By Felix Poon, AsAmNews Staff Writer
Dozens of people Wednesday night held “Unjustly Deported” and “Welcome Home” signs in the Boston Logan Airport baggage claim as they waited for Thy Chea, a 50-year old Cambodian American refugee and resident of Lowell, Massachusetts who was deported in August 2018.
Bethany Li, director of the Asian Outreach Unit of the Greater Boston Legal Services, and Mr. Chea’s attorney, said she was feeling incredibly happy and excited for Chea’s return.
“People want to be able to live and be with their families,” Li said, “and [the policies] under this administration are preventing that and it doesn’t help anyone.” Li said that Chea’s wife, Victoria Un, has had a hard time as a single parent raising their toddler daughter and one-year-old son.
“It’ll be really great to see [them reunited].”
Chea’s deportation stems from a criminal conviction in 1999, when Chea plead guilty to assault and battery and “threat to commit a crime.” He served three months in jail, and in 2000, federal officials ordered his removal from the country. Without a repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the U.S., Chea was allowed to remain in the country as long as he didn’t commit further crimes and checked in regularly with immigration officials.
In April 2018 ICE ordered Chea to report early for his routine check in.
“[Chea] and his wife and his daughter went with him…they thought it was a regular check in,” Li said.
But it wasn’t. Chea was detained. Li got an immigration judge to grant an emergency stay, but it came too late—just minutes after his plane took off for Cambodia, a country Chea fled at the age of 10 with his family to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge genocide.
Li kept fighting. She motioned to get Chea’s green card reinstated on the grounds that his offense was not deportable, and that he was sentenced incorrectly to a year in jail for an offense with a six month maximum sentence.
The judge denied the motion.
Li appealed. She succeeded in reinstating Chea’s green card in June 2019. But the U.S. consulate refused to issue his travel documents, and on top of that, DHS recharged Chea with entirely new proceedings of removal.
“This is crazy,” Li said of the proceedings.
“Enough was enough. We filed a mandamus in federal court, meaning we were asking the court to order the Department of State…to issue travel documents so that he could return home as a green card holder.”
That was in December 2019. After weeks of back and forth between Li and the DHS, the consulate finally issued Chea’s travel documents.
“Up up with liberation, down down with deportation,” the crowd chanted, before Chea’s wife Un got a phone call.
“Come downstairs,” Un and Li said into the phone.
Chea finally appeared. He squatted down with arms open, his two children ran to him laughing and crying, straight into his arms. A tearful and smiling Chea scooped them up.
“I’m so grateful to be with my family. It’s been 18 months. This is my kid,” Chea said looking at his one-year-old.
“It’s my first time holding him, and meeting him.”
Chea is the fourth Cambodian American in the country to return to the U.S. after being deported, and the first on the East Coast. According to ICE data, deportations of Cambodian Americans have increased by 279% from 2017 to 2018.
ICE has not returned a request for comment at the time of this publication.
Kevin Lam, Organizing Director for the Asian American Resource Workshop noted that it’s the 45th year anniversary of the Vietnam War. “Forty-five years later the US may have forgotten about the devastation that they’ve caused in Southeast Asia, but we have not,” Lam said as a rallying call. He said that Chea’s return is just one of many his organization is fighting for, and he asked for continued support as they advocate for them and those that are vulnerable for deportation.
Both Lam and Li are hopeful after Wednesday.
“When we fight, we win,” Li said.
“So we’re looking forward to welcoming many more people like Thy home.”
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