Peck Loek’s eyes start to well up, and tears stream down her cheeks on a recent morning in her Fresno apartment.
No tissue within reach, Loek wipes her tears with her bare right hand as she talks about the deportation of her son and son-in-law to Cambodia earlier this year. She is sitting next to her grandson Giovanni Elijah, 8. Giovanni and two other siblings, Angie, 14, and Meldey, 18, will now have to live without their father.
“They miss their father a lot,” Loek says through an interpreter.
Her son, Sam Phat, and her son-in-law, Sam Luk, were both deported to Cambodia in June, she says. They both were involved in gangs when they were young, got in trouble with the law and spent time in jail, Loek says.
Under the Trump administration, the U. S. last year began to deport many Cambodians after imposing visa sanctions against the Southeast Asian country to pressure it to take back deportees. That move was followed by additional visa sanctions issued this year against other Southeast Asian countries, such as Laos and Myanmar, to force them to take back citizens who have been ordered to be removed from the U.S.
While Cambodia signed a repatriation agreement with the U.S. in 2002 to send back deportees who had been convicted of crimes in the U.S., the Cambodian government hadn’t been cooperative and in 2016 it temporarily stopped accepting deportees.
In September 2017, the U.S. announced visa sanctions against Cambodia for failing to take back its deportees. Eritrea, Guinea and Sierra Leone were also struck with visa sanctions at the time for denying or unreasonably delaying accepting citizens.
The U.S. had ordered some deportees back to their home countries years ago.
Eventually, Cambodia resumed taking back deportees from the U.S.
“How long will it take them to send him back (to Fresno)?” Loek asks, referring to her son.
Chances of her son returning are slim. Loek and her daughter, Stacey, who is the mother of the children, will now have to raise them on their own.
“I feel sad,” 8-year-old Giovanni Elijah says talking about his father. “He would always take care of me.”
While deportations are an issue that’s mainly been a Latino problem locally and nationally, last year more Southeast Asian communities began to be affected, particularly with the deportations to Cambodia, said Zachary D. Darrah, executive director of Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries.
Deportations to Southeast Asian countries are on the rise. “I hope that in some ways ... we’ll be able to find points of unity together with our Latino communities in the struggles that they have been experiencing for years,” Darrah said. “I hope that can happen because we are stronger together in this battle than we are separated.”
The number of Cambodians in Fresno who have been deported under the deportations that began last year “is not clear at all,” Darrah said.
“We’ve heard whispers of small groups, four or five, but no confirmed numbers,” he said. “It’s mostly family members. They don’t wish to really share with us.”
Last year, Darrah’s organization held an immigration workshop and about 70 of the around 100 attendees were Cambodians.
Loek came to the U.S. 33 years ago, fleeing her country due to genocide by the Khmer Rouge and civil war that dragged on for years. Many of those who were deported to Cambodia last year or earlier this year, and those who still face deportation, fled their country for the same reason.
ICE spokesperson Danielle Bennett said nationwide, 80 people were deported to Cambodia from Oct. 1, 2017, to Aug. 11. Fiscal year 2017, through Sept. 30, 2017, 29 people nationwide were deported to Cambodia.
More than 4,000 Laotians and nearly 600 people from Myanmar face deportation under similar visa sanctions the U.S. imposed on their countries in July.
Bennett wasn’t able to provide information regarding Loek’s relatives who were deported.
Loek’s family in particular has been hit by tragedy. Her son and son-in-law were deported, and then the house in Fresno where they were living burned down. The family lost everything, including green cards and Social Security cards.
FIRM was able to help the family get an apartment and furniture. It also assisted the family to get their legal documents replaced, but it wasn’t able to help with the deportations, said Vicki Kham with FIRM. “We have no authority over that,” she said.