‘I Just Want To Live’: Threat Of Deportation Haunts Portland Man
Soeun Kim, and his wife, Theresa Kim, sat at a picnic table on Portland’s Western Promenade earlier this month, watching a home video on Theresa’s phone.
In the clip, Soeun is lying in bed, holding his baby daughter, Leilani, while his 10-year-old stepson, Joshua, looks on.
Then, everyone falls silent, and Joshua begins to sob quietly.
Theresa captured this moment two years ago, shortly before Soeun turned himself in to immigration agents to face deportation to Cambodia. Not knowing when, if ever, he’d be able to see his family again, Soeun said he wanted to leave his infant daughter with at least some reminder of his presence.
"I made a few videos just reading to her, so it would be a lot easier you know for her mother to really console her when I’m not home,” he said.
Soeun’s path to the U.S. began in the late 1970s, when he was born in a refugee camp in Thailand after his family fled their home in Cambodia during the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge. They were resettled to the U.S. when Soeun was about six years old, and moved to Portland soon after.
As a teenager, Soeun said he struggled with PTSD, racial profiling by the police, and a general lack of emotional support. The one person who was there for him, he said, was his grandfather — the two would go fishing and take walks around the neighborhood.
When his grandfather died, Soeun said he spiraled into a severe depression.
“Once his grandfather passed away,” Theresa remembered. “It was like his turning point. Like he wasn’t the same person anymore.”
Soeun said he started getting into trouble. Things came to a head in 2000, when he was convicted of burglary and robbery, and sentenced to 14 years in prison.
During his incarceration, he and Theresa stayed in touch, grew closer, and eventually got married.
But the day he left prison, in 2014, agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, immediately took him into custody. Due to his conviction, he had lost his green card and was now facing deportation to Cambodia. Soeun said it felt like getting hit in the stomach.
“Why am I subject to like, double punishment?” he said. “I just want to live. I was brought here as a child to this country.”
Soeun’s case is part of a nationwide story. In the wake of the Vietnam War, the U.S. resettled over one million refugees from Southeast Asia. For countless families fleeing violence, resettlement promised safety and security.
But, as Soeun discovered, that promise left open the possibility of another form of displacement, this time through deportation — over the last couple decades, more than 13,000 Southeast Asians have received a final deportation order based on a past conviction.
"It’s really important to understand the historical context of the conditions in which Southeast Asian refugees were dropped into, that really led to the deportation crisis that we’re seeing now,” said Kevin Lam, who leads anti-deportation work with the Asian American Resource Workshop in Boston.
Lam said many Southeast Asian refugees were resettled in poor, overpoliced neighborhoods, where young people in particular were more likely to become entangled in the criminal justice system. Combined with Clinton-era immigration policy that expanded the list of deportable offenses, these conditions created what Lam called the prison-to-deportation pipeline.
"So what we're seeing,” Lam said, “is over the past two decades, after folks had served their time, they're now facing detention and deportation.”
Soeun won an unexpected reprieve, however, when Cambodia refused to accept him as one of their citizens – as he had been born in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Soeun was released from immigration detention on the condition that he check-in periodically with ICE agents. He moved in with Theresa, found a job, and in 2018 the couple welcomed a baby girl.
But by the time Theresa was pregnant with their second child the following year, ICE was again trying to deport Soeun, as the Trump Administration pushed to remove individuals who had previously not been a priority.
"You try so hard to do the right thing for all these years,” Soeun said. “You made one mistake, you know, and you did the time for it. You know if you’re gonna deport me, deport me already, you know. Why let me out and start a family?”
Soeun turned himself in to ICE, believing his fate was sealed. But, once again, he was spared deportation, this time thanks to a class-action lawsuit led by the American Civil Liberties Union.
“I mean, it's great that he's out of detention now. But still, any day ICE could come and pick him up. And that would devastate his family, including his kids,” said Bethany Li, an attorney representing Soeun in his personal immigration case, which is separate from the ACLU lawsuit.
Li said they are seeking to reverse the deportation order, citing the “extreme hardship” that it would inflict on the Soeun's children.
“Because of the mental health issues that his daughter is experiencing, even just from the several months separation from her father, it seems very clear that if he was permanently deported there would be some permanent scarring,” Li said.
If the argument is successful, Li said, the next step would be to restore Soeun’s green card through his marriage to Theresa, who is an American citizen.
ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Soeun’s case. His next check-in with the agency is scheduled for September 2022.
No matter what happens, Soeun said it pains him to see the damage this ordeal has already inflicted on his daughter Leilani, who is now three-years-old.
"She’s traumatized now,” he said. “She wakes up in the middle of the night crying, you know, crying for me, screaming for me. Telling me ‘don’t go’. She doesn’t want mommy, she wants daddy, ‘I want my daddy.’”
Soeun said he talks to Leilani over the phone or on Facetime during his breaks at work, sometimes three times a day, to reassure her that he’s still here