Saroun Khan was about 4 when he and his parents landed in Philadelphia in 1984, refugees from the Cambodian genocide that killed more than two million people after the Vietnam War.
Today he’s 41 with a son of his own. But it’s uncertain if he’ll get to see the teen graduate from high school.
In March 2020, federal immigration agents arrested Khan at his family home in Olney, placing him in detention and putting him on track for deportation to a land he doesn’t remember.
The reason: More than two decades ago, when Khan was 19, he hopped into an unlocked car and took it for a joyride, an offense for which he later served time in prison. Under immigration law, that crime counted as an “aggravated felony,” making him liable for removal even though he’s a legal permanent resident of the United States.
“Why now?” Khan said in a phone call from the Bluebonnet Detention Center in Texas, where he’s being held after a series of transfers from Pennsylvania. “Why not before, after I served my time? Why didn’t they come get me then instead of 20 years later?”
Today the United States is deporting larger numbers of Asian immigrants, particularly Southeast Asians, many of them refugees who have lived in this country for decades, frequently on the basis of old criminal convictions. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, the detentions and deportations of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Chinese have provoked a crisis for communities that already are often ignored.
Anti-Asian violence, advocates say, doesn’t come only in the form of a man with a gun in Atlanta, or in racial attacks in cities from New York to California. It comes in government policies that put thousands under threat of removal and deposits many of them in the very nations from which they and their families fled.
“These folks had been living their lives, and suddenly they’re picked up,” said Nancy Nguyen, executive director of VietLead, a Philadelphia-based advocacy group that is trying to stop the deportation of Khan and others. “This is what triggers fear in our community.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say that Khan “is considered to be a public safety threat due to numerous arrests in Pennsylvania,” and that in June he was ordered deported by an immigration judge.
Between 1997 and 2005, Khan was involved in fights or incidents that resulted in three convictions for assault, the most serious when he was handling a friend’s gun and accidentally shot his girlfriend in the arm. He had a 2000 conviction for parole violation, by possessing drugs and a weapon. But it’s the car offense, said his attorney, that exposes him to deportation.
Sarith Khan, Khan’s younger brother, said what stands out from childhood is the feeling that his family had been dropped in Philadelphia to fend for themselves.
His parents loved their children, he said, but they didn’t understand America. They didn’t speak English. He was bullied and robbed.
“It made you a fighter,” said Khan, 38, of Lancaster County. “We didn’t have guidance from our parents. We had guidance from the streets, and the poverty we lived in. … Coming from the genocide, we made mistakes in America.”
Saroun Khan is appealing his case in federal court after losing in Immigration Court. He’s also preparing to seek a pardon, which has enabled some refugees to stay in the U.S., but success is far from certain.
“You commit an offense when you’re a dumb teenager,” said his lawyer, Lilah Thompson, of the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia, “and the penalty is it separates you from your whole family for the rest of your life?”
Until ICE agents arrived, Khan said, his life in Philadelphia revolved around family. He worked in a print shop with an aunt, and at home helped take care of his father, who injured his back working in factories. On weekends everyone got together for barbecues, he added.
The deportations rose dramatically under the Trump administration. Removals of Cambodians more than tripled in a year. But they’ve continued under Joe Biden, even as the new president condemns the anti-Asian violence that’s taken place during the pandemic.
This month a deportation flight from Texas carried away 33 Vietnamese immigrants.
“This administration has made some bold commitments to our community, but for the administration to dismantle the hate and rhetoric, they need to dismantle the deportations,” said Kham Moua, director of national policy for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) in Washington. “Our country continues to think it’s OK to be anti-Asian.”
The numbers of deportations are relatively low, a fraction of the 450,000 immigrants who were removed in the last two years alone. But the removals have an outsized impact in small, close communities where many struggle financially and suffer from wartime trauma.
In 2008, the U.S. deported 30 Vietnamese. Ten years later, under Trump, that number quadrupled to 122, then dropped to 80 in 2019.
The same for Cambodians — 40 in 2008, nearly tripling to 110 in 2018, and falling to 80 in 2019.
The U.S. has no repatriation agreement with Laos, so far fewer Laotians have been deported, with 20 in 2008, eight in 2018, and five in 2019. But 4,200 Laotians carry deportation orders, never knowing if tomorrow could turn out to be their last day of freedom in America.
In all, about 14,000 people in the U.S. have final orders of removal to those three countries.
Activists call it double punishment, that refugees convicted of crimes serve their sentences — then still get deported. Many never understood that, even as legal permanent residents, they needed citizenship as an ultimate bar against deportation. Or they didn’t have the money or language skills to press through the process.
“This fight is not over,” said Teresa Engst, the immigrant rights and education coordinator at Asian Americans United, the Philadelphia-based advocacy group. “There are a lot of folks doing a lot of work to try to press this administration to make changes.”
The term “final deportation order” sounds ominous, and it can be, but in many cases those rulings aren’t enforced for many years. In the meantime people have been allowed to live and work under ICE supervision.
They start families and companies, go to school, engage in their communities. Many support U.S.-citizen spouses, children, and siblings. And when someone is suddenly taken into custody or deported, the loss is staggering, emotionally and economically.
“People lose homes. Lose businesses. Lose parents. Can you imagine?” said AAU executive director Alix Webb.
It’s impossible to grasp what’s happening now in Philadelphia and other cities without understanding what occurred in Saigon on April 30, 1975: The South Vietnamese capital fell to the North Vietnamese, chasing the last American troops and ending the war — and setting off the largest resettlement effort in U.S. history.
In the first year the Ford administration resettled 130,000 people, many of whom came through Pennsylvania, processed at Fort Indiantown Gap.
Worsening conditions in Vietnam soon prompted a new exodus, by sea. People escaping in leaky boats were rescued by the tens of thousands. And drowned in similar numbers.
Today that story of survival is written on the walls of South Philadelphia, where the Bo De Buddhist Temple features a mural of Vietnamese people in peril on the sea. The yellow-and-red flag of long-vanished South Vietnam flies outside the New World Plaza shopping center.
That second, larger wave included refugees from Laos and Cambodia, both of which had been targets of U.S. bombing. In Cambodia the Khmer Rouge were carrying out one of the 20th century’s worst genocides.
More than three million people left those lands between 1975 and 1995.
In the U.S., many were resettled in impoverished city neighborhoods, the children enrolled in broken schools where they were harassed and intimidated. Racism was common. Young immigrants were disproportionately swept into crime and violence, SEARAC said, and some turned to gangs to survive.
Vietnamese refugees who came before July 1995 — when the former enemies renewed diplomatic relations — were protected from deportation by a 2008 agreement. But the Trump administration unilaterally sought to reinterpret that, part of an effort to increase the number of immigrants it could deport. Around the same time the administration imposed visa sanctions on Cambodian officials, to make them resume accepting deportees, and to accept them in larger numbers.
During the last year Khan has been moved from jail to jail, during which he became sick with COVID-19.
He could be put on a deportation flight at any time. That’s frightening, he said. It happened to a friend four years ago.
Khan doesn’t know Cambodia’s language, culture, or history. His knowledge of the country comes mostly from his late mother, who often told him the story of how, pregnant with his younger brother, she carried him in her arms as she ran to reach safety in Thailand. His brother was born in a refugee camp there.
Khan is determined to stay in the U.S., he said, to get back to his family in Philadelphia. To see his son, who lives with his grandmother.
“I’m not giving up, because my family and my son are not giving up on me,” Khan said. “Every time I call them, they ask me, ‘When are you coming back, when are you coming home?’ ”