Cambodian refugees fear deportation, separation from families

SEATTLE -- Dozens of Cambodian refugees in the U.S. fear they could soon be deported -- leaving behind jobs, homes and families -- and immigration advocates say old convictions continue to punish them even though they've served their time.

Immigration advocates say dozens of Cambodian refugees detained at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center has increased this year and those people will soon be deported.

"I'm still in limbo," said Many Uch who is not in custody but fears he could also be deported.

"Even though I got a pardon from (Governor Chris Gregoire) four years ago I still haven't reopened my immigration case," said Uch, who moved to the U.S. when he was just 8-years old to escape genocide in Cambodia.

He considers the U.S. home but he never completed the naturalization process.

Uch overcame many challenges adjusting to life in the U.S. but found himself in trouble when he committed a robbery at 18-years-old. Even though he served time in prison, the mistake could also force him back to Cambodia.

"I served my time - I have a family, we own a house, married and we're doing OK," said Uch. "I'm still in limbo because of the crime I committed 20 years ago."

Immigration laws that passed in 1996 give Uch little chance to fight deportation orders. It's a similar story for many others.

"It was a terrible, terrible decision and I paid my debt to society," said Rithy Yin who came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was 2-years-old. Yin was arrested for attempting to rob a convenience store when he was 18-years-old and served 10 years in prison.

After committing crimes as young adults --and serving time -- the Cambodian refugees are still living in fear despite not getting into trouble since leaving prison.

"I'm trying to turn my life around and every time I check in (with immigration officers) I don't know if I'm going to be deported or not. I just want a second chance to do the right thing," said Yin.

So far this year, advocates say at least 38 Cambodians have been deported from the U.S., compared to just four last year.

A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says it can take years to work through the diplomatic process when it comes to deportation, but Cambodian refugees say the U.S. is home.

"I grew up here and this is the only country that I know and I call this home," said refugee Ram Son.

A handful of Cambodian refugees are meeting with U.S. Congressman Adam Smith next week to share their stories and concerns about deportations.