After 11 years, a deported Cambodian refugee returns to Southern California
A former refugee was recently reunited with her family and loved ones in Long Beach, California, after being deported to Cambodia in 2011.
Sophea Phea, 40, was allowed to return to the United States last month, two years after Governor Gavin Newsom purged her criminal record.
Phea’s family was among those who fled to Thailand during the Khmer Rouge genocide in the 1970s. Her family relocated to Long Beach a year and a half after she was born in a Thai refugee camp.
Phea, then 23, was convicted of credit card fraud and sentenced to prison in California. After serving her sentence, she was turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who detained her for nine months.
In 2007, ICE was about to deport Phea but was forced to release her because Cambodia had not issued her travel documents.
Phea was surprised one morning in 2011 when ICE arrived at her door to deport her to a country she had never visited before, without even giving her time to pack her belongings.
“It feels like history is repeating itself, being torn 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,” Phea told the legal and civil rights organization Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus.
Phea was able to lead a productive life in Cambodia despite the challenges of settling in a country she barely knew. Aside from becoming a teacher, she began advocating for other Southeast Asian refugees who had been deported in order to assist them in returning to the United States.
“I helped raise awareness about deportations to the Cambodian government,” Phea explained of her involvement with the 1Love Cambodia Movement. “I helped lobby to end Cambodia’s mistake of agreeing to accept deportations from the United States and to spread the message that tearing families apart isn’t humane.”
According to Phea, they collaborated with other organizations to support the #Right2Return movement, which advocates for deportees’ right to return to the United States after deportation.
Phea finally received a pardon from Governor Newsom in 2020, after years of advocacy. An immigration court restored Phea’s status as a permanent resident earlier this year.
“I was overjoyed to be physically with all of them again, and they were also ecstatic to see me back home,” she shared following her successful return. “I have a big family, so I am looking forward to participating in family functions again and reconnecting with all of them! I also look forward to pursuing my career in the education field and going back to school to get my degree.”
Phea is speaking out about her experience now that she has returned home to highlight the effects of such deportations on the Southeast Asian community.
“It’s important to convey the fact we were raised in America, and as humans, we make mistakes,” Phea pointed out. “If we have already served time for our missteps, how is it just to deport us to our parents’ homeland that we do not know? Most of us have never seen the country our parents desperately escaped from. This double punishment is inhumane, and it happens solely because we didn’t have that piece of paper that says we’re U.S. citizens– even though we were basically adopted by America.”
Phea has now expressed her support for Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo’s VISION Act, which aims to end ICE transfers in California.
“The VISION Act is so important because it will keep families together and lessen the damage that has already been done to them,” she added. “It will end double punishment of immigrants and will help our communities avoid more mental, physical, and emotional pain. Children will less likely be traumatized by the loss of their parent or parents due to ICE transfers, which often leads to deportation.”
Phea has organized a GoFundMe fundraiser to assist her with resettling and transitioning, as well as to cover other expenses incurred during and after her return to the United States.