Release the MN8: Cambodian Minnesotans Face Unjust Deportation

Eight Cambodian Minnesotans currently being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) face deportation to a country that many of them have never set foot in. This situation, despite the fact they have families, jobs and deep ties to their community, is because of crimes that they committed in their past – crimes they have already paid their legal debt for.

As a Cambodian American professor, I’ve become involved in the fight to help these men stay in the country that has always been their home. These are valuable citizens of our state, and they deserve the chance to stay in the homes and families they’ve built in America.

Deep Roots in Minnesota

The MN8 are a group of men whose roots in the United States run deep, and whose experiences are tied to the U.S. conflict in Vietnam. In Asian American Studies, we have a saying “We are here because you were there,” and that’s the case for these men, all of whom are in their 30s and 40s.They are children of the Vietnam War, and most were born in refugee camps in the early ’80s in places like Thailand and the Philippines. Most of them have never set foot in Cambodia and don’t speak the country’s native language, Khmer. Brought to the U.S. as refugees as young children or infants, the MN8 see the U.S. as the only home they have known.

I’ve come to know many of the family members of these individuals being held by ICE, and have learned just how deep their roots are in our state. These are men who have families, in many cases young children. They have careers; they have mortgages. They are involved in their communities and churches. One of the detainees, Chan Oum, was a volunteer who helped build the Cambodian Buddhist Temple in Hampton, MN. Some enjoy hobbies like ice fishing – perhaps the most Minnesotan of pursuits.

An Unfair Immigration System

The situation the MN8 find themselves in is the result of “zero tolerance” immigration laws passed in the mid-90s, including the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility ACT (IIRIRA). This law made it mandatory to deport any noncitizen – even legal refugees with valid green cards like the MN8 – who has committed an aggravated felony that can trigger a one-year sentence.

As Cambodians growing up in America, often in impoverished conditions, the men in the MN8 made mistakes in their youth. They have taken full responsibility for their crimes, which range from trivial “broken window” offenses to more serious charges However, like many defendants from minority communities who lack financial resources, they were often poorly represented and received harsher sentences than warranted.

These crimes occurred years, even decades ago, and these men served their sentences, paid their debt to society and came home to become responsible, contributing members of our community. To rip them away from their families – and the children they work each day to support – is unconscionable.

The Families of the MN8 Struggle to Carry On

The most heartbreaking aspect of these events is the effect that the detention of the MN8 has had on their families, especially the children – full U.S. citizens born in this country. Jenny Srey, a 2006 CEHD graduate, is fighting to keep her husband, Ched Nin, home. If deported, Ched would leave behind his wife, three daughters and two sons, the youngest of which suffers from a congenital heart condition. He also cares for his elderly father, who also lives in Minnesota. In the case of another detainee, Posy Chheng, his wife, Allison, became pregnant just as her husband was detained, leaving her to go through the entire pregnancy alone.

At CEHD, we know how important familial support is to academic success and, sadly, many of the MN8 families are reporting that their children’s schooling has suffered as they deal with the emotional fallout of being separated from their fathers for more than seven months. Worse yet, many of the MN8 were the primary breadwinner in their households, forcing some of the families to go on public assistance.

Speaking of the impact on her family, Sokha Kul, whose husband Sameth is currently in ICE detention, says, “My daughter was on the honor roll last year and this year, in 8th grade, she’s not even close. Her grades have drastically changed since her dad was detained. And my son, who is in 6th grade, can’t focus on school. Both are going through a lot from not having their dad around. It’s been hard on them in school and at home.”

A Miscarriage of Justice

We’ve been fighting for the release of the MN8 since they were detained in August of 2016. Looking at similar cases nationally, I’m puzzled at the way this case has been handled by the Minnesota ICE.

In other states, Homeland Security and ICE have allowed detainees to return to their families and jobs while they continue to face removal procedures. In cases in which there is a concern that the individuals might flee the area after release, ICE has used electronic ankle bracelets to keep track of their location. Even though this common and economical solution exists, why has the Minnesota ICE office continued to detain these men indefinitely? It’s indicative of the mean spiritedness that pervades the way the cases of the MN8 have been handled.

Taking Action to Release the MN8

Until these Minnesotans are returned to their families, we will continue to fight. If anything, our sense of urgency has only increased since the inauguration of President Trump and his administration’s unpredictable immigration policies. Our efforts include political and legal action, as well as public outreach – and we need your help.

On the political front, the families, their advocates and lawyers recently had a very constructive meeting at the state capitol with Governor Mark Dayton’s chief policy advisor and one of his primary lawyers. They were very receptive to the families’ stories, and informed them about the pardon process. It’s our hope that a pardon of these state crimes from the Governor could be persuasive to ICE in getting the MN8 off the removal list and out of detention.

We’re also working through the legal system, with county prosecutors, to resentence some of the individuals in the MN8. Because the threshold for the removal is a crime that triggers a year sentence, we’re asking if it’s possible to resentence these men to 364-day sentences.

Finally, we’re asking for your help, either through financial support or activism. On the Release MN8 Tumblr page, there’s a link to more information about the men currently being detained and their families – as well as a link to a YouCaring page where you can donate to help support their legal defense.

The Tumblr page also includes the phone numbers to the offices of Senators Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar and Representatives Keith Ellison and Betty McCollum, as well as a script asking them to intervene with ICE on behalf of our fellow Minnesotans.

The men in the MN8 made mistakes in their youth, just as we all have. However, for most of us, those mistakes have not resulted in such a heavy price. Fleeing persecution, they were brought here as children and have made this state their home. They deserve to stay, and their children deserve the chance to grow up with their fathers. I hope you’ll help in any way you can.

 

Vichet Chhuon

About the Author

Vichet Chhuon, Ph.D.

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