Woodland resident Rita Wages received a devastating call Thursday afternoon from her husband, Sareang “Ryan” Ye, a Cambodian immigrant who has been detained by federal immigration officials since last month.
Ye asked his wife to bring him a travel bag by 3 p.m. Monday because officials told him he is being deported.
“The ICE officer went in there ... and told him to have his family members pack a bag,” she said. “I feel so bad for my son. I don’t know what to say right now.”
Ye is one of an estimated 200 Cambodian Americans convicted of felonies in the United States, including at least three local men, who could be deported to Cambodia in the coming weeks under an agreement being worked out by the Trump administration and Cambodian officials. An unspecified number of Vietnamese may also be deported.
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For decades, Cambodia has resisted repatriating Cambodians with criminal records. In recent months, President Donald Trump’s administration has pushed aggressively on Cambodia, Vietnam and other “recalcitrant” countries that also don’t cooperate with deportations to force those governments to begin accepting more deportations.
The federal government has released scant information about the deportations, leaving family members and legal teams scrambling to make plans without details.
“It’s extremely hard on the families not to know if or when their loved ones will be deported,” said attorney Holly Cooper of the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, who represents another local Cambodian man currently in detention, Rottanak Kong.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials declined to confirm the Cambodian deportations or the number of people affected, citing policy.
“ICE does not comment on removal flights until they have been completed due to operational security,” said ICE spokesman James Schwab.
Advocates, families and experts said that some Cambodians currently detained have received notification from immigration officials that flights have been scheduled to Cambodia, and required travel documents may already have been issued by the Cambodian government or are in the works.
“It does sound like travel documents are coming,” said attorney Kevin Lo of Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, part of a legal team that filed a federal class action lawsuit on behalf of detained Cambodians. “I think the possibility of it happening in the next couple of weeks is high.”
Cooper said her contacts have told her the first group of Cambodian detainees may leave on Dec. 20, though there is no official list of those who may be on that plane.
The Washington, D.C.-based Southeast Asia Resource Action Center announced this week that sources in the Cambodian government have verbally confirmed that four batches of 50 Cambodians will be deported in the coming months, with the first 50 scheduled before Christmas, said Immigration Policy Manager Katrina Dizon Mariategue.
“We don’t know the timeline,” Mariategue said. “I’ve heard from families saying their loved ones are leaving, and others who have been told to get your things in order just in case. We’re trying to prepare them for the worst and we wanted to let their attorneys know in case they need to rush any legal motions for their clients.”
There are at least 534 travel document requests pending with Cambodia, which have been requested since 2008, according to ICE. There are over 1,900 Cambodian nationals residing in the United States who are subject to a final order of removal, of whom 1,412 have criminal convictions.
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In September, the United States stopped issuing visas to 24 high-level Cambodian dignitaries and their families in a bid to pressure the country into issuing travel documents that would facilitate deportations, said Sophal Ear, a Cambodian expert and associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“It was probably the first time that suddenly there was a consequence for not doing what the U.S. wanted,” said Ear. “It took about two or three days before the Cambodian government folded.”
An official reached at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, D.C. said no one was available to comment.
The possible deportations follow a secretive national roundup of Cambodians in October that included Ye, Kong, 39, and south Sacramento resident Phorn Tem, 27.
Many of those detained, including Kong, Tem and Ye, have lived in the United States since they were children. Some came as refugees with families that fled the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
Most held legal resident status but lost that classification after being convicted of crimes. Advocates and families say many offenses were minor and took places decades ago.
Kong, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide, arrived in California with his family as a child and grew up in a tough neighborhood in Modesto, said his sister, Chen Kong-Wick. In 2003, at the age of 25, Kong was convicted of a felony for joyriding and sentenced to one year in jail.
Kong turned his life around, got married and built a successful life in Davis and has been an anchor for his family, including several sick relatives, said his brother-in-law, Steven M. Wick.
“I’m hoping for a miracle,” said Kong’s sister. “This is tearing our family apart. He takes care of our younger brother who is handicapped.”
Like Kong, Ye was a young child when he came to the United States and has no memories of Cambodia, said his wife, Wages.
The couple live in Woodland with their 10-year-old son and Wages’ 15-year-old daughter, whose father was killed by a drunk driver in 2014. Wages and Tem also care for her disabled father, who lives with them.
Media reports show that Sareang Ye was arrested on suspicion of possessing stolen property and mail theft in 2001. He faced criminal proceedings in San Diego in 1994 and 2006, according to court records.
He was released from jail in 2009, and Wages said he has lived a stable life since. For the past eight years, he’s worked as a machine repairman for a company that does industrial laundry services.
Tem, who came to the U.S. when he was 5 after living in a Thai refugee camp, served time for weapons and drug charges and receiving stolen property in multiple cases in Sacramento in 2007 through 2009. In 2010, he had two misdemeanor driving under the influence charges.
A graduate of Florin High School, his sister, Sarim “Sophie” Tem, said he was working as a delivery driver before his immigration arrest.
All three men are currently at Rio Cosumnes Correctional Center south of Elk Grove. Lo said his legal team believes up to about 20 percent of those detained may have legal standing to reopen their cases. They are focusing on filing appeals in coming weeks.
Cooper and her co-counsel, Marcelle Obeid, have scheduled a Dec. 18 court date for Kong in Stanislaus County seeking to reduce his crime to a misdemeanor, which could save him from being deported, Cooper said.
Lo said that in addition to the individual cases, his team is moving ahead with a class-action suit to require that the government have a deportation plan in place prior to arresting people. His team wants to avoid having them indefinitely locked up while the government negotiates for repatriations.
“We are trying to get ICE to change its policies because it affects other communities,” he said.
Lo said his group is monitoring other targeted enforcement actions and believes about 95 Vietnamese people were also detained nationwide. As of September, 8,655 Vietnamese nationals had final orders of removal. Of these, 7,802 were “criminal aliens,” according to ICE.
Lo said he has also seen the Chinese community targeted.
“It seems like the message is basically no one is safe,” said Lo. “It’s just this onslaught.”
But for Wages, Monday is all that matters.
Friday afternoon, she still hadn’t had the heart to tell her kids Ye won’t be coming home. She doesn’t know how she will pay her mortgage without her husband’s income, and her sister-in-law started a GoFundMe account to help pay the bills. She doesn’t know when – or if –her family will ever be together again.
“In my heart, if I didn’t have my kids and my dad, I would probably book a flight the same day he is going,” she said. “I don’t understand why he has to be ripped out of the life we built together.”
A public forum held in March by the country’s top immigration enforcement official, Thomas Homan, in Sacramento drew hundreds of vocal protesters condemning the Trump administration’s hardline stance on refugees and undocumented immigrants.