What’s considered a “deportable crime” is widening — at the expense of families and people’s rights
BY DIEM LY
International Examiner Volume 34 No. 24
It’s a one-way ticket no one wants.
Recent incidents of deportation and the protests against them have once again shed light on this bitter struggle over rights, home, and family.
On Dec. 7, a young man committed suicide a year after he was deported back to Cambodia. “Chan” had been suffering from depression and psychotic episodes for years before his deportation. Without proper medication in Cambodia, he relapsed and hung himself. Korsang Khmer, an organization in Cambodia that hires deportees and performs drug prevention outreach, reported other similar instances of attempted suicides, which included jumping off buildings and self-poisoning.
On Dec. 10, thousands of protesters at Canada’s Vancouver International Airport delayed a paralyzed man’s deportation flight back to India. Immigration officials charged Laibar Singh for entering the country on improper documents and attempted to deport him for the crime. Singh had suffered a stroke while in the country.
In Pennsylvania, a Filipino American couple is facing deportation because of a “misrepresentation” in their marital status during their visa-application process more than 20 years ago — a deportable crime. Dr. Pedro Servano and his wife, Salvacion, are defending their rights to stay in America and have four U.S.-born children, a medical practice, and a grocery business.
Why all the fuss?
In the last 10 years, U.S. immigration officials have been deporting Asian Pacific American (APA) immigrants with a zeal and cunning not seen since the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 1880s.
The catalyst was the new immigration legislation in 1996 that greatly expanded what’s considered a “deportable crime.” As a result, relatively minor offenses, like shoplifting or “joy-riding,” can lead to removal from the United States.
Here’s another kicker — the 1996 immigration changes are retroactive. Therefore, offenses committed long before the 1996 changes — are subject to review, detention, and expulsion. For example, a now law-abiding 50-year-old immigrant man is susceptible to deportation for a crime he committed — and served time for — as a teen 20 years ago, at an age when he could not grasp the severe consequences of his actions. But even for those who committed a crime post-1996, advocates like Many Uch, 31, say deportation is still an unjust and cruel punishment.
Uch, a Cambodian American activist in Seattle, was detained in an immigration jail for two-and-a-half years after completing a sentence of 40 months for a 1994 burglary. Uch told the IE in an interview that his experience in detention felt like “I was doing life in immigration jail.”
Then once detained, the “illegal alien” has to endure a frustrating uphill battle with the system. Those who have been detained, like Uch, reported their rights were stripped away, access to a public defender was not offered nor provided, and detainees were expected to wait indefinitely in immigration prison for a possible release, for their country of origin to accept them — whenever that would be — or for banishment.
Prior to 1996, immigrants were permitted to go before an immigration judge, who could exercise his discretion in imposing penalties, case-by-case. In this way, the judge could consider the immigrant’s family, children, community ties, U.S. military service, or possibility of persecution in the home country, and determine whether deportation is an excessively harsh punishment for that situation.
The 1996 changes stripped away this power from the judges, and instead, sweeping deportation procedures were implemented.
“Immigration judges’ hand are tied in the U.S.,” said Human Rights Watch researcher Alison Parker on the organization’s Web site. “There’s nothing they can do to protect families or to acknowledge the many contributions non-citizens have made to their communities or the nation.”
But that seemed to matter little because in 2003, the United States reached a decision to hold deportable aliens indefinitely. Indefinitely. The Bush administration continues to hold this position that any non-U.S. citizen convicted of an aggravated felony or sentenced to more than 365 days for certain crimes must be deportable to their country of origin.
And, it doesn’t matter if the person has served their criminal sentence or that the sentence was suspended — deportation is as real as the sentence they just served.
Uch said he instigated prison riots and was involved in two hunger strikes, because, as he explains, “there was nothing to lose” as you languish in jail with multiple barriers to justice and no power or knowledge of when you will be released or deported.
So is anyone deportable? Pretty much — non-citizens with a criminal conviction, lawful permanent residents (green card holders), and legal immigrants such as refugees, students, business people, and those who had been involved in war or a humanitarian disaster — are considered deportable if the crime fits. And, immigration officials said being married to a U.S. citizen doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’re safe.
Surely then, only hardened criminals and violent felons are deported, right? Actually, any violation of your status in the United States can potentially lead to deportation proceedings. This includes staying beyond the period authorized, as in student visas, or entering without proper documents.
According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data in a 2007 Human Rights Watch report, 65 percent of immigrants deported for crimes in 2005 had been convicted of non-violent offenses, including non-violent theft offenses such as shoplifting; 21 percent were deported for offenses involving violence against people; and 15 percent were deported for “other” crimes. Currently, 2,000 Cambodians are detained in the United States, while 5,000 Vietnamese are imprisoned until the government of Vietnam accepts deportees, which it currently does not, or until they are released through a waiver or appeal. To date, over half a million people have been deported from American shores.
As reported by Human Rights Watch, many of those deported arrived in the United States as children and were lawful permanent residents who lived legally in the country for decades. The Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) confirms this in an earlier 2002 report (the year the Cambodian government declared its repatriation agreement with the United States, which stated it would now accept deportees) which reported the immigrants were an average of nine years old when they entered America and had lived in the country for an average of 20 years.
Contrary to popular belief, the U.S. deportation policy didn’t become more severe after Sept. 11, instead, the drastic changes made in 1996 have been at work for more than a decade.
The issues of “booting” someone out
Yes, people can be deported for minor offenses. Yes, the law is retroactive. But, there are other concerns — very human concerns that advocates against deportation are worried about most. The concerns greatly outweigh any “danger to society” immigration officials or the government will assert regarding deportable immigrants. With information from SEARAC, the main issues are:
1. Deportees receive double or triple punishment: They served their original sentence, then were detained, sometimes, for as long or longer than their sentence, and then punished again by deportation.
2. People fighting deportation lack due process: People have few, if any, opportunities to argue their case, seek good legal representation, and immigration judges have few opportunities to save them from deportation.
3. Deportation hurts and separates families: This is a biggie, as deportation is essentially banishment from all you know and love. Reports said more than half of the time deportation removes the individual who is the family’s sole breadwinner.
4. Deportees usually lack support once in their country of origin: Those deported have few, if any, relationships in the country of origin, no job skills, and often do not speak, read, or write the languages well. Some Cambodians, like “Chan,” were sent away without the treatment they need for health issues like mental illness or diabetes.
5. People fear human rights violations in Southeast Asia: Many immigrants could face persecution due to their flight from the homeland and personal or family histories.
6. Acts resulting in deportation can stem from educational and economic hardships common to resettled refugees: The refugee experience can illicit many social, educational, and economic challenges.
What to do
The issue of deportation is complex and will require a creative solution. The Asian American community is especially impacted by the 1996 law as a significant number of its population is made up of immigrants and refugees. Unfortunately, Human Rights Watch reported that a reformation of the 1996 laws were not included in the immigration legislation Congress considered this year. Former INS General Counsel David Martin told Human Rights Watch that “Congress didn’t anticipate what would happen,” but didn’t want to seem soft on immigration.
So, the fight continues.
Some might ask, “Why don’t they just become U.S. citizens?” This has challenges of its own. Before, a dual citizenship wasn’t available and immigrants didn’t want to lose the citizenship of their home country where family members may still be. Also, for some, there was ignorance of the legal steps to become a citizen and many did not understand that “permanent resident” status means anything but permanent, as it doesn’t shield you from expulsion.
SEARAC suggests educating community members about deportation so they will be able to avoid it and support organizations that work with deportees and their families in the United States and Asia. Also, demand Congress to amend harsh laws and return judicial discretion to immigration judges; in this way, officials can take into consideration the person’s family relationships in the United States, the hardship they may experience in the country of origin, the length of time spent in America, the period of time after the conviction of the crime, and the person’s investment in the community.
To address the impact of deportation and its repercussions on deportees and families, Many Uch is coordinating a press conference and rally on Jan. 8, 2008 in downtown Seattle in an effort to raise awareness around these issues. He wanted to use his deportation experience as a catalyst to change the laws and save families from separation. Uch helped free himself and others from detention (but not from the possibility of expulsion) when he and other detainees won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court — an unprecedented and rare win for detainees, but reflects a common hope for all immigrants and those detained to be free from the cloud of deportation hanging forever over their heads.
When asked how he’s taking his possible deportation, Uch sums it up: “I just live day by day. I don’t make long-term plans. It’s too hard to think about. It comes down to things you have control over and things you can’t. I can work, go out and do outreach and educate people, but as to deportation, I have no control over it … but I’m not gonna go without a fight, I know that.”