Cambodian Poverty and Deportation

Cambodian Poverty and Deportation


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



Because they live near Blacks in poor urban neighborhoods, Cambodians have somewhat

been pitied by different activists and academics.  This, however, is a somewhat strategic sympathy,

because it seems to serve ulterior motives. 



The Image of the Black Criminal

in Cambodian Poverty and Deportation Struggles

 By Kil Ja Kim 

February 7, 2003

In March of 2002, the US signed a secret repatriation agreement with Cambodia. Repatriation is the forced return, or deportation, of an immigrant back to their country of origin.  The US government repatriates any non-citizen (of any status) who is convicted of an “aggravated felony” in the US or who overstay their visas.  When someone is repatriated, they cannot return back to the US, even to see loved ones.  Over 200,000 Cambodian refugees live in the US.   Approximately 1,500 Cambodians have orders of deportation.  On June 22, 2002, the first six Cambodians were deported to Cambodia; in September another eleven followed.  More have been deported since, including an elderly man in his eighties. 

Many of the Cambodians at risk of deportation had received bad advice from lawyers and judges.  They were told that there was little chance a repatriation agreement would be signed between Cambodia and the US.  Because of this, many Cambodians waived their claim to relief from deportation.  Since there was no repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the US, Cambodians convicted of aggravated felonies became “lifers” – those who serve indefinite sentences in INS prisons because they cannot be deported.  This means that they first served time in US prisons for their original conviction, then in an INS detention center.  Many immigrants are deported when they are “released” from INS detention.  Unlike those immigrants who were “deportable,” Cambodians were kept in INS prisons without knowing if, or when they would be released. 

In June of 2001, the US Supreme Court decision Ma v. Reno ruled that “lifers” should be granted custody reviews.  This allowed many indefinite detainees to temporarily return back to their communities.  Yet this repatriation agreement places Cambodians at risk of deportation.

Activists organizing to stop Cambodian deportation face some major obstacles.  The post-9-11 backlash has made organizing immigrant communities extremely difficult and riskier than usual.  G. W. Bush’s “War on Terrorism” and investment in “Homeland Security” is helping build up what is being called the “Security Industrial Complex.”  Non-white immigrants are being terrorized, rounded up, locked down, and deported by the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS).  Anti-immigrant laws are getting easily passed in the post-9-11 hysteria.  International students at colleges and universities are being put into a national database that tracks their class schedules and extra-curricular college activities.  Males 18 and older from different non-European countries are being required to register with the INS.  In Los Angeles recently, many Middle Eastern and African immigrants were rounded up when they attempted to comply with these special registrations. 

Yet the risk of deportation is not a result of 9-11.  Before 9-11, INS detention centers and deportation were a reality for immigrant communities.  Any non-citizen who overstays a visa or is convicted of an “aggravated felony” in the US is subject to deportation.  A racist and anti-immigrant law passed in 1996 called the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) expanded the definition of “aggravated felony” to include minor offenses like shoplifting and marijuana possession.  

While the state has never had a problem criminalizing immigrants, the passage of the IIRIRA helped cement the relationship between the police, the Department of Justice (DOJ), the INS (which is housed under the DOJ), and big business.  The IIRIRA beefed up police presence in immigrant communities by increasing the number of armed INS agents, especially border patrol in the Southwest.  This move made the INS the largest armed Federal agency of the US government.  Between 1996 and 2000, the number of defendants in federal courts facing immigration offenses increased from 6605 to 15,613.  Between 1986 and 2000, the average length of prison sentences for immigration offenses increased by almost 400%.  In the past, over $600 million was spent on INS detention yearly.  The INS budget keeps increasing.  State and county jails vie to place INS detainees in empty prison beds in order to pump Federal dollars into local economies. 

The US government loses money if people are detained too long, making deportations economically necessary.  Yet deportations are about more than financial management.  Deportation is one way the US socially defines who is part of the nation, and who, if necessary, is to be sent away.  Like prisons, deportation is one important way the US government decides who, racially, is a “real American” and who is not.

Many activists organizing to end Cambodian deportations make the link between the US’ criminalization of non-whites and INS detentions and deportations.  Although this connection is made, there are still two challenges facing Southeast Asian activists.

The first challenge is that before the Cambodian repatriation agreement was signed, practically every other ethnic community was experiencing deportations.  This is especially the case for Mexicans and Central Americans who have been particularly targeted by border patrol and state police.  After 9-11, South Asian, Middle Eastern and African immigrants have experienced increased moments of “crisis” through racial profiling, special registrations and violence.  This raises the question, how do folks get sympathy for Cambodian deportation from other immigrant groups if they have been experiencing deportation all along?  How do people strategize around Cambodian deportation in a way that does not say to other immigrant communities that their detentions and deportations never mattered?

The second challenge for Cambodian activists is to figure out how to frame the deportation of immigrants in a way that does not exploit racist images of other groups.  For example, despite the obvious connections between INS systems and the larger Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), there is a difference between how the imprisonment of Asian immigrants versus that of other groups, namely Blacks, gets framed.  Generally, Asian immigrants are viewed as “good,” whereas Blacks are viewed as “bad.”  Progressives depict Asian immigrants as hard workers who sometimes fall on bad times that make them commit crimes to survive.  Implicitly (and explicitly), Blacks are viewed as lazy, unwilling to work hard, and therefore criminal by nature.  The result is that when Asian immigrants get locked up, they get some sympathy that Blacks (and to a certain extent, Latino/as) don’t.  

Activists—especially after 9-11—often frame immigrants as victims of injustice or xenophobia (fear of foreigners) who do not deserve to be in the prison system.  The process of which immigrants get sympathy is highly racialized, as noted by how many post-9-11 activists have been relatively silent on border patrol’s violence towards Mexican and Central Americans that has no doubt contributed to the fact that along with Blacks, Brown people make up two thirds of the US prison population.  The implicit message is that some groups “deserve” to be in prison, and others do not.  Some experienced injustice, and others did not.  Some are worth fighting for, and others are not.  Subsequently, the state violence against certain bodies, particularly those of Black, Brown and Native, is considered necessary, whereas that against other groups is not. 

In the case of Cambodians, they tend to get sympathy because they are refugees who were often pushed by the US government into Black neighborhoods when they got to the US.  Because they live near Blacks in poor urban neighborhoods, Cambodians have somewhat been pitied by different activists and academics.  This, however, is a somewhat strategic sympathy, because it seems to serve ulterior motives.  For one, Asian American politics tends to fetishize poor Southeast Asians because they are considered “dark” and “poor.”  That is, Asian American activists often draw attention to Southeast Asians to challenge the model minority myth and “prove” to other people that not all Asian Americans are “successful.”  This does not necessarily mean that Asian America as a political project is necessarily committed to “darker” and “poorer” Asians, a point that many Southeast Asians have pointed out.  It just means that when one wants to refute the idea of Asian American success and homogenization, Asian American activists of all types quickly pull out the Southeast Asian as a way to deflect these critiques. 

This is not to suggest that Asian American activists—or anyone for that matter— do not have a reason to be concerned about poor Southeast Asians.  Anyone who is structurally mistreated and subject to state violence should garner sympathy.  Yet many Asian American activists, including Southeast Asians, generally do not bring up Southeast Asian poverty in a manner that is sympathetic to all those who are pushed into urban poverty.  In other words, many Asian American activists point out that Cambodians are living in similar conditions with many of the Black people (who, like anyone living in urban poverty, have been structurally forced into their situation).  This analysis tends to bring a certain aspect of sympathy for the existence of poor Southeast Asians.  Yet this pity does not necessarily sympathize with Black people living in the same conditions of urban poverty.  Instead, it is the type of pity that says, “These poor Asians, how did they end up there?”  In this case, “there” means living near, and “like” Blacks. 

It is precisely their proximity to Blacks that sometimes make Cambodians more sympathetic “victims.”  Cambodian poverty and incarceration is “understandable” and even “expected” because they live in “urban” (read: Black) areas.  In this way, what is taken as Cambodian “criminality” is viewed as a “learned” behavior and unwittingly linked to Black people.  This helps perpetuate the racist image of the Black criminal that has substantiated the US’ violent containment and killing of Black bodies.  Subsequently, these ideas about Cambodian “criminality” tend to ignore critical questions: What is crime?  How does it get socially defined?  Who defines what a crime is?  Who gets labeled a criminal (even before an arrest)?  Whose bodies and existence are considered criminal, no matter what one does or does not do?  Who benefits from how crime is defined?  Who gets sympathy when they go to jail?  Who does not?  

Overall, Southeast Asian activists have some major immediate challenges facing them in their campaign to end Cambodian deportations.  The most obvious is stopping deportation in a post 9-11 era.  But there are two other important immediate challenges.  First, figuring out how to sympathetically frame Cambodian deportation in a way that does not minimize the experience of deportation in other immigrant communities.  Second, figuring out how to talk about immigrant detainees/deportees without reproducing racist stereotypes of Blacks and other non-white groups who are forced into urban poverty and who have been incarcerated at alarming rates.  These might not seem crucial issues in the campaign to end Cambodian deportation.  But if they are not considered, there are serious consequences for non-Cambodians and an overall movement for social justice. 

Kil Ja Kim  is a writer, educator and activist currently living and working in Philadelphia.  Her intellectual and political interests are Asian American politics, immigrant politics, and Black-Asian American relations. Kil Ja is currently working on working on a research project that examines the role of global racial politics in shaping the disproportionate presence of Korean immigrant business owners in Black neighborhoods in the US. 

ã 2003    (

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