This is not just one deportee’s story
Despite the art that sets him apart from the rest, Kosal is just one of nearly TWO MILLION people deported by the Obama administration between 2009 and 2013 – the highest rate of deportations in the nation’s history. In 2011, the year Kosal was forcibly sent to Cambodia, the US deported a total of 391,953 individuals with nearly 50% of these being “criminal aliens”.
While mass deportations increased amidst the post-9/11 xenophobia of the Bush era, they surged to historical levels after President Obama took office. The Obama administration has stepped up deportations of not only undocumented immigrants, but also those who are in the country legally and have been convicted of a deportable crime.
These “criminal aliens” include refugees who, like Kosal, came to the US as children and have only known the United States as home.
Kosal’s story is telling of two pressing and intersecting social issues in the United States: (1) a broken immigration system in need of deep reform; and (2) the systemic criminalization of poor youth of color that often has dire consequences for immigrant and refugee youth.
FROM REFUGEES TO “CRIMINAL ALIENS”
Brought to the US as infants in the late 1970’s and 1980’s, Cambodian refugee youth grew up in predominantly poor inner city neighborhoods while their families dealt with the emotional and psychological effects of escaping one of the most horrific genocides of our time.
A 2005 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 62% of Cambodian refugees surveyed suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while a more recent UCLA study found that PTSD symptoms in the Cambodian-American community are passed down across generations, often manifesting in young Cambodian men as aloofness and rebelliousness expressed through gang and criminal activity.
Yet these cultural, socioeconomic and psychological factors are rarely taken into account when Cambodian refugees with criminal records –particularly those stemming from violent or gang-related acts committed in their youth – are lumped into the “criminal alien” category.
Instead of receiving help and guidance that they lacked at home, Cambodian refugee youth, like other young urban men of color, are criminalized and channeled into the American prison and immigration detention systems. The United States incarcerates more youth than any other country in the world, and spends more than $44 billion in tax dollars to maintain its prison system. Meanwhile, immigration detention has become a boon for private prison contractors.
While record profits are made, deportations are devastating American families now more than any other moment in American history. Children of refugees like Kosal are being forcibly “returned” to countries they don’t know; countries like Cambodia that are often ill equipped to integrate deportees into an unfamiliar society.
And there are no signs of slowing down. Deportations to Cambodia quadrupled from 2010 to 2011, and approximately 2,000 more Cambodians are slated for deportation in the near future.
A BROKEN SYSTEM
Though the Obama Administration’s focus on deporting “criminal aliens” is generally lauded by the public and the media, little attention is paid to the complexities of those who, like Kosal, are caught at the intersection of the US criminal justice and immigration systems.
Due to existing laws, the US immigration system rarely takes the particular circumstances faced by Cambodian refugees into consideration when deciding whether or not to deport them. Reforms to the US immigration system in the 1990’s -particularly the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) of 1996- fast-tracked the deportation of legal immigrants, including Permanent Residents, with criminal records. These reforms broadened the definition of a deportable offense, while at the same time denying immigration judges the ability to review deportations on a case-by-case basis so as to take humanitarian concerns into account.
This means that those caught up in the Obama crackdown have had no legal recourse to challenge their deportations, regardless of the impact their removal may have on their families. Many deported Cambodian refugees were out of prison for years and had started new lives and families in the US before being picked up by ICE. Yet despite the very real impact that the Obama crackdown is having on American families, the prospects for Comprehensive Immigration Reform have been lost to years of partisan bickering.
The few bills that were passed by Congress in 2013 offered no solution to the issue of judicial discretion and failed to address the roots of unjust deportations, or the criminalization of immigrant and refugee communities. In some cases these bills have even attempted to further expand the category of “criminal alien”.
Because of this, Kosal’s story, and the story of deported refugees as a whole, is a call for profound change. It’s a call for immigration reform that goes beyond the simplistic arguments about “legalization” and border security to address the systemic flaws that create an unjust and inhumane immigration system.
While telling of serious injustices, Kosal’s story is also a story of hope and possibility. The ability to rise above the trauma of deportation through his writing sheds light on the power that the arts have to rehabilitate and transform those lost in the American criminal justice system. While at New Folsom prison, Kosal was introduced to spoken word poetry by an inmate who was enrolled in a prison poetry program. Writing helped Kosal to channel his emotions and experiences into artistic expression and ultimately self-transformation. The direct impact that arts-in-corrections programs, like the now defunct California Prison Arts Project, have had on Kosal’s life highlight the need for rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration and deportation, particularly when dealing with youth. After the elimination of the state run Prison Arts Project in 2003, Kosal continued to participate through the privately funded Actors’ Gang Prison Project, founded by Hollywood actor Tim Robbins. His early participation in the program led him to mentors, Violette Peters and Sabra Williams, where he would craft and hone the art of spoken word poetry. Experts validated the prior success of the Prison Arts Project and testified that the arts can be an effective tool to reduce recidivism.
Kosal is one example of a man significantly transformed by the power of art and mentors who helped to foster tolerance and nonviolent modes of expression.
DEPORTEES OR EXILES
This documentary film project hopes to shift the discourse on deportation from the perspective of Cambodian, or “Khmer”, Americans. One way of doing this is by using the term “exile” instead of “deportee” or “returnee”. While the word “deportee” carries with it a strong stigma, especially in Cambodian society where they are seen as gangsters and criminals, the gentler term “returnee” is inaccurate as many of these individuals were born in refugee camps and had never stepped foot in Cambodia until being deported.
When Studio Revolt began working with the deported Khmer American community, we saw that many of them referred to themselves as “exilaz”. Studio Revolt made the conscious decision to pick up on this slang and use the more formal term “exile” in our own work, as a way of capturing the fact that these individuals have been banished from the only country they consider home, and have been forbidden from ever returning due to existing lifetime immigration bans.
“Khmer Exiled Americans” or “K.E.A.’s”, a term featured prominently in the documentary, is also used by some exiles to refer to Cambodian, or Khmer, refugees who despite being Americans in every other sense of the word, never gained US citizenship and were deported to a country they had never known after completing prison sentences for crimes committed in their youth.
Life for K.E.A’s in Cambodia is very difficult as they face serious challenges with societal stigma and general issues of cultural assimilation. With visible tattoos, K.E.A’s struggle to integrate into Cambodian society, while others turn to drugs for survival – as a coping mechanism and a way of making money. Local Cambodians stigmatize the entire group of K.E.A’s as violent criminals making it challenging for many to further integrate. Many do not speak Khmer well enough to properly assimilate and most never learned to read and write Khmer. Although fluent in English, K.E.A’s do not have the educational background to compete with the local Khmer population of recent graduates who are literate, educated, and ambitious. The labor-based jobs that are available pay a minimum wage of $80/month a staggering difference from what many K.E.A’s were use to in America. Substance abuse, incarceration, unemployment, depression, homelessness, and suicide are ubiquitous in this community.