by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
When Lan Le was just nine years old, she and her family fled Vietnam in a small boat to escape the armed conflict in the area. After living in a refugee camp for a year, the family arrived in the United States, where they fought hard to adjust to their new surroundings despite limited resources and English-speaking skills.
Today, Le has built a life for herself in the U.S. She is a single mother of nine children and a grandmother to four. But, she could be separated from her family very soon. The now 52-year-old is facing deportation to Vietnam for a crime she was already punished for decades ago.
The Southeast Asian Deportation Relief Act (SEADRA) could help Le remain with her family. On Tuesday, August 22, Reps. Judy Chu (D-CA), Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) reintroduced SEADRA to the 118th Congress.
The bill, originally introduced in 2022, aims to end deportations of Southeast Asian American refugees and give over 2,000 refugees who have already been deported to Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia the right to return.
“We must restore the humanity to our immigration system. And turn away from mandatory deportations that do not take into account an individual’s full circumstances and betray our duty to protect refugees resettled here and call America home,” Rep. Chu said during a press conference hosted by the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC) and the Southeast Asian Freedom Network (SEAFN) on Tuesday.
Specifically, SEADRA limits the Department of Homeland Security’s authority to detain or deport Southeast Asian refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam who arrived in the United States by 2008.
Over 15,000 Southeast Asian Americans, who came to the U.S. as refugees, are facing final orders of removal from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which cannot be appealed. According to Quyen Dinh, the executive director of SEARAC, many have never even lived in the countries they will be deported to.
A majority of the 15,000 facing deportation have previously served time for crimes they were involved with when they were young adults. Le was incarcerated for three years after being arrested in 1993. During Tuesday’s press conference, she called her arrest the “biggest regret” of her life.
Le worked hard to “transform” herself and her relationship with her family.
“I lost so much time with my children. But it has been exciting to see them grow into who they are today,” she said.
She wants to be there for all of the important milestones.
“Some are about to go to college to being working towards a career. I want to be here with them to see them graduate. I want to be here when my children get married and have kids on their own,” Le said.
Proponents of the bill do not believe Southeast Asian Americans like Le should be punished twice.
“Deporting Southeast Asian American refugees who have already served their time is a cruel and inhumane form of double punishment,” Rep. Chu said.
Right to Return
Nearly 2,000 Southeast Asian American refugees have already been deported. Among them is Sophea Phea, who recently returned to the U.S. after being deported to Cambodia over 11 years ago.
Phea was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and came to the U.S. with her mother when she was one. Growing up she struggled with her identity, which she says led to self-destructive behavior in her youth.
According to Advancing Justice, ALC, Phea served a one-year prison sentence when she was 23 after being convicted of credit card fraud. After serving time, she was transferred and held in an ICE detention center for 9 months. ICE released her because Cambodia did not issue the travel documents required to deport her.
But early one morning in 2011, four years later, Phea was abruptly deported. She was taken from her son, who at the time was only eight years old.
“The pain of deportation is immeasurable. As refugees of war, my family and I had to endure the trauma of displacement and separation not once but twice,” Phea said during SEAFN’s and SEARAC’s press conference.
Phea received a gubernatorial pardon from California’s Governor Gavin Newsom from in 2020, allowing her to reopen my removal order. She returned to the U.S. and to her family in 2022. Currently, she is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in family social science at the University of Minnesota.
SEADRA would help other Southeast Asian Americans in Phea’s position return to their life in the U.S. Phea’s case, Rep. Chu points out, is unique because she had the resources to petition the governor directly. The Congresswoman said it is “ridiculous and burdensome” to expect each deported Southeast Asian American refugee to build their own case.
“This new bill is strengthened to ensure that the Southeast Asian refugees who were previously deported can return home to the US through a streamlined and expanded process to reopen their deportation cases,” Nancy Nguyen the Strategy Director at the Southeast Asian Freedom Network said during the press conference.
For refugees like Le and Phea, the bill is a path toward justice and healing.
“[This bill] will start the healing for his community in a humane and justified nation where we will finally feel safe and dignified,” Phea said.
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