Washington state

Fear grips immigrants who fled here to escape genocide – ‘They’re going to try to deport me’

Lorng Raing holds a photograph of her son, Roeuth An, in her home in Tacoma, Wash., on Friday, May 3, 2019. Roeuth An narrowly avoided deportation after he was granted an emergency pardon by Gov. Jay Inslee.

More from the series


Cambodian refugees face increased deportations under Trump


Thuoy Phok expected his meeting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be brief — so brief that he hadn’t eaten breakfast. A plumber from Tacoma, Phok planned on returning to work later that day.

“I thought maybe it was good news,” Phok, 43, recalls of the Sept. 10, 2018, meeting in Tukwila, taking off his baseball cap and running a calloused hand over his balding head.

Phok, a Cambodian refugee whose family escaped genocide and arrived in the United States in 1980, had received a notice summoning him a few weeks earlier. He said the letter told him only that federal immigration officials — who he’d been checking in with regularly over the last 18 years — wanted to see him.

The meeting, it soon became clear, would be a one-sided affair. For Phok, the results would be life-changing.

It was brief, lasting 10 to 15 minutes. When it was over, Phok said he was taken to a holding cell. He’d remain detained in various immigration facilities, he told The News Tribune, for the next three months.

Phok said he learned federal immigration officials wanted to deport him to Cambodia, a country he’s never seen, because of a crime he committed more than two decades ago. The 1997 conviction resulted in an active immigration removal order against him.

Stunned, Phok — who was born in Thailand after his family fled genocide in Cambodia — could only think of calling his brother. He had left his 12-year-old SUV in a paid parking lot. Now, he needed him to come and get it.

“He didn’t really believe it, and I had to kind of pound it into his head, that I’m here now, and they’re going to try to deport me,” Phok said of the phone call.

Sophy Hem was months old when his family came to America fleeing the Cambodian genocide. At 17, he served time in prison for a non-fatal shooting. More than 20 years after being released, he feared being deported back to Cambodia for his crime.

Phok isn’t alone. As the administration of President Donald Trump has worked to limit immigration and asylum and increase deportations, a growing number of Cambodian refugees across the nation, including in Washington state, have found their lives turned upside down.

In fiscal year 2018, 110 people were deported to Cambodia, according to ICE.

That was more than any previous fiscal or calendar year total, according to the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, a Cambodian nonprofit that works to integrate individuals deported from United States.

KVAO has been told to prepare for 200 arrivals annually for the next six years. If those expectations materialize, it would result in the deportation of 1,200 people by 2024. Since 2002, according to the nonprofit, 701 refugees have been deported from the United States to Cambodia.

According to ICE, the agency is following “federal immigration law, as enacted by Congress” when it seeks to have a Cambodian refugee deported.

ICE “prioritizes its enforcement resources on individuals who pose the greatest threat to national security, public safety and border security,” the agency said in a written response to questions posed by The News Tribune.

ICE said these deportations take criminals “off our streets and made our communities safer.”

To many immigration attorneys and members of the small Cambodian — or Khmer — community, the story is far more complicated.

According to Tim Warden-Hertz, directing attorney of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Tacoma office, while individual Cambodian deportation cases differ, there are notable similarities in many of them.

Phok’s case, he said, serves as a good example.

TNT_Cambodia_Pok_001
Thuoy Phok, a Cambodian refugee whose family escaped genocide and arrived in the United States in 1980, faced deportation for a crime he committed more than 20 years ago. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Nearly all of the men now facing deportation come from families that survived and escaped genocide and civil war in Cambodia. Many new arrivals grew up during the Reagan administration, at the height of the U.S. drug war and a surge in policing. They found themselves living in tough, socioeconomically challenged neighborhoods where crime and gang violence were rampant. Their interactions with the criminal justice system were predictable, Warden-Hertz said.

Many committed their crimes more than a decade ago, agreeing to plea deals with insufficient advice from public defenders, Warden-Hertz said. They were never told and never imagined that those deals would one day jeopardize their status in the United States. Since getting out of prison, many have turned their lives around, becoming fathers, breadwinners, valued employees and trusted friends, Warden-Hertz said.

Many of the crimes, like Phok’s, occurred at a time when there was no agreement between the United States and Cambodia allowing for deportations — potentially influencing refugees’ decisions to fight permanent removal orders in immigration court, Warden-Hertz said.

And many refugees told The News Tribune that when they arrived in the United States and were subsequently granted “lawful permanent resident” status, they had no idea how potentially impermanent that designation was. If they had simply applied for and been granted U.S. citizenship, they wouldn’t be facing deportation today.

They didn’t, for various reasons, including language barriers, a lack of guidance from within their communities, a fear of interactions with the government or the mistaken belief that it was unnecessary.

According to Sina Sam, a child of genocide survivors and the first Cambodian-American woman appointed to the state Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, the recent increase in deportations has hit the Cambodian community hard, spreading fear and uncertainty like a brush fire.

It also illustrates how tenuous life in the United States can be for immigrants, even a unique and vulnerable refugee population that was welcomed here under dire circumstances. To many in the small Cambodian-American population, the increased deportations feel like a new crisis that’s ripping families apart and creating fresh wounds, Sam said.

In Washington, it has attracted the attention of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who recently announced a presidential bid and who has issued two pardons since June 2018 to stave off deportations of Cambodian refugees.

“Genocide and war are all about family separation,” Sam said. “It’s a terrorizing ghost in our memory, and it’s one of the most painful parts about the deportations. Our community — even with our youngest generations — are still going to have to fight to stay together, and rebuild and rebuild.”

“There hasn’t been a generation yet that hasn’t been touched by the reasons we’re in the U.S. in the first place,” she added.

A 20-year-old crime

Phok’s path to the United States is a familiar one.

Like thousands of other Cambodian refugees in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his family traversed jungles and rice paddies to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and civil war. They managed to elude soldiers, starvation, disease and death along the way.

Between 1975 and 1995, more than 145,000 Cambodian refugees made similar journeys. In the United States, metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, Boston, Minneapolis-St. Paul and Seattle-Tacoma became hubs.

As of 2015, Seattle-Tacoma had the third largest Cambodian population in the United States, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. Trends reported by the Census Bureau show that ranking has not shifted in recent years.

For the past decade, Phok has worked as a plumber, most of it at NW Plumbing Connection in South Tacoma. He lives close to the shop. When he’s not at work, he likes to spend time with his family, including his nieces and nephews, some of whom he helped raise.

“A lot of them didn’t have a positive male role model,” he said.

Phok acknowledged he wasn’t always a role model himself.

Court records indicate that in 1997, two days before his 22nd birthday, Tacoma police found Phok in possession of a firearm. A juvenile second-degree robbery conviction barred him from owning a gun.

Phok said he was driving with a carload of friends when the car was pulled over near Cheney Stadium for running a red light. The gun, he maintained, wasn’t his. But no one in the car spoke up, and he was charged, he said.

Phok eventually pleaded guilty to a single charge of first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm and was sentenced to just under two years. He said most of his time in prison was spent in Walla Walla. Since being released, there are no other known felony convictions on his record, according to a search by The News Tribune.

It’s this 22-year-old crime that, late last year, upended Phok’s life once again.

Dramatic increase

Recently, the escalation in Cambodian deportations has been significant, especially for a community that makes up far less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2017 Census estimates

Deportations to Cambodia still make up a small fraction of the United States’ yearly total, but there are fewer than 300,000 people of Cambodian descent living in the country, according to the most recent Census estimates.

In 1997, when Phok was convicted, there was no repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the United States. Without such an agreement, neither country could send or receive deportations from the other, according to Kevin Lo, a staff attorney with the California-based Asian Law Caucus.

That changed in 2002 when a bilateral agreement signed by both countries first opened the door for deportations. Over the 15 years that followed, the average number of yearly deportations to Cambodia was roughly 45, according to the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, the Cambodian nonprofit that tracks deported refugees in the country.

That average was consistent even during the fiscal year 2012 high-water mark of President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, when nearly 410,000 people were removed from the country. Under Trump, more than 250,000 people were removed from the country in fiscal year 2018, the highest number of annual deportations to date during his presidency.

Under Trump, the jump to 110 Cambodian removals in 2018 represented a 279 percent increase over the prior year, a figure ICE reported in a press release.

To achieve this increase, the Trump administration has both expanded the list of Cambodians it considers deportable and successfully exerted diplomatic pressure on Cambodia to accept more deportees — including people with decades-old removal orders against them.

In 2017, as The New York Times and others have reported, Cambodia briefly stopped accepting new deportees in hopes of negotiating an agreement addressing concerns over its record on human rights. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who Human Rights Watch labeled as “increasingly dictatorial” in 2018, went as far as to criticize the United States for breaking up families.

Soon thereafter, the United States declared Cambodia “recalcitrant” and stopped issuing some kinds of visas to some members of Cambodia’s government and their families.

The strategy appears to be working. ICE still considers Cambodia to be on its list of nine “recalcitrant” countries, along with China, Cuba and Laos, meaning they have been “uncooperative in accepting the return of their nationals ordered removed by the United States,” according to the agency. But in 2018, Cambodia once again began accepting deportees, in larger numbers than before.

“Visa sanctions on Cambodia remain in effect,” according to ICE, which considers the strategy a success. “The United States continues to work with the government of Cambodia to establish reliable processes for the issuance of travel documents and their acceptance of the prompt, lawful return of Cambodian nationals who are subject to removal from the United States.”

The News Tribune asked the agency whether Cambodians who committed crimes and served their sentences many years ago should now be facing deportation.

“While there is overlap with the criminal justice system, these are two distinct systems,” ICE said. “Serving a sentence for a criminal infraction is a separate issue from the penalties for violating civil immigration law.”

‘We could be gone any time’

Warden-Hertz, the directing attorney of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project’s Tacoma office sees no discernible rhyme or reason behind which Cambodian refugee gets singled out for deportation and who is left hanging.

Some have been deported directly from prison. Most, according to Warden-Hertz, other immigration lawyers and the Cambodian nonprofit that tracks deportations in the country, have served their sentences and long since been released.

It leaves people like Federal Way resident Sok Krouch — a 41-year-old Cambodian refugee who served 12 years in prison on a 1997 gang-related assault charge — fearing the day he’s next.

TNT_Cambodia_Tim_001
Tim Warden-Hertz, lead attorney at the Northwest Immigrants Rights Project, photographed in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, April 25, 2019. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

In 1997, Krouch was one of six men involved in a gang-related shooting in Kelso. According to The Daily News in Longview, Krouch drove a van carrying the men from Seattle to the scene of the crime. The victim, who was shot in the chest and abdomen, survived. Krouch was 19 when he went to prison.

“We could be gone any time,” Krouch said. “Since the new administration, it’s been tough.”

Krouch earned his GED in prison, he said, and since his release has worked in carpentry and installing insulation. Today, he’s supporting his girlfriend and her children. He is required to check in with ICE at least once a year.

“At 19, I still feel like I was a kid,” he said.

According to ICE, as of April 2018 there were 1,772 Cambodian nationals in the United States in a situation like Krouch’s — with a final order of removal against them. Nearly 1,300 are convicted criminals, the agency said.

The most recent deportation flight to Cambodia’s capital of Phnom Penh on Dec. 17, 2018 carried 36 individuals, ICE said.

TNT_Cambodia_Silong_Photos_
Motorists navigate a street in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 25, 2019. Silong Chhun

According to ICE, 34 were criminals, “Many … convicted of the most heinous possible crimes.”

Their crimes, the agency said, include murder, manslaughter, sexual assault, child abuse, domestic violence, auto theft, robbery, fraud and drug and weapons convictions.

In March 2019, another group of potential deportees was rounded up and detained. According to the California-based Asian Law Caucus, agents picked up about 60 men across the country.

At least four of them lived in Washington state when they were detained, according to the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. Individuals and family members reached by The News Tribune were reluctant to discuss their cases on record, citing a fear of ICE retaliation.

Citing security concerns, ICE won’t comment on the expected departure date of the next deportation flight to Cambodia, meaning friends and family members are left to wonder when their loved ones will be gone for good.

Immigration lawyers involved with various cases expect the flight to take off soon.

Generational trauma

Ultimately, Phok became one of the fortunate ones.

Late last year, with his scheduled deportation approaching, a criminal defense lawyer got his conviction vacated, arguing that at the time of his plea deal, his lawyer failed to advise him of the potential immigration consequences.

For now, Phok has avoided deportation.

Many haven’t been so lucky.

To members of the Cambodian community, it’s all jarringly familiar. At its root, it’s the perpetuation of trauma across generations.

It’s also a story of a betrayal by the United States, they said, a betrayal of the unspoken promise the United States extended to families ravaged by unspeakable atrocities in Cambodia four decades ago that many believe America helped create.

Faced with losing a son, again

Lorng Raing’s son, Roeuth An, was taken away from her when he was 3 years old. They lived in the village of Phum Svay, in a northern Cambodia province along the border with Thailand. It was 1976, and in Cambodia the Khmer Rouge had been in power for roughly a year.

Raing remembers she wanted to cry but didn’t allow herself to. She believed the Khmer Rouge would kill her if she did.

“I was in the work fields. It was about 8 o’clock in the morning,” Raing said through an interpreter from her home in Tacoma, speaking in her native Khmer. “A Khmer Rouge cadre came to me and told me that my child was to be taken away from me.”

Her son was at her legs when armed soldiers snatched him. It was the third child the Khmer Rouge had taken from her, including another son, who would die of starvation while in captivity, and a girl, who Raing said was tortured.

Raing said the Khmer Rouge’s objective was to put her children to work, picking weeds in the rice fields. The boys would be turned into fighters or members of the communist movement.

“I thought that I would never see them again,” Raing said.

Two years later, Raing was reunited with her son and daughter. She managed to escape, finding her children in the next village over.

“I’m lucky to have my kids back, although I did lose one,” Raing said.

Together, after spending three years in a refugee camp, her family arrived in the United States in 1981. Initially, they settled in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

TNT_Cambodia_LorngRaing_001
Lorng Raing holds a photograph of her son, Roeuth An, in her home in Tacoma, Wash., on Friday, May 3, 2019. Roeuth An narrowly avoided deportation after he was granted an emergency pardon by Gov. Jay Inslee. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Raing was a single mother by the time she arrived with her children in Tacoma six years later. In Iowa, she had separated from her husband. An was now a teenager.

In 2018, An was taken again, this time by ICE agents. They detained him in September — intent on deporting him to Cambodia for a crime he committed more than two decades earlier.

“It affected me deeply, because I escaped the Khmer Rouge to come here — to save my son’s life,” Raing, now 67, said. “I was worried that he would go back to Cambodia and not be able to survive.

“I didn’t want him to go back because it’s going to re-traumatize him. He’s already had a really hard life.”

In 1995, An was convicted of three counts of second-degree assault. Court records indicate that the prior year, when he was 21, An was an accomplice in a drive-by shooting in Tacoma. He was driving when his passenger got into an altercation with a group of three people on the street. The passenger fired several shots at the pedestrians. One of the victims suffered a non-fatal wound.

After a plea deal, the court sentenced An to 18 months in prison. An immigration removal order was issued against him after his release.

In the two decades since his release from prison, An, now 45, has worked as an electrician, supporting his longtime partner, his son and his stepdaughter. There are no other known felony convictions on his record, according to a search by The News Tribune.

All of these were cited as reasons for the emergency pardon Gov. Inslee issued to An on Dec. 6, 2018, saving him from deportation by a matter of 11 days.

Surviving genocide

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge regime is said to be responsible for the deaths of 1.7 to 2.2 million people. Half are believed to have been executed, while half died from disease, starvation, overwork and malnutrition.

Alex Hinton is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights. Hinton said the torture and mass killings by the communist Khmer Rouge were designed to rid Cambodia of anyone with “impure consciousness.”

The regime, he said in an interview with The News Tribune during an appearance at Pacific Lutheran University earlier this year, targeted anyone who had been “contaminated by capitalism” and couldn’t “become pure revolutionary citizens.”

Those singled out by the Khmer Rouge, which sought to establish a self-sufficient society free of class differences and oppression, included the educated, ethnic Vietnamese living in the country and religious groups.

The killing and terror were, at many times, savage and indiscriminate. Cities were emptied, and offenses as small as wearing glasses or having uncalloused hands — perceived signs of wealth or education — were routinely grounds for murder.

“You literally had rice fields filled with bodies all over Cambodia,” said Hinton, who in 2016 was called as an expert witness during the second Khmer Rouge tribunal in Cambodia.

AP_9509120573.jpg
A Cambodian boy stands infront of a platform covered with human skulls at a killing field in Trapeang Sva Village, Kandal province, 15 miles south of Phnom Penh in 1995. The mass grave contains the remains of about 2,000 victims of the Khmer Rouge who slaughtered nearly a million Cambodians during their brutal reign from 1975-1978. RICHARD VOGEL Associated Press

While Hinton is clear that responsibility for the killings and genocide in Cambodia falls on the Khmer Rouge, he’s equally clear that the United States and its Cold War allies bear significant responsibility in creating the environment that allowed the regime to take control of the country.

Hinton said that the United States’ role in destabilizing Cambodia is a “standard view of things” that “wouldn’t be controversial at this point.”

According to Air Force data released under President Bill Clinton, between 1965 and 1973 during the Vietnam War, more than 2.5 million tons of bombs were dropped on Cambodia, much of it in secret. As The Atlantic reported, that total represents “more than the Allies dropped in the entirety of World War II — on Cambodia, whose population was then smaller than New York City’s.”

The U.S. bombings in Cambodia, Hinton said, were a major factor in turning the tide in the Khmer Rouge’s favor.

“Without the Vietnam War, the Khmer Rouge probably would have never come to power,” he said.

Today, Hinton said, the Cambodian genocide has “largely been forgotten” in the United States.

Welcoming refugees

With genocide in Cambodia came an exodus.

First, Cambodians fled to refugee camps, many of them along the border with Thailand. In time, these camps — including large, well-known ones like Khao-I-Dang — swelled to hundreds of thousands of people.

“The camps themselves were often awful places to be,” Hinton said. “There’s violence all the time. There’s bombing. People are fighting. There are raids into them, and rapes are taking place.”

While Cambodian refugees started arriving in the United States after the fall of Saigon in 1975, large and sustained numbers of Cambodian refugees began arriving in 1979. According to statistics gathered by Searac, a U.S.-based civil rights organization that focuses on Southeast Asia, some 6,000 Cambodian refugees arrived in the United States that year.

In 1980, the number of Cambodian refugees who came to the United States grew to 16,000. A year later more than 38,000 arrived. Cambodian refugees numbering in the thousands would continue to arrive each year until 1990.

Many received a mixed welcome.

In neighborhoods and schools, discrimination and feelings of isolation were commonplace, according to families who made the transition. The language barrier was typically significant and at times overwhelming, many interviewed by The News Tribune said, with young children becoming translators and interpreters for entire families. Overt acts of bigotry and hatred, meanwhile, were not uncommon, they recalled.

For work, first generation Cambodian refugees often performed manual labor, like janitorial duties, with women sometimes cooking for off-the-books payment, according to Sina Sam with the state Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. Many picked berries, mushrooms and bear grass in the mountains, she added.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why this story matters

While immigration-related stories dominate headlines, the stories of Cambodian refugees have gone largely untold.

Read more by clicking the arrow in the upper right.

An under-reported issue

In January, The News Tribune’s Matt Driscoll first met with Lorng Raing, a Cambodian refugee whose family fled genocide and civil war and arrived in the United States in 1981. At the time, Lorng’s son, Roeuth An, had recently received an emergency, expedited pardon from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee for a crime he committed more than two decades earlier. Prior to receiving a pardon, An was facing deportation to a country his family fled four decades earlier. Subsequent reporting conducted by The News Tribune, including interviews with officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, illuminated both a recent increase in deportations to Cambodia and the reasons for it.

At the same time, dozens of local interviews conducted by The News Tribune revealed similar stories from families in the small Cambodian community that was being affected by the increase.

The Cambodian community

While Seattle-Tacoma has the third largest Cambodian population in the nation, according to recent Census estimates, overall it’s a tiny community, making up far less than 1 percent of the overall U.S. population.

It’s also a refugee population with a historically unique story in the United States, rooted in a genocide that many say the U.S.’s involvement in the Vietnam War helped lay the groundwork for.

Who did we speak to?

Refugees and their family members, officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, immigration lawyers, law enforcement, scholars, Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, nonprofit workers in Cambodia, refugees who have experienced deportation and former state and federal lawmakers.

Charles Keyes is a retired University of Washington professor who taught anthropology and Southeast Asian studies at the school for 45 years. According to Keyes, a number of local politicians, including former Republican Gov. and U.S. Sen. Dan Evans, championed the cause of Southeast Asian refugees — including Cambodians.

So did various religious leaders and faith-based organizations, which often sponsored arriving refugees, Keyes said.

“Cambodia was a really horrendous place … and so there was a lot of sympathy. There was a feeling of remorse over the Vietnam War,” Keyes said. “In Washington state — certainly not all of the United States — there was a sense that we had a responsibility to do something for these people who we had got involved with during the war.”

That feeling was by no means unanimous. A 1979 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans opposed allowing more Southeast Asian refugees into the country. The same poll found that 57 percent of Americans believed Southeast Asian refugees would be welcomed if they came.

Ralph Munro, who served as an assistant to Evans, remembers the time well. Under Evans, Washington became one of the first states to open an office of refugee resettlement, and the humanitarian effort continued after waves of Cambodian refugees started arriving in 1979.

Initially, Munro said, there was a sense of responsibility to help those who had aided the United States during the Vietnam War.

“Remember, this was the first time that, really, for a lot of people in America that we’d ever gotten our ass kicked,” Munro said. “We got beat, so everyone was trying to say, ‘What do you do when you get beat?’ Well, you better take care of the people who helped you.”

According Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, widespread media coverage of the Cambodian genocide and portrayals in popular culture contributed to a sense of sympathy and obligation in the United States that spread to Cambodian refugees. That included the 1984 Oscar-winning film, “The Killing Fields.”

“Every little bit helped in terms of popular perception,” said Ear, a Cambodian refugee and a Searac board member. “It was certainly enough for white families to adopt Cambodian orphans … so all of this helped to shape the image of Cambodians.”

Among lawmakers in Washington, Munro recalls a similar shift — or at least that Evans and other supportive policy makers didn’t draw a distinction between Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.

“As time went by, we were asked if we would take Cambodian refugees. And we said, ‘Sure.’ I mean, they needed help just as much as anyone else,” Munro recalled.

For Raing today, the thought of her son being forced to leave the country that she says had welcomed her family back in 1981 is terrifying.

“It was very hard. I didn’t want my son to go back to a country we escaped from. It just brought up a lot of bad memories, and a lot of trauma,” said Raing, her emotions only occasionally seeping up through the cracks. “Coming here was like a rebirth for me and my family, and a second chance.

“I felt welcomed.”

A hard lesson

In July 2018, 38-year-old Sophy Hem was the first Cambodian refugee from Washington to seek and be granted a pardon from Inslee.

At the time, according to Hem and his wife, Shelly, seeking the pardon was a last-ditch effort — a long shot.

The process started on a cold night in December 2017 along the Tacoma waterfront. Sophy Hem and a group of friends he’d grown up with on Tacoma’s East Side were dangling hooks in the dark seawater, trying to snag squid, later to be cooked up in stir-fries and soups.

In the car, Shelly Hem wasn’t worried about squid. She was worried about ICE coming for her husband.

TNT_Cambodia_Sophy_0007
Sophy and Shelly Hem at their home in Tacoma, Wash., on Monday, April 29, 2019. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Instead of braving the cold, she sat in the front seat and began filling out a pardon application on her husband’s behalf.

Two of Sophy Hem’s brothers had recently been detained by ICE, the couple recalled learning that day, and at the time the family was certain he would be next.

“I did everything I was supposed to do,” Shelly said of the lengthy application.

The one-time tattoo artist and mother of two completed the application despite having no legal training and little to go on besides a stubborn inclination to fight.

For Sophy Hem, a fight — or what he thought would be a fight — is where it began, back in 1996 in Tacoma Housing Authority’s Salishan development.

He was 16 and had seen far more than his share of crime and violence. Salishan at that time was known to be “seriously beset with crime and drugs and gangs,” according to Tacoma Housing Authority executive director Michael Mirra.

Hem joined his first Cambodian gang at 11. He was in sixth grade.

“It was all purely survival,” Hem said of his gang affiliation. “We used to have to literally fight to get home sometimes.”

Five years later, Hem was helping to teach his nephew how to ride a bike. He remembered the details clearly.

It was as “a nice summer day,” he said, “three blocks away from my house.”

“My nephew was pedaling just a few feet ahead of me, and there was a bunch of guys standing in front of their house,” Hem recalled. “I was riding by, and we got into an altercation. I ended up going home and coming back with a few of my friends.”

It was supposed to be a fistfight, he said, but then someone pulled a gun. Hem pulled out his gun, and shots were fired. No one was hit.

Court records show Hem was charged as an adult, and in 1997 when he was 17, he plead guilty to second-degree assault, first-degree unlawful firearm possession and drive-by shooting. He was sentenced to 34 months in prison, serving his time mainly in Clallam Bay Corrections Center, between Port Angeles and Neah Bay.

“That’s how it happened,” Hem said when asked about the convictions that would haunt him for the next two decades.

Since then, he turned his life around, built a family with his wife — including caring for a 5-year-old disabled son — all with a removal order hanging over his head.

TNT_Cambodia_Sophy_0008
Sophy Hem hugs his son Sophy Jr., after coming home from work in Tacoma, Wash., on Monday, April 29, 2019. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

While his juvenile rap sheet is long, since getting out of prison there are no other known felony convictions on Hem’s record, according to a search by The News Tribune.

Hem said his defense lawyer never mentioned the potential implications that pleading guilty could have on his status as a lawful permanent resident in the United States.

“I had no clue,” Hem said.

After Cambodian refugees arrived in the United States, most of them later achieved lawful permanent resident status with green cards, giving them permission to live and work in this country.

Once green card holders become citizens, they can no longer be deported for criminal offenses like Hem’s. Until they do, a long and frequently growing list of criminal offenses can trigger a removal order against them.

It’s a lesson Hem and others have learned the hard way.

“The United States brought us here, so everybody just assumed we were United States citizens,” Hem said. “It wasn’t until later down the road when people like me started getting in trouble and finding out. That’s when the community became aware.

“At this point in time, I’m still of the mindset that I’m a United States citizen. I’ve been here since I was a little kid.”

‘Product of your environment’

Hem’s family arrived in the United States on Jan. 27, 1981. He was 3 months old, born like many children of Cambodian refugees in a Thailand refugee camp. He’s never stepped foot in Cambodia, he said.

In Cambodia, Hem’s father had been a soldier before the Khmer Rouge came to power. When it did, the family fled, crossing the border with Thailand as a family of 12.

A sister died of starvation along the way, and the family unofficially adopted two young girls they found orphaned in the jungle during the journey. A relative knew the girls, according to Hem.

Like an increasing number of Cambodian refugees in the early 1980s, Hem’s family eventually found their way to Tacoma. They lived near the family that sponsored them through a local church, in a house off Fairbanks Street on the East Side. There were a total of 14 people living in the house, sharing rooms and sleeping spaces, and they stayed for the next eight years.

TNT_Cambodia_Sophy_0001
From left: Sophy Hem, Ivory Hem, Sophy Hem Jr., and Shelly Hem at the Wat Samakki Ratanaram Buddhist temple in Tacoma, Wash., on Thursday, April 18, 2019. Joshua Bessex joshua.bessex@gateline.com

Hem attended Stewart and McIlvaigh Middle School and, for a short time, Lincoln High School. He recalled the difficulty of trying to acclimate to schools in the United States, both socially and academically.

Cambodian students like him barely spoke English, he said, and “growing up, the other kids made sure we knew we were different.”

Vanna Sing, 39, also grew up in Salishan and attended McIlvaigh Middle School. Like Hem, she was born in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to the United States with her family. She lived briefly in Mineral Wells, Texas, with more than a dozen other Cambodian refugee families, before all of them packed up and moved to Tacoma in 1980.

Sing, who founded the nonprofit Tacoma Healing Awareness Community, was awarded the 2019 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Emerging Leader Community Service Award.

She remembered near constant racism, and the way sticking together became a means of survival. That need for survival contributed to Cambodian kids in her neighborhood getting caught up in criminal activity, she said.

“You go to what you know, and you trust the people who look like you, not understanding the harm that you’re doing,” Sing said. “It’s like not being conscious.”

Throughout the state, public housing developments often became home to new Cambodian refugee families, according to Sina Sam of the state Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs. In Seattle, Sam said, places like Holly Park, Rainier Vista and High Point became frequent settling spots.

In Tacoma, it was often Salishan, Sam said.

Some of Vanna Sing’s memories of growing up in Salishan are of small things, like the old heaters along the floor of her family’s home or the aluminum windows. Others are fond, like the smell of freshly cut grass that often meant her father was home after a day spent mowing lawns for extra money.

She also remembered the challenges.

“Kids did what they did, and a lot of mothers lost their kids to incarceration,” Sing said.

In 2000, just before the Tacoma Housing Authority redevelopment that would remake the World War II-era bunkers that dotted Salishan’s 188 acres, 25 percent of the development’s population were Cambodian. Those numbers represent the earliest demographic information the housing authority has available.

In total, 88-percent of Salishan residents lived at or below 50-percent of area median income at the time.

All of those numbers greatly exceeded the citywide average.

At the time, the crime in Salishan was the stuff of local legend. In 1990, there were 331 violent crimes reported at Salishan, according to an account published in The New York Times.

In 1995, the earliest year for which the Tacoma Housing Authority has available crime statistics, there were two homicides, three rapes, 8 robberies, 103 aggravated assaults and 102 burglaries in Salishan. That same year there were 120 thefts, 27 drugs and weapons charges and 159 simple assaults.

While there is no precise population information from 1995, according to the housing authority, historically Salishan had roughly 2,600 residents during that time.

Citywide in 1995, according to the Uniform Crime Report, Tacoma had a population of a little more than 186,000. There were 3,223 violent crimes and 28 murders and nonnegligent manslaughters. There were also more than 18,000 property crimes.

Crime, Hem said, “happened just being around the people I grew up with in that environment.”

“It was just pretty much inevitable back then,” he said. “People say you’re a product of your environment, and that’s the environment we were in.”

‘Everything I know is American’

On June 8, 2018, Sophy Hem had his day before the Clemency and Pardons Review Board. His attorney successfully argued that he was young at the time of his conviction, a product of his environment and that he wasn’t advised of the immigration implications of accepting his plea deal.

A month and a day later, Inslee signed it.

“It felt like a new lease on life,” Sophy Hem said. “I’m an American. This is all I know. I might not be on paper, but everything I know is American.”

After receiving the good news, the family went out to dinner. Then, they went fishing.

This time, Shelly Hem got out of the car.

Hem has since applied for U.S. citizenship and is waiting for his application to be reviewed.

One of Hem’s brothers, meanwhile, since has been deported, he said.

Roeuth An was charged and served prison time for being an accomplice to a non-fatal drive-by shooting in 1995. Facing deportation in 2018, An was pardoned by Governor Jay Inslee.

Follow more of our reporting on

See all 9 stories
Related stories from The Olympian

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.
  Comments