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Raised in the U.S. and deported to Cambodia, refugees struggle to build a new life

By Agnes Constante

Every day, Sothy Kum wakes up at 6:30 a.m. to talk to his wife and their 2-year-old daughter in Wisconsin, more than 8,000 miles away from his condo in Cambodia, where he’s lived for the past nine months.

It’s 5:30 p.m. then in the Midwest, and Kum’s wife is typically just leaving work. They stay on the line for three to five hours until their daughter’s bedtime.

Those conversations have become a lifeline for Kum, 44, since he was deported to Cambodia last April. Hearing the voices of his wife and daughter helps him cope with depression as he adjusts to life in a country he left when he was 2.

“I’m still not used to it,” he said. “I’m still scared of the traffic. I can’t find any peace here.”

Kum is one of 126 people who were deported from the U.S. to Cambodia in 2018. According to Bill Herod, spokesman for the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, it’s a record for any single year since deportations to Cambodia began in 2002, when the two countries signed a repatriation agreement that opened the pathway for refugees to be sent back to Cambodia.

There are several possible reasons for the rise in deportations. One is that the U.S. has pressured Cambodia to take in the refugees who are being deported. In 2017, Cambodia had halted the deportations by refusing to receive the refugees, with the goal of negotiating a new agreement that would give deportees more freedoms, including allowing them to return to the U.S. to visit relatives. In retaliation, the Trump administration imposed limits on visas from Cambodia, among other countries that refuse to take deportees. Cambodia responded by allowing the deportations to resume last year, and a surge followed.

The number of deportees has also been driven by the Trump administration’s crackdown on illegal immigration generally. In fiscal year 2018, tens of thousands more immigrants were arrested and deported by Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Enforcement and Removal Operations, which focuses on immigrants who have been living in the country, compared to fiscal year 2016, according to an ICE report.

Advocates expect the number of deportees returned to Cambodia to continue to rise.

Many of the recently deported Cambodian refugees had been in America for decades and were booted for committing minor crimes — in Kum’s case, marijuana possession with intent to distribute, for which he served one-year sentence. Kum had arrived in the U.S. when he was about 5, after fleeing the Khmer Rouge with his family and spending time in Thailand and the Philippines.

“Culturally and socially, they are Americans,” Herod said of the deportees. “Taking them away from their spouses, children and aging parents in the U.S. is harmful to American communities.”

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