The Minnesota Eight are a group of Cambodian men in their thirties and forties with a troubled history in common: each came to the U.S. legally as a child refugee in the nineteen-eighties but later lost his green card after being convicted of a crime. By law, legal permanent residents are automatically deportable if they’ve committed an aggravated felony, and thousands of people every year are deported after completing prison terms. But when these men got out of prison they found themselves in a strange situation. Because of a long-standing diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Cambodia, they were released rather than deported. Several of them got married and started families; they took jobs, and settled down. Twice a year, they were required to check in at their local Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office, in St. Paul, Minnesota, but after a few years these visits became routine. Then, last summer, when they each showed up for their appointments with ICE, they were abruptly rearrested, and informed that their deportations were back on schedule.
Last week, four of the men were deported to Cambodia. Three others are continuing to fight their cases while still in ICE custody. (The eighth member of the group was released in February, after proving to a judge that his deportation would have caused undue hardship to his wife and children, who are American citizens.) Of the two and a half million Southeast Asians currently living in the U.S., about fifteen thousand face outstanding deportation orders. The families of the Minnesota Eight have launched an aggressive public-advocacy campaign on their behalf, meeting with elected officials, like Senator Amy Klobuchar and Representative Keith Ellison, and raising legal funds to fight the deportation orders. Some members of the Minnesota Eight knew one another before their arrests, while others met in ICE detention. Their families quickly banded together as they tried to understand what was happening. “In the Cambodian community, we usually don’t like to talk about this—people are embarrassed,” Nicki Chhoeurng, the niece of one of the Minnesota Eight, told me. “In Minnesota, it’s the younger generation that’s standing up, because this makes no sense.”
The men all committed crimes, some more serious than others. One served ten years in prison, in the nineties, for attempted murder. Another broke three windows at a bar, in 2009, and served forty days in jail after paying a fine. A third pleaded guilty to second-degree assault, in 2010. In addition to their compromised residency status, the men share something else: none of them grew up in Cambodia. Only two were even born there—the rest were born in refugee camps, either in Thailand or the Philippines, before coming to the U.S. with their families. They know no relatives in Cambodia, and barely speak the language. The U.S. is the only country that they have ever truly known.
The threat of being uprooted so abruptly is one that thousands of others deal with daily. “It only looks like the Minnesota Eight are the exception to the rule, but actually they’re not,” Sophal Ear, a professor of international relations at Occidental College, told me. Eighty per cent of Southeast Asians with deportation orders in the U.S. have lost their legal residency because of old criminal convictions. The reason can be traced back to a pivotal piece of federal immigration legislation passed in 1996: the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The law, which was pushed by Republicans and signed by President Bill Clinton, drastically expanded the pool of people subject to deportation by reclassifying many common misdemeanors (such as drug possession) as felonies—and thus grounds for removal. The law also established mandatory detention and deportation for certain crimes (like burglary and fraud), and eliminated immigration judges’ ability to exercise discretion on a case-by-case basis. As the N.Y.U. law professor Nancy Morawetz recently told Vox, “Overnight, people who had formed their lives here—came here legally or had adjusted to legal status, were working here, building their families, had ordinary lives in which they were on the PTA and everything else—suddenly, because of some conviction, weren’t even allowed to go in front of a judge anymore.”
The law soon proved so harsh in practice that even some of the lawmakers who’d championed it had regrets. In 1999, twenty-eight House members—including prominent Republicans—wrote a letter to Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time, begging the Administration to ease up on its enforcement. “Cases of apparent extreme hardship have caused concern,” the representatives wrote. “Some cases may involve removal proceedings against legal permanent residents who came to the United States when they were very young, and many years ago committed a single crime . . . but have been law-abiding ever since, obtained and held jobs and remained self-sufficient, and started families in the United States.” The following year, the Administration issued enforcement guidelines allowing for some limited discretion in processing individuals for immediate deportation. Still, the 1996 law essentially committed the federal government to a policy of mass detention and deportation, regardless of who was in office. Felicia Escobar, who worked on immigration policy in the Obama White House, said that the law would come up anytime there was a discussion of what the President could do to reform the immigration system. “The conversation would invariably go back to the 1996 law,” she said. “It would always take the form of ‘what was possible before ’96 and what was possible after ’96.’ ”
As the federal government devoted more resources to immigration enforcement over time, especially after 9/11, the consequences of the 1996 law became ever more apparent. In 1996, the U.S. deported seventy thousand people; by the start of President Obama’s first term, that number had grown to four hundred thousand a year. “The groundwork for the mass deportation and detention that we are seeing today, and which we expect to get even worse under Trump, was laid in 1996,” Judy Rabinovitz, an immigration attorney at the A.C.L.U., told me. For a time, she said, there was a lively campaign among immigration advocates called Fix ’96, to reverse the harm of the law. But it mostly fizzled, and the terms of the 1996 law were gradually taken for granted even by would-be reformers. Consider Obama’s vow to deport “felons, not families.” As the case of the Minnesota Eight makes clear, the two categories are not mutually exclusive.
More than a hundred thousand Cambodian refugees, fleeing the Khmer Rouge, came to the U.S. legally in the eighties. Many of them never sought to become full citizens. “We didn’t even know what a citizen was in those years,” the sister of one of the Minnesota Eight said recently. This left them vulnerable to the 1996 law, which also applied retroactively—past crimes could suddenly jeopardize their legal status.
The Cambodian government did not accept significant numbers of deportees from the U.S. until 2002, when the two countries finally signed a repatriation agreement. Even after that, Cambodia was reluctant to take back former refugees who had no real ties to the country. Since 2002, some six hundred and fifty Cambodians have been deported. The governments of Laos and Vietnam have received even fewer deportees. As a result, many Southeast Asians with deportation orders living in the U.S.—like the Minnesota Eight—don’t know when, or if, they’ll be deported. In a 2006 documentary called “Sentenced Home,” the sibling of a Cambodian deportee put the uncertainty this way: “They tell us, ‘He got detained because seven years ago he committed a felony.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you come to my house and pick him up?’ They didn’t do that. They waited till my brother had a job, a family, kids, everything, a car, a rented home. They took everything away. And our family’s fallen apart.”
The Minnesota Eight are the latest casualties of such unpredictability. The best explanation for the apparently random timing of their recent rearrests is a mix of bureaucratic slowness and bad luck. Their families are now making the plainest case they can for relief: that their own lives and communities are being senselessly upended.
Judges have issued stays halting the deportations of three members of the group—but that may only be a temporary measure. Nicki Chhoeurng’s uncle was deported on March 29th. “It’s like watching someone from across the street, through a window,” she said, of tracking him and his case as he was moved from one detention center to the next across the country. Now she and her mother are making plans to fly to Cambodia this summer, to help him settle in.