Khmer, But Don't Stay

Portland's Cambodian community scrambles to fight deportations.

Four bald, orange-robed men chanted hypnotically over a banquet table laden with steaming bowls of fragrant stews and rice. Dozens of people knelt on the living-room floor in the small North Portland bungalow, packing in around the big-screen TV, bowing reverently to the Buddhist monks. The crowd spilled into the dining room and the raucous kitchen, where a small army of women clattered over more food.

The lavish old-country feast wasn't just any Saturday-morning potluck. For Portland's small Cambodian community, it marked a rare chance to celebrate. After seven months in federal custody, 52-year-old Sun Kim Khliu, a longtime Portlander and patriarch of a large Cambodian-American family, was free.

At least temporarily.

Khliu, whose family hosted the late-November party, wasn't jailed because he faces an upcoming trial or active investigation. Instead, the U.S. government locked Khliu up because it wants to send him back to Cambodia.

Khliu faces deportation under immigration laws that have dramatically--and in many cases, retroactively--expanded the range of crimes considered grounds for expulsion. Even though lawyers won his release from jail, his existence remains tenuous--his family rates his chances of staying in the country as 50-50, at best.

Khliu's not alone in his predicament. Across the country, as many as 1,600 Cambodians face deportation for crimes ranging from major offenses to public indecency. Dozens have already been deported. Many have only sketchy connections to Cambodia--often, they left as infants in the 1970s, their families joining the exodus escaping the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. For a Cambodian community of about 300,000 nationwide, a post-9/11 push to enforce mid-'90s immigration laws has created a major crisis.

"People in that community are very frightened," says Christine Dahl, a federal public defender who worked on Khliu's case and says she's familiar with about a half-dozen similar Portland cases. "It has shown them a mean, very scary side of the United States."

"The injustice of sending people back to the hell they ran away from leaves people feeling hurt and betrayed," says Chai Chean, the 36-year-old chairman of a formative community group, the Khmer American Alliance of Oregon, which is fighting federal deportation efforts.

"We don't really have community unity in this country," he says. "People look at deportation as an individual problem, not a community problem, so you have to scare them a little bit. You have to say, 'Hey, are all your kids, or your brothers and sisters, American citizens? Did you know they could get deported?'"

Immigration law classifies any crime carrying a possible sentence of a year or more as a deportable offense--even if it was not a deportable offense at the time of conviction. That's a problem for people like Khliu, who struck a plea bargain to a sex offense in 1992 but never served jail time before immigration officials arrested him March 27, 2003.

"I never thought anything like this could happen," says Khliu's daughter Bopha, a 17-year-old high-schooler who says she's also seen a couple of teenage friends shipped back to Southeast Asia. "I thought refugees who came to this country would have a better life."

The laws don't single out Cambodians but may affect them disproportionately. While many nations are reluctant to accept deportees, Cambodia's government has proven more cooperative with the Bush administration's drive to enforce deportations.

Vannath Chea, a former Portlander, now works for the Center for Social Development, an effort to aid deportees in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh. She says many of the 79 deported Cambodians her group has worked with don't speak a word of Khmer, the Cambodian language, when they arrive. "Their English skills would be valuable for Cambodian jobs," Chea says, "but without Khmer, they only have half the language they need."

In response, Cambodians in Portland and elsewhere are forming new alliances, pestering officials and fighting to raise awareness through meetings, rallies and seminars. A daylong meeting on the issue on the last Saturday of 2003, hosted by the Portland refugee-assistance organization IRCO, drew 60 people.

For Khliu's family--as for the Cambodian community across the country--the specter of deportation casts a pall on the future. Though Bopha Khliu is optimistic her father's case won't end in a forced flight to Phnom Penh, she also says the family's long-peaceful Portland existence won't go back to normal soon.

"For me," she says, "March 27 was the day my life changed."

WWeek 2015

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