill met Shorty at the federal building in October to register a marriage certificate. They hoped that marriage to a U.S. citizen would help his case. Leala got to hug her dad for the first time since he’d been taken.

It’s not difficult to see how Shorty’s absence is affecting the young girl. In a school assignment titled “My Feelings,” Leala wrote: “I feel sad when my dad doesn’t take me to the zoo and the park. I feel afraid when my dad is gone. I feel excited when I jump into a swimming pool! I feel frustrated when I can’t put my shoes on. I feel happy when I see my dad.”