For the past three years, President Trump’s racist rhetoric against Latinx communities and the heinous practice of family separation have galvanized masses of people to take action on behalf of migrants. Children and transgender detainees have died in prison, demonstrating the extreme cruelty of this administration.
But before Trump was elected, migrant communities had already been enduring police crackdowns and the destruction of families. Southeast Asians are among those who have been facing deportations since before the start of this century. Since the mid-1990s, the U.S. has issued final orders of removal to about 16,000 Southeast Asian refugees. Yet there has little national reporting or response other than among Southeast Asian activists themselves.
Sarath Suong is one of the founders of a movement that has fought to protect Southeast Asians from the U.S. government and its agencies. He was born in 1980 in a refugee camp, after his parents fled to Thailand to escape Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime. When he was a toddler, his parents first resettled in Indiana before they chose the Boston area as a long-term home. By the ’80s, Boston was home to a significant population of Cambodian refugees determined to replant their uprooted lives. But they also found this new country wasn’t fulfilling its promises.
“We were the first generation of Southeast Asian refugees to grow up in a country that hated us. We were a reminder of a war that the U.S. lost,” Suong said.
There are larger systems at play. War, imperialism, capitalism, racism. My people were just being caught in it.
Suong grew up in the late ’80s and ’90s, decades fueled with violence and death. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was peaking. By the time Suong was 10 years old, tens of thousands of people had died from the condition. The War on Drugs was used by the government to funnel primarily Black communities into prisons. Federal prisons increased in size, as did prison sentences. In 1990, the National Defense Authorization Act allowed surplus military equipment to be transferred to local police forces to combat drug dealing and associated gang activity.
In Southeast Asian communities, gangs provided a sense of community for poor youth growing up with few resources. By the time Suong was 13, he had already witnessed his best friend’s murder on a Boston street.
But the same year he lost his friend, in 1993, something else happened. Instead of entering into gang life, he stumbled upon art classes offered by a local nonprofit. Through local community organizing, he was able to reframe the pain he saw around him.
“They taught me that everything that was happening to me and my family and my people was not my fault,” Suong said. “That there are larger systems at play. War, imperialism, capitalism, racism. My people were just being caught in it.”
Suong’s family was one of many whose lives changed course because of the U.S. invasion of Southeast Asia (often misconstrued as just the “Vietnam War”). The war would take the lives of up to 3.8 million people in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and continues to cause casualties from undetonated explosives left by American bombing campaigns.
New arrivals from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos would eventually constitute the largest refugee group in American history. And soon, they came to see the police in much the same manner that they saw the military in their homelands: as symbols of violent oppression. As Suong began to understand that history, he decided he wanted to take action.
For 15 years, Cambodian deportations were mostly forgotten.
Through community organizing, Suong had found a way to make meaning of the multilayered devastation that spanned borders and oceans. The way his family’s life had been decided by U.S. imperialism was not all he had to grapple with; he was also queer. His political awareness gave him renewed hunger for justice. As a teenager, he helped open the first HIV clinic for Southeast Asians in Boston, mediated with local Cambodian gangs that formed as surrogate families amid cultural isolation, and established a Gay-Straight Alliance at his high school.
After leaving Boston to attend Brown University, he and other Southeast Asian advocates attended a rally led by current and former gang members in Lowell, Massachusetts. Suong and his colleagues learned that the U.S. had reached an agreement with the Cambodian government that year to deport refugees with criminal convictions, and would now increase its enforcement. Many of those deported were people who grew up alongside Suong, now caught in another web of American violence.
Suong was one of many Southeast Asian community organizers who traveled from Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, and Providence, Rhode Island, among other cities, to respond to the crisis in their communities in the summer of 2002. That was one of the first gatherings of the Southeast Asian Freedom Network. Organizers highlighted the hypocrisy of the deportations: those deported were only in the country because the U.S. had laid waste to their homelands. Many of the deportees had decades-old convictions that came from growing up in poor neighborhoods neglected by government services. The deportations were not a corrective measure against crime, as the government would suggest, Suong said; they were an extension of the U.S. imperialist machine that created so many refugees a quarter-century prior.
The deportation dilemma of Southeast Asians was met with solidarity from South Asian and Muslim communities organizing against the targeting of their own communities after 9/11, along with Central American migrants and Black freedom fighters. But the issue was largely ignored by the majority of those wielding the most visibility among Asians—East Asians from China, Japan, and Korea. “For 15 years, Cambodian deportations were mostly forgotten. So many Asian groups wouldn’t help us get media and they wouldn’t even help fund our work. And people wonder why I’m still so mad at Asian America,” Suong said.
Building a Movement in the Shadows
More than 500 Cambodians, and possibly as many as 1,000, have been deported since 2002, with nowhere near the media attention that is given to deportees to Latin America. To fight back, Southeast Asians had to get creative.
Within the Southeast Asian community, deportations were viewed as a stigma, a sign that they were being labeled as criminals. The primary task of Southeast Asian Freedom Network was to build relationships with community members so they could fight their removal orders without shame. “We’d knock on doors to speak about deportations and often find ourselves at a backyard barbecue or a child’s birthday party,” Suong recounted.
Organizers also relied on youth to relay educational messages to their families. Nancy Nguyen, executive director of a Philadelphia nonprofit called VietLead, illustrated the imaginative tactics she learned from volunteering with a similar activist group, Freedom Inc. in Wisconsin: “We would teach youth to act out skits that educated their community. There would be characters like a dad facing deportation and a mom having to stand by her husband.” Nguyen has been involved with Southeast Asian Freedom Network for more than 10 years.
People need to know that they’re not alone, and that they can fight their deportation order.
One way that activists build trust is by providing food to families during meetings. Over a shared meal, they inform a community member of their rights and explain how they would be supported. “People need to know that they’re not alone, and that they can fight their deportation order,” said Kevin Lam, organizing director of Asian American Resource Workshop in Boston.
After more than a decade of refining its techniques, Southeast Asian Freedom Network made its first trip to Cambodia in 2016. The activists sought to end or revise the repatriation agreement. If Cambodia refused to accept deported refugees, it would be much harder for the U.S. to deport them. The Cambodian government had agreed to halt repatriation. But once the Trump administration came into power, it threatened sanctions on countries refusing to accept deportees, pushing Cambodian officials to reverse their commitment.
A year later, in 2017, the Trump administration reinterpreted an agreement it had with Vietnam. The agreement, originally signed in 2008, granted immunity from deportation for Vietnamese refugees who arrived to the U.S. before July 12, 1995. About 8,000 Vietnamese refugees, some the children of American service members conceived during wartime, were now vulnerable to deportation.
A year later, Trump ramped up deportations of Cambodians by 279%, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In fiscal year 2018, 110 Cambodians were deported—the highest number of any year since 2001—to a country many had left as children, and had never known. Some of them don’t speak Khmer well, or at all, and many can’t read and write in the language, having grown up in the U.S. As of September 2018, nearly 2,000 Cambodians faced final orders of removal.
Losing their families and the community that these refugees spent their whole lives building can cause overwhelming grief. Since 2002, 41 deportees to Cambodia have died, and at least six of them have taken their own lives, according to The Atlantic.
Van Sam, a Vietnamese organizer who had been doing educational work on deportation in Philadelphia and Oakland, has begun traveling to Vietnam to conduct interviews with recent deportees. “When we talk about deportation, it’s usually only about keeping folks in the U.S.,” Sam said. “These interviews are important because they provide a whole picture of how deportation impacts a person through their lifetime, even after removal.”
From One Hostile Country to Another
Further broadening the scope of Southeast Asian deportations, Trump began targeting Lao and Hmong communities at the beginning of 2020. The administration has sought a repatriation agreement with Laos, similar to the ones it now holds with Cambodia and Vietnam. Now nearly 5,000 Lao individuals, many with criminal convictions, have received final orders of removal, an ICE spokesperson told NBC News in March.
For Hmong people, an ethnic minority native to parts of southern China and Southeast Asia, deportations have extra layers of contradictions. The Lao government has historically mistreated Hmong people through economic oppression, forcing them to live in poverty. In the Lao Civil War, 19,000 Hmong men were recruited into guerrilla units to fight against North Vietnam alongside the U.S. military. The U.S. also funded schools in Hmong communities, an unknown luxury to most Hmong people at the time.
When the war ended, the Lao government retaliated against the Hmong population. Many were forced into labor camps, while others fled into the jungle to escape persecution. Today, ongoing attacks by the Lao military displace them from their communities, causing starvation, homelessness, and economic and emotional trauma. That is what awaits Hmong refugees now being deported back to a country hostile to them.
Deportations not only reveal the moral hypocrisy of the U.S.; it puts the internal dynamics of Southeast Asians on display.
Deportations not only reveal the moral hypocrisy of the U.S.; it puts the internal dynamics of Southeast Asians on display. While community organizers such as Sarath Suong, Nancy Nguyen, Kevin Lam, and Van Sam were mitigating the destruction of the deportation machine, they all were met with prejudice from the very people they were protecting.
While devoting almost two decades of his life to the anti-deportation movement, Suong has endured multiple physical assaults throughout the years from the people he served. One man, after learning Suong is queer, stopped returning his calls, even after Suong built the man’s case against deportation and provided child care for his kids.
One day, Suong saw one of that man’s children at the grocery store. After witnessing them in conversation, the man told Suong, “Don’t talk to my kid, you faggot.” Suong still accompanied the man’s family to his immigration hearing. “We won his case to remain in the U.S., but he still won’t look me in the eye,” Suong said.
Lam has likewise felt like he had to hide his queerness to be taken seriously by the people for whom he’s advocating. And VietLead’s Nguyen has been “treated many times as the secretary” rather than the executive director of a nonprofit organization.
Despite the prejudice they experience in their own community, Southeast Asian women and LGBTQ people have been spearheading solutions against mass deportations since the beginning of this century.
These men we’re fighting for are broken by the system.
As a trans person, Van Sam has felt as if their commitment to deportees may not be reciprocated: “I always felt so stuck with the gender justice component,” they said. “If they knew I was queer or trans, would they show up for me the way I show up for them every day? Doing deportation work is how I dismantle patriarchy. They’re not separate issues even though we can’t see it clearly sometimes.”
Some of the men facing deportation have had criminal convictions for domestic violence, adding more complexity to the work. When one woman stopped attending meetings with Suong to fight her husband’s deportation, Suong learned why after running into her on the street. “I really appreciated you fighting for him, but I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t fight for him to stay so he could continue beating me,” she told him. Her husband was eventually deported to Cambodia.
Amid the pain of family separation and community rupture, there have been victories: Thy Chea, who had lived in the U.S. since 1981, was one of the few deportees who has been able to return to the U.S. and his family in Lowell, Massachusetts. Chea was unjustly deported in August of 2018 despite not meeting ICE’s criteria for an aggravated felony—a deportable offense required a sentence of at least one year. By the time he was granted an emergency motion to stay in the U.S., his flight had already departed for Cambodia. A month later, his pregnant wife gave birth to their second child. It was 18 months before he was able to return. He met his child for the first time in February 2020.
“These men we’re fighting for are broken by the system. And yet they try to break us, while we’re trying to help them be unbroken,” Suong said. The work has often been difficult and full of frustrations. “There have been so many times when I’ve wanted to give up.”
After spending his entire adult life working for Southeast Asian movements for justice, Suong took what he said was an overdue sabbatical in the Dominican Republic. He has since returned to movement work to mobilize solidarity with Black uprisings across the U.S.
Correction: This story was updated July 11 to correct the location of an initial rally Sarath Suong attended, and the date of Southeast Asian Freedom Network’s delegation to Cambodia. Suong’s sabbatical also ended shortly before publication, and the story was updated to reflect that.
Xoài Pham is a Vietnamese trans person, the digital media coordinator at Transgender Law Center, and the trans subject editor at Autostraddle. She is a storyteller and collaborative educator on gender, imperialism, sex work, and intimacy. Her work has been featured in Teen Vogue, Wear Your Voice, Rewire.News, Truthout, The Offing, and POETRY, among others.