Immigration and Customs Enforcement is targeting long-time residents with criminal convictions, most of whom have lived in the US since fleeing the Cambodian genocide as children.
A few hours before he’s deported, Kouen “TJ” Hem starts working his way through a crumpled pack of Newports. “I'm about to smoke as much as I can before I go turn myself in,” he says.
We’re standing in front of San Francisco’s Asian Law Caucus, where about two dozen activists, attorneys, and family members have gathered to protest Cambodian deportations. TJ spent a little time inside with the activists, then went outside to be alone. He says thinks he might be the stupid one here. Some people disappear when they get their deportation notices.
“I see no point in running anywhere,” he says. TJ’s still hoping for his deportation order to be reversed, and making a break for it would jeopardize his case. “Whatever chance I have, that’s what I’m going to take,” he says.
The crowd at the Asian Law Caucus pours into the street. Cambodian grandmothers in pink jackets and the occasional Raiders hat are passing around protest signs. Together, we walk downtown to San Francisco’s immigration building, where TJ and the other deportees are expected to check in at 8 a.m.
TJ’s mother and sisters are here, along with his auntie, Sandra. When TJ found out he was getting deported, his family reacted in different ways. His younger sisters were shocked and connected him with activists. His children wrote long letters on his behalf. His mother, Elizabeth, kept her feelings to herself, which means his auntie Sandra didn’t even know.
“I was just here for the rally!” she says. “I saw [TJ] over there and I asked him, what are you doing here? When he told me, I went totally blank!”
TJ’s mom, Elizabeth, walks quietly with his sisters. She’s a small woman with a perfect manicure who used to work in an explosives factory, one of her first jobs when she moved to the United States. In the '70s, she and Sandra made it through a refugee camp in Thailand together.
“I asked her, ‘why didn't you tell the family?’” Sandra says. “She says she doesn't want to put a burden on others.”
TJ is his mother’s oldest child. He surprises her with groceries and takes care of robocallers for her; he has a good job and has been the sole provider for his children. He told his kids not to come today, but his mom and sisters wouldn’t stay away.
“Now they're going to go through it, and they have to try to help me,” TJ says. “They're going to suffer more than me.”
“She just keeps it to herself”
TJ says he doesn’t know much about Cambodia. He was born in a prison camp in the late '70s, at the height of the Khmer Rouge’s power. He only lived there for about a year, and he’s still trying to piece together his memories of what happened.
“I do have panic attacks from people in uniform,” he says, “because I saw my father get executed in front of my face.”
TJ hates being Elizabeth’s oldest kid because in Cambodia he was her youngest. “I have two older sisters,” he explains, “but they died too because of starvation.”
TJ and his older brother survived. The remaining family escaped to refugee camps in Thailand and the Philippines before settling in Oakland in 1981, when TJ was five years old. In the United States, Elizabeth had two more daughters, and the family rebuilt their lives. Then, in the '90s, TJ’s big brother died in a car accident. TJ was only 16, but he was the one who called his mom and told her—his first act as her oldest son.
He hasn’t talked to her much about his deportation. “She just keeps it to herself,” TJ says. “She’s just trying to comfort me. I don't know the outcome that's going to happen right now, so I don't know what to say.”
“I thought I was a citizen”
Outside the immigration building, the deportees and their families join activists in a protest that spills into the street. Reverend Deborah Lee, the Executive Director of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, leads the group in prayer. “May you be strengthened,” she tells the deportees, “and may you walk into that building with dignity.”
TJ stands at the periphery with his attorney, Alameda County Public Defender Su Yon Yi, who’s trying to restore TJ’s green card. TJ lost his status over of some minor drug convictions, and he didn’t understand at the time that pleading guilty would impact his immigration status. “I was really surprised because thought I was a citizen,” he says. In California, that misunderstanding could be grounds for overturning his convictions.
TJ’s immigration status has been in a state of limbo for years. Immigrants can be stripped of their green cards for a range of different crimes, but Cambodia was one of 23 nations that refused to repatriate its deported citizens. As a result, TJ and other Cambodians immigrants have remained in the United States for decades after they were stripped of their legal status.
The Trump Administration is cracking down on countries that fail to repatriate their citizens, and in 2017, it used visa sanctions to strong-arm Cambodia into accepting its deportees. According to ICE Public Affairs Officer Brendan Raedy, the agency subsequently increased its removals of Cambodian deportees by 279% between 2017 and 2018.
At 8 a.m., TJ lines up in frnot of San Francisco’s immigration building with his mom and sisters. “Don’t cry,” he tells his mom, Elizabeth. “You cry you’ll make me cry.” He shows the guard his government ID and the relevant paperwork, then walks inside.
The fifth floor
TJ and his family head to the fifth floor, where people without legal status check in with authorities. The hallway is crowded with mothers talking through thick glass and children playing video games at low volume. We camp cross-legged on the floor next to an out-of-order restroom.
Elizabeth rubs TJ’s back, then holds his arm. “It’s okay,” TJ keeps telling her. “I’m happy. At least I’ll never need to see this building again.”
His sisters teach his lawyer to say hello in Khmer, Cambodia’s official language. “I don’t remember any Khmer,” TJ says. He’s trying to remember exactly when they escaped the prison camp.
“Was I a year old?” He asks Elizabeth.
“I think so,” she says. “That’s when they took my husband in front of me.”
“It’s not ordered,” Elizabeth says. “It’s mixed up. But I have a lot [of memories] from that time.”She boiled leaves until they were soft and tried to feed all her children. When her first daughter died, she didn’t get to bury her. When her second daughter died, she was out begging for medicine and didn’t get home in time.
“If you look back, it’s going to bother you,” Elizabeth says. “[There’s] no peace at all.” TJ’s deportation is bringing the memories back. “I see my son at that time when he cries and cries for food. I see my daughters.” TJ eyes are getting red. He studiously checks his phone.
After about three hours, TJ’s the last person left. “Looks like I’m the last Mohican,” he says.
I ask Elizabeth what she wants people to know about TJ. “When he visits, he always brings me fruit and food and things,” she says. “I have only one son, and he cares for me.”
After TJ turns himself in, his mom and sisters stay at the immigration building, waiting in yet another line to say their last goodbyes to him. “You can see him through the glass and pick up the phone and say goodbye,” his auntie Sandra explains. “It’s heartbreaking.”
She heads back to the Asian Law Caucus, where a crew of Cambodian grandmothers from the protest are sitting in an open conference room. They’re waiting for Elizabeth to come back, and around 1 p.m., she finally does. Several women rush to comfort her.
Elizabeth didn’t get to say goodbye to the three children she lost. So when TJ turned himself in, she tells me she said what she could.
“I just told him that everything’s okay,” she says, “and he won’t stay there long.”
TJ Hem has been in detention centers in Bakersfield and Texas. He’s still waiting to be deported or have his convictions vacated.