Sophea Phea is readjusting to life in America after being deported 11 years ago for a non-violent crime.
LAist reports she kept her return to Long Beach, CA largely a secret so she could surprise her family.
Phea only told her younger brother that an immigration court had restored her permanent resident status, paving the way for her return one year after California Governor Gavin Newsom granted her a pardon.
Her brother organized a family gathering, setting up her dramatic entrance.
The family squealed with excitement and promptly greeted her with hugs and kisses as her son watched from a distance. He was only eight when she was deported and time and separation had taken a toll on their relationship, according to LaIst. He finally drew closer as she extended her arms toward him.
“For me, it’s like everything I asked for, you know?” Phea said. “In my eyes, he’s still my little boy.”
Advancing Justice, ALC says Phea served a year in prison for a credit card fraud conviction. After her release, the state prison system turned her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. ICE would eventually set her free because Cambodia refused to grant her travel papers.
Then without warning four years later, ICE suddenly deported her without any luggage or clothes to a country she did not know.
“All of a sudden, the travel documents came in and I was deported,” she said to Progressive.
She had been born at a refugee camp in Thailand after her family escaped the Khmer Rouge.
She rebuilt her life in Cambodia, becoming a teacher while advocating for the right of deported Cambodians just like her to return home.
“I want people to know that ICE deportations impact families harshly, separating them and causing much more trauma,” she told the Asian Law Caucus. “For Southeast Asian community members, it feels like history repeating itself, being ripped from our homes and families to try to resettle in a foreign country– the same country where most of us are still trying to forget and overcome horrific war trauma.”
Today she volunteers for 1Love Cambodia.
“At 1Love Cambodia, I played a part in raising awareness on deportations to the Cambodian government. I helped lobby to end the mistake of Cambodia’s agreement to accept deportations from the United States, and to spread the message that it isn’t humane to tear families apart. We also joined forces with other organizations to help campaign for the #Right2Return, which is a movement to have the right to return to the U.S. after deportation. Our advocacy has opened the doors to reuniting families, and in many ways has helped ease the resettlement for deportees in Cambodia.”
Last month, Phea became disappointed when she learned the California legislature failed to pass the Vision Act that would have prevented the state prison system from transferring most non-citizens to immigration officials.
She’s now turning her attention to federal legislation that would impose a five-year statute of limitations on deportations and give deportees an opportunity to return.
She acknowledges that she needs to make up for lost time with her son.
“Our relationship has been crippled,” she said to LaIst. “It’s not where I want it to be. But that’s the impact of deportation.”
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Her son was just eight when