Deported Cambodian refugee returns home to Southern California after 11 years

Cambodian deportee
  • In 2011, ICE deported Cambodian refugee Sophea Phea to a country her family fled from in the 1970s to escape genocide.
  • While in Cambodia, Phea became a teacher and started advocating for other Southeast Asian deportees in a bid to help them return home to the U.S.
  • After years of advocacy, she finally received a pardon from Calif. Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020.
  • Phea, now 40, reunited with her family and loved ones last month in Long Beach.
  • “I have a big family, so I am looking forward to participating in family functions again and reconnecting with all of them!” she said upon her return. “I also look forward to pursuing my career in the education field and going back to school to get my degree.”

After being deported to Cambodia in 2011, a former refugee was recently reunited with her family and loved ones in Long Beach, California.

Sophea Phea, 40, was able to return to the U.S. last month, two years after Governor Gavin Newsom pardoned her from her criminal record. 

Phea’s family was among those who fled to Thailand during the genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. A year and a half after being born in a Thai refugee camp, her family moved and settled in Long Beach. 

At age 23, Phea was convicted of credit card fraud and served her time in a California prison. After completing her sentence, she was handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which placed her in a detention center for nine months.

ICE was about to deport Phea in 2007 but was forced to release her after Cambodia did not issue her travel documents. 

In 2011, Phea was shocked one morning when ICE knocked at her door in order to deport her to a country she had no familiarity with, without even giving her time to pack any luggage.

“It feels like history repeating itself, being ripped from our homes and families to try to resettle in a foreign country– the same country where most of us are still trying to forget and overcome horrific war trauma,” Phea shared with legal and civil rights organization Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. 

Amid the challenges of settling in a country she barely knew, Phea was able to lead a productive life in Cambodia. Aside from becoming a teacher, she also began advocating for other Southeast Asian refugees who were also deported in a bid to help them return home to the U.S.

“I played a part in raising awareness on deportations to the Cambodian government,” Phea shared about her involvement with the 1Love Cambodia Movement. “I helped lobby to end the mistake of Cambodia’s agreement to accept deportations from the United States and to spread the message that it isn’t humane to tear families apart.”

According to Phea, they teamed up with other organizations to help campaign for the #Right2Return movement, which champions the right of deportees to return to the U.S. after deportation

After years of advocacy efforts, Phea finally received a pardon from Governor Newsom in 2020. Phea’s status as a permanent resident was restored by an immigration court earlier this year.

“I was overjoyed to be physically with all of them again, and they were also ecstatic to see me back home,” she shared following her successful return. “I have a big family, so I am looking forward to participating in family functions again and reconnecting with all of them! I also look forward to pursuing my career in the education field and going back to school to get my degree.”

Now that she has started to settle back home, Phea is speaking out about her experience to highlight the effects of such deportations on the Southeast Asian community

“It’s important to convey the fact we were raised in America, and as humans, we make mistakes,” Phea pointed out. “If we have already served time for our missteps, how is it just to deport us to our parents’ homeland that we do not know? Most of us have never seen the country our parents desperately escaped from. This double punishment is inhumane, and it happens solely because we didn’t have that piece of paper that says we’re U.S. citizens– even though we were basically adopted by America.”

Phea has now expressed her support for the VISION Act, which was authored by Assemblymember Wendy Carrillo to end ICE transfers in Calif.

“The VISION Act is so important because it will keep families together and lessen the damage that has already been done to them,” she added. “It will end double punishment of immigrants and will help our communities avoid more mental, physical, and emotional pain. Children will less likely be traumatized by the loss of their parent or parents due to ICE transfers, which often leads to deportation.”

Phea has organized a fundraiser on GoFundMe to help her with resettling and transition as well as cover other expenses she incurred during and after her return to the U.S.  

 

Featured Image via Sophea Phea

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