Cambodian Repatriation and its Connection to Criminal Injustice: How Does the Experience of Repatriated Cambodian Refugees Reflect Upon Larger Issues of Immigration, Social Policy, and the Justice System in the United States?

(“8 Cambodian Refugees in Minnesota Prove Why Deportations Must Be Stopped.”)

Overview: Three Strikes You’re Out

Throughout American history, immigration has been a controversial topic within the United States. Through its allyship with other foreign countries, America has opened its gates to those seeking shelter from dangerous situations. During the Cambodian Civil War from 1967-1975 (Chandler), the United States formed policies to help refugees settle in America, such as  Evacuation Act of 1975. The immigrant and refugee population spiked during these years due to the flood of people seeking to flee the violence in their home countries. Although the U.S offered their help in relocating these civilians and created programs to help with living adjustments, life as an immigrant and refugee was not easy. While discrimination is easily brought upon these groups of people, recently the Cambodian community has been faced with the issue of criminal behavior based deportation. There have been several cases where an immigrant who legally obtained a green card and has lived in the U.S. for decades is convicted of multiple minor felonies and sent back to a country that is supposedly their home. These convicted crimes can span from sexual assault and murder to a DUI or drug possession. Many Cambodian refugees that live in the U.S today have never even been to Cambodia due to their families fleeing and locating in refugee camps around the world. The U.S’s laws are progressing to hurt these communities that have committed crimes even though millions of Americans have done the same.

My Interest:

I became interested in the topic of refugee and immigrant population in the United States and its connection to criminal injustice when brainstorming ideas for my history research paper. I knew that my interests were somewhere within immigration, and after a long discussion with my mother the topic of wars in SouthEast Asia came up. I was able to make the connection between the major wars that have happened in both Vietnam and Cambodia to the spike of the refugee population in America. After doing more research about those refugees and their lives in America, I learned that criminal behavior was a huge issue in avoiding deportation. 

See my full interest essay: 

(“Sign the Petition.”)

Historical Background: A Home Away From Home

In the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, Cambodia found itself in a civil war fighting against communism. Pol Pot was the leader behind the sudden force of communism into Cambodia with the help of his Khmer Rouge soldiers (Phyllis). In 1992 the New York Amsterdam News summarized the issues Cambodian’s faced during this time by saying,  “For nearly five years between 1975 and 1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge soldiers had practiced their barbarous experiment in textbook communism on the Cambodian people. There was little possibility back then of fleeing Cambodia”(Phyllis). While many refugees found the U.S. on their own, America also took terms into their own hands as the “The U.S. government brought them to [America] as refugees from Cambodia’s killing fields(Graham). The plan for the Cambodian refugees was solely repatriation and not resettlement. In response to the plan for repatriation, the U.S. government created the Refugee Act of 1980. The Refugee Act of 1980 stated that the U.S could admit a limit of 50,000 refugees into the country (“The Refugee Crisis: How should the U.S. Respond?”). In general, refugees who settle in a new country often face obstacles that make the transition harder. As for Cambodians, they were thrown into poverty and gang life because that was the only way they were able to start a life in the United States (“The Refugee Crisis: How should the U.S. Respond?” ). Through the years of 1980-1990, the government’s steps towards acting on repatriation weren’t very strong nor a priority. However, by the 2000s the U.S. started cracking down on deportations, especially to refugees from Cambodia. Furthermore, the government has recently started looking at criminal records to enforce deportation which is where the issue of criminal injustice plays a part (Graham). In the Philadelphia Inquirer, it says, “Now, two decades or more later, the U.S. government is threatening to deport them back–for what they did, and didn’t do, here in America”(Graham).

See my full historical background essay:

An infographic that talks about poverty rates and Southeast Asain Americans.
(“Infographic: Poverty Rates Among Southeast Asian Americans (2013).”)

“What you need to know”: 

In recent years, it’s well documented that the experience of all immigrants in the United States has drastically changed: borders have closed, walls have been erected, and refugees have been restricted. And, while America offers more structured and easier access to naturalization relative to other countries–especially in the developing world, what is less well-publicized is that refugees residing in the US  have also suffered escalating challenges to permanent residency in recent years (Kibreab). This is especially true for Cambodian refugees facing repatriation. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act passed by President Clinton in 1996, states that non-naturalized citizens must not violate the privacy and civil rights of legal immigrants and U.S. citizens or face legal action, including involuntary removal and repatriation (“Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act.” ). This act was meant to deter illegal immigration but has since been significant to Cambodian refugees. The Los Angeles Times illustrates this dynamic as political: “President Obama prioritized removing migrants with criminal convictions. The Trump administration has since ramped up deportations, including Cambodians and Southeast Asians, expanding the list of targets and the acts for which they can be removed, some for cases more than a decade old” (Dunst). In connection to these criminal convictions, the question of what counts as an “aggravated felony” is still very much in dispute. In 2018, a supreme court case, Sessions vs Dimaya, ruled that the definition of “aggravated felony” was “unconstitutionally vague” (“Summary: Supreme Court Decision in Sessions v. Dimaya.”). Not only did this court case help James Diwaya, but it also “struck down part of a broad federal immigration law that mandated the removal of noncitizens, including longtime green-card holders who were convicted of a “crime of violence” for all non-citizens in America (Dunst). The trauma that many immigrants face is heavily reflected in the actions they make primarily criminal behavior. The criminal records of these Cambodian refugees consist of robbery and marijuana possession both of which qualify as minor felonies (Constante), yet under President Trump, there is no “discretion at all.” (Ten). Within the past few years, many organizations have been created to raise awareness and offer support for Cambodian immigrants, facing the threat of deportation. Asian Americans Advancing Justice is a group that offers support to Asian Americans immigrants, with a specific program designed to protect them from deportation (“Home.”).  The Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization works with immigrants who are unsuccessful in their appeals to remain in residency.  KVAO helps Cambodians create a new life in Cambodia (“KVAO”). These organizations are just a few examples of groups that are championing immigrant rights and supporting immigrants who are repatriated. There are so many more that fight for and make a big impact on the lives of Southeast Asian refugees and other vulnerable immigrant populations.

(“ICE Deported 25 Cambodian Immigrants, Most of Whom Arrived in the U.S. as Refugees.”)

For now:


1). Support Organizations. There are so many organizations that help refugees and immigrants. Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, and 1Love Movement are just a few. By getting involved with these groups, not only do you become educated on the pressing issues people are facing, but you can also tangibly support the work that they are doing. Asian Americans Advancing Justice, for example, has many opportunities to join in on the work that they are doing through internships, conferences, and youth leadership summits (“Home.”). By visiting their website at, you are able to browse through all of the programs that they have along with the different ways to get involved. 

2). Create Opportunities. Individuals need to recognize and create opportunities that allow immigrants to avoid situations where they have to resort to criminal behavior. Cambodian refugees have faced so much trauma before they even arrive. Once in the U.S. they often live in poverty, leading many to resort to gang life for connection and protection (Graham). 

3). Promote Education. Another useful action that individuals can take is providing education to those who might lack knowledge of immigrant rights and the legal system. High Schools especially offer the perfect range of students’ ages to address because we can educate kids about these issues before they are of legal age to face felony charges. If there is an Asia Club at your school this is an important topic that needs more attention, so dedicate time to learn more and understand what is going on in your local immigrant community.


1). Media. So many stories of experiences have recently been appearing on media platforms to profile people who are being sentenced “home” to a place they have never seen or known. News outlets are key to informing people of the struggles Cambodians are facing. With more stories coming out, the issue of criminal injustice and repatriation is reaching a wider audience. The more informed the public is, the more they will want to speak out and take action. The movement #PardonRefugees is a good example.

2). Promote a Path to Citizenship. An obstacle that many Cambodian refugees have faced is the unstructured process that leads to citizenship in America. For most immigrants, language is a barrier that many face along with the lack of resources detailing the steps needed to obtain citizenship. Many Cambodian refugees haven’t been able to gain residency due to the lack of support and structure available to them which provides an increased possibility that they will be sent back to their “home country” (Graham). This process needs to be made more accessible and understandable. Asian Americans Advancing Justice offers information on legal rights for immigrants along with working to help them obtain citizenship and avoiding families from becoming separated during the process of starting a new life in America (“Home.”).

3). A clear definition of what crimes can lead to deportation. As a country, the United States at the moment has very vague definitions of “aggravated felony” and what crimes can lead an immigrant or refugee to be deported. If these definitions and guidelines can be altered than immigrants and refugees will be more aware of their criminal behavior. Progress can only be made if those with high authority levels can recognize that there is lack of clarity like the Sessions vs. Dimaya court case where the supreme court was able to state that “the definition of “aggravated felony” was “unconstitutionally vague” (“Summary: Supreme Court Decision in Sessions v. Dimaya.”).

Works Cited:


Please feel free to leave any comments or questions. I would love to hear your opinions and ideas on how our society can address this issue along with your individual actions. Thanks for taking the time to learn more about my topic.

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  1. April 24, 2020 by Adam

    I really enjoyed the project and I think that it shows the challenges that repatriated Cambodian refugees face and how problematic the current rise of populism and hate is. However, I do think that the potential solutions described are great ideas that should be implemented, but I think that it will be difficult to do so in the current political climate.

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