April 12, 2023
WASHINGTON, D.C. (Sept. 30, 2016) —  This year marks the 20th anniversary of two laws that ramped up deportations in the United States and limited due process for many immigrants with old criminal convictions.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) went into effect on Sept. 30, 1996, after the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was passed earlier that year. Together, these laws created a profound shift toward the criminalization of immigration, and prompted a surge of resources to border and interior immigration enforcement.
In the last twenty years, almost 16,000 Southeast Asian American immigrants – the majority of them refugees who fled the wars in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – have been ordered deported.  Of these, almost 80% have been on the basis of old criminal convictions, compared to an average of about 30% for other groups. Because of unique treaties between the U.S. and Southeast Asian countries, thousands of community members live in limbo for years or decades before being deported.
“Since we came to this country 40 years ago as refugees of war and genocide, our communities have struggled with poverty, trauma, and high levels of criminalization. This made an entire generation of first-generation youth extremely vulnerable to policies that made deportation automatic for anyone with a wide range of old convictions, even if they are legal residents who have since turned their lives around,” explained Executive Director Quyen Dinh of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC). “These laws have torn families apart, destabilized communities, and perpetuated generational trauma for 20 years – two decades too long.”
Katrina Dizon Mariategue, SEARAC’s Immigration Policy Advocate, added, “Zero tolerance laws for immigrants make little sense in a highly criminalized society. Currently, one in three Americans has some kind of criminal arrest record, and people of color are significantly more likely to be arrested and incarcerated. While the U.S. is home to 5% of the world’s population, it incarcerates 25% of the world’s prisoners. In this context, we need to focus on rehabilitation, restorative justice, healing, and re-entry, not just for citizens but for immigrants and refugees as well.”
Tung Nguyen was only 16 years old in the early 1990s when he was tried as an adult and sentenced to life in prison. He recalled, “I was not only a juvenile, I was a lifer and a noncitizen. I had been in the United States only two years, and I didn’t speak English.” In prison, Nguyen earned his GED and his Associate’s degree. In 2011, after he had spent 18 years in prison, California Governor Jerry Brown reviewed Nguyen’s case and found him eligible for early release because he no longer posed any risk to society. But because of the 1996 immigration laws, Nguyen found himself locked up again only weeks later in immigration detention, and ordered deported. His deportation date is unknown. Nguyen continued, “I thought when I finally got out, I could really turn over a new leaf. But now I’m in deportation limbo. I’m free, but I have to live with this uncertainty, whether one day they’ll take me from my wife, my family.”
Next week SEARAC will release a report called, “Automatic Injustice: Prosecutorial Discretion in the Southeast Asian American Community,” based on interviews with three Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Field Offices in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Seattle around their “prosecutorial discretion” policies. ICE officers have the authority, or discretion, to choose not to deport individuals based on their backgrounds. SEARAC found that ICE officers are not implementing this discretion fully, and have no clear procedures for considering prosecutorial discretion for anyone with an old criminal record, even though federal guidance gives them the authority to do so. The report makes two major recommendations to clarify guidance around prosecutorial discretion and monitor its implementation so that more families can be kept together, rather than senselessly separated.
Even as ICE actively rounds up Cambodian refugees for deportation, the community is organizing to fight for justice and change. “Right now there are 70 Cambodian families sitting with heartache while their loved ones wait in Adelanto detention center, possibly to be deported,” shared Jenny Srey of Farmington, MN, whose husband currently awaits deportation. “We connected together through Facebook, just asking for anybody to help. We couldn’t stop. We couldn’t stop moving, we couldn’t stop fighting. This has been a really rough ride, but I’m going to keep fighting.”
Community members and allies sent 96 photos show in this video as part of SEARAC’s #Fix96 campaign to restore fairness and humanity to our country’s immigration laws.

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