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Inside one family's fight to stop a loved one's deportation

Teresa Cotsirilos
Elizabeth Chan hugs her son, Kouen "TJ" Hem, shortly after his release from ICE detention in Bakersfield.

When we first interviewed Elizabeth Chan, she was standing in front of San Francisco’s immigration building, saying goodbye to her only son. She’s been fighting his deportation order ever since and told us how that fight has changed her.

Click on the audio player above to listen to the full story.

They took him, [and] all my memories came back. Like in front of me, you know? I see everything.

Elizabeth tries not to think about Cambodia. When she does, she knows how to distract herself. She remembers the Buddha’s teachings and goes out of her way to see friends. “I try to forget,” she says. “When I do something happy, those memories go away.”

When Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained her son, “my memories came back—like in front of me, you know? I see everything now.”

Kouen “TJ” Hem is Elizabeth’s oldest surviving child. He’s a barrel-chested father of three who likes to surprise his mom with groceries. Elizabeth gave birth to him in a labor camp, at the height of the Khmer Rouge’s power. TJ’s older sisters died of starvation there, and the Khmer Rouge executed his father shortly after he was born. Elizabeth stole handfuls of rice for her children and tried to save them all.

The family resettled in Oakland in 1981, when TJ was about five years old. Now, ICE is cracking down on Cambodian communities by targeting long-time residents with criminal records, many of whom have lived in the US since fleeing the Cambodian genocide as children. TJ is one of them.

“I’ll be okay,” he told Elizabeth when he turned himself over to ICE last March. “If you start crying, I’ll start crying.”

“All I want is for my children to stay in one place together,” Elizabeth told me after TJ was detained.

“You’re pretty much cattle”

ICE shuttled TJ between detention facilities in Bakersfield, Arizona, and Texas. He says the food was mostly inedible, so Elizabeth lent him commissary money to buy chips and noodles. TJ shared a lot of it with the other Cambodian men detained with him.

“It’s kind of a living hell,” he says. “You’re pretty much cattle. My first week I was in the hold for twenty-three hours a day… so twenty-three hours locked down by yourself.”

Behind many deportations is a frantic attempt to stop them. Immigration attorneys file lawsuits, advocates lobby state officials, families protest. For Elizabeth, that process forced her to relive experiences she’d spent decades trying to forget.

She worked closely with TJ’s attorney, Alameda County Public Defender Su Yon Yi, who was trying to establish TJ’s real birthdate. TJ lost his status as a young man over a few minor drug convictions, but if he was actually a minor when Elizabeth became a citizen, Yi argued, then he should have been a citizen himself when he pled guilty to those charges. She and Elizabeth spent hours discussing the genocide together, trying to establish a timeline of events.

You lost track of time in the labor camps, Elizabeth says, but she knew TJ was born in the rainy season. She gave birth to him in a shed her husband built himself, subsisting on the potato leaves he stole for her. “I told her that when the Khmer Rouge took my husband, TJ knew how to walk,” she says. “And she asked me [about it] again and again, to make sure.”

Sharing her story gave her a sense of release, Elizabeth says, and protesting her son’s deportation order was empowering too. On Mother’s Day, she drove to Sacramento with one of her younger daughters, Rhummanee Hang, who was born after the genocide when Elizabeth remarried. They marched with a handful of other parents of detained Cambodian immigrants, urging Governor Gavin Newsom to pardon their children’s crimes and nullify their deportation notices. Elizabeth also joined other protesters in State Senator Nancy Skinner’s office and discussed their children’s cases with a member of her staff.

Governor Gavin Newsom pardoned two Cambodian immigrants shortly after the protest, but TJ wasn’t one of them.

“Anything can happen”

Then in May, about two months into TJ’s detention, a guard woke him up around nine in the morning. “The guy told me, ‘your lawyer put a lot of strings and you're going home,’” he says.

In addition to trying to establish his real birthdate, attorney Su Yon Yi demonstrated that TJ didn’t understand how pleading guilty to drug charges would impact his immigration status. In California, that misunderstanding is grounds for vacating his convictions. And once his convictions were vacated, TJ’s deportation order was rescinded.

Elizabeth and TJ’s sister, Rhummanee, spent the night in Bakersfield so that they could be there when he was released. Rhummanee filmed the family’s reunion on her phone. In the video, Elizabeth runs and hugs TJ immediately. TJ hugs her back but looks confused. He told his family later that one of the guards had some parting words for him when he walked out of the detention facility. “‘We're letting you go right now,’” TJ remembers him saying. “‘[But] anything can happen. You'll be back in here.’”

For now, TJ’s staying with Elizabeth at his younger sister’s house. He doesn’t like to talk about his detention, and he went back to his old job as soon as he could. “To me, money is not the issue,” he says. “It’s just trying to get everything back, right to the way it was.”

But Elizabeth isn’t ready to move on from these detentions. The threat of losing another child both retraumatized and radicalized her. “If they have protests, I would like to join them,” she says.

If they have protests, I would like to join them.

Until recently, Elizabeth had never told TJ much about Cambodia. She’d shared her stories with her daughters, but she says she wasn’t sure TJ was ready to hear them. Now, she’s worried that TJ will never understand certain things about himself. Like why he panics around soldiers, or how he developed his phobia of worms (“We ate them,” she says). 

“To me, it’s all new,” TJ says. “Some of the past that she's telling me right now, I didn't hear about before.”

At one point, Elizabeth starts describing the murder of TJ’s father. I heard him screaming, she says, I tried to run towards him. TJ murmurs something about the bathroom and quietly leaves the room.

“I want him to know the true story about himself”

About a decade ago, Elizabeth started drawing a picture book. She’s loved to draw since she was a kid, and she wants her surviving children to meet her older daughters and her husband in whatever way they can. So far, she’s drawn the banana leaf hut where she hid from the Khmer Rouge, and the bodies she saw in the cornfields when her family fled their home. “I have a lot in my mind,” she says, “but I don’t have time to finish it.”

Credit Teresa Cotsirilos / KALW
For the past ten years, Elizabeth Chan has been drawing a picture book of her experiences from the Cambodian genocide.

She’s already shown the book to her daughters. Now, Elizabeth wants TJ to help her illustrate it. So far, though, TJ hasn’t looked at it. “I want him to know the true story... about himself,” she says. “[But] my son... he’s having a difficult time. So I cannot tell him right away.”

TJ reapplied for his green card last month. A few weeks later, on the night of July 1st, 37 Cambodian immigrants boarded a flight in Dallas, Texas and flew through the night to Phnom Penh. One of his childhood friends was on that plane. TJ’s spent the past week checking Facebook, trying to see how he’s doing. TJ was home with Elizabeth around the time the deportation flight took off. As he rebuilds his life in Oakland, she’ll be there to help him.

Teresa Cotsirilos is a reporter at KALW, where she covers labor rights and public health in the Bay Area’s immigrant communities. A recipient of the IWMF Adelante Fellowship and the Center for Health Journalism's National Fellowship, she is currently investigating California wildfire cleanups and their impact on immigrant workers’ health and safety.