Cambodian American


Cambodian American Returns to the U.S. After Deportation Mistake 5 Years Ago

    A Cambodian American man has returned to his home in California five years after self-deporting to Cambodia in response to alleged threats from federal agents who had no clue of his U.S. citizenship.

    Sok Loeun, 35, was convicted of possessing marijuana in 2012 — a felony that initiated the revocation of his legal residency status.

    In 2015, Loeun traveled to Cambodia with his family.

    However, when they tried to return to the U.S., Customs and Border Protection officials allegedly denied him entry, threatening deportation if he managed to get in.

    Like others with questionable residency status, Loeun, then a single dad, decided to self-deport to Cambodia.

    Since then, he had built a life in the country — working for $8 a day, remarrying and having another child.

    Little did Loeun imagine that something was about to change his life.

    In November 2019, during a legal workshop in Phnom Penh, he learned that he was, in fact, a U.S. citizen.

    The workshop, hosted by the San Francisco-based Asian Law Caucus, introduced Loeun to Anoop Prasad, the lawyer who proved his citizenship.

    As it turns out, Loeun, who grew up in Fresno, became an American under the so-called derivative citizenship, which grants children below 18 U.S. citizenship if one of their parents acquires it.

    Loeun’s mother, a refugee from the Khmer Rouge, migrated to the U.S. in 1985 and received her American citizenship in 1996.

    Under derivative citizenship, Loeun, who was 12 at the time, automatically became a U.S. citizen, but the staff at the former Immigration and Naturalization Service — now the Department of Homeland Security — allegedly failed to change his official record.

    Unfortunately, neither Loeun nor his mother were aware of derivative citizenship. As a result, Loeun lived under legal residency (which the family obtained as refugees) most of his life.

    “[It’s] very understandable that foreign nationals themselves wouldn’t know whether they had acquired citizenship, especially if they have other IDs and they’re able to get by with those other IDs and they haven’t been doing a lot of traveling,” Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “[Immigration agencies have also had] a huge issue with the transfer of paperwork records to digital.”

    On Wednesday, Loeun arrived at San Francisco International Airport to a warm welcome from family and friends. He is now in the process of reintegrating into American society.

    A petition that calls for the amendment of the repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia can be signed here.

    Help Loeun resettle here.

    Feature Images via Justice Reinvestment Coalition AC (left; screenshot) and New Breath Foundation (right)

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