Born in a refugee camp in the Philippines, he came to the U.S. as a one-year-old child with his family, escaping the violent Khmer Rouge in Cambodia like many others.
Meth grew up in Sacramento, California and considered the city his one true home. But like other refugee families transitioning to a new life, his struggled financially and felt culturally isolated.
“A lot of them got caught up in gang relationships,” Kevin Lo, one of Meth’s lawyers from the Asian Law Caucus, told the Sacramento Bee. “For people who didn’t have much, the temptation to take from other people was higher.”
In 2008, Meth and some friends broke through an open window of a stranger’s house. He pleaded guilty and received a year-long sentence.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials picked him up after he had served time, but a judge ruled against his deportation and released him. However, Homeland Security filed an appeal and a new judge determined that he should be deported.
Life in Cambodia proved to be difficult for Meth, who barely spoke any Khmer. To make matters worse, he was paralyzed for several months after a motorcycle accident.
He struggled to find a job, but he turned his attention to a T-shirt business and donated to a local charity run by another deportee. He tried to stay productive and remained hopeful about returning.
Meth’s success can be traced to the April 2018 ruling of Sessions v. Dimaya, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the definition of “crime of violence,” a ground for deportation, was unconstitutionally vague.
The decision led to the removal of residential burglary in California as a deportable offense, and within 30 days, Meth’s lawyers challenged his removal order.
Meth is the second Cambodian deportee to the return to the U.S. In November 2018, fellow Sacramento resident Phorn Tem came back home after six months.
“For me to get deported to a country I wasn’t born in, it’s crazy,” Meth told the Sac Bee. “Growing up, all I thought I was, was a citizen. Nobody ever taught me, ‘Hey if you commit a crime you’re going to get deported’ [until] it was too late.”
Still, more Cambodians will be removed per the efforts of the Trump administration, which imposed visa sanctions against Cambodia in September 2017 to force it into accepting deportees. To date, around 1,900 Cambodians live in the U.S. with deportation orders.
“The U.S. government told (a local refugee assistance organization) to prepare for 200 people a year for the foreseeable future,” Lo said, adding that the ICE will execute another raid in mid-March.
While the future remains uncertain, Meth’s story gives hope to others facing a similar fate.
“Veasna’s return sends a message of hope to other Cambodian refugees who were deported years ago based on convictions that, at the time, made them ‘removable,’” Melanie Kim, one of his lawyers, also from the Asian Law Caucus, told NBC News. “Years later, due to changes in the law created by higher court decisions, their underlying offenses might not be ‘removable’ offenses anymore,”
Meth is grateful to be back to his wife and two children.
“I’m excited to see my kids and to be back on American soil,” he told the Khmer Times. “I don’t quite know how to express it, but I just want to go outside and kiss the ground.”
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