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Detained Cambodian immigrants sue US immigration officials

FILE: The Theo Lacy Facility in Orange, California, is used to house Orange County inmates as well as immigrant detainees under contract with federal officials. Orange County Sheriff's Department officials say they'll no longer screen inmates for immigration status or place holds on them for immigration agents.
Via Flickr
At least one recently arrested Cambodian immigrant was taken to the Theo Lacy Facility located in Orange County, California.

Civil rights advocates have filed a class-action lawsuit against U.S. immigration officials on behalf of recently arrested Cambodian immigrants, alleging that officials are unlawfully detaining them.

The two named plaintiffs are Nak Kim Chhoeun of Long Beach, and Mony Neth of Modesto, California. Both men were arrested and detained by ICE in recent weeks, along with "over a hundred Cambodian refugees with deportation orders, making these the largest raids ever to target the Cambodian community," according to a statement from Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the organization that filed the lawsuit on Oct. 27.

According to the complaint, both Chhoeun and Neth came to the United States in the 1980s as refugee children after their families fled the Khmer Rouge regime. Both ran into trouble with the law as young men about two decades ago: Chhoeun pleaded to simple assault and unlawful possession of a firearm in 1999 and Neth was convicted of unlawful possession of a weapon and receipt of stolen property in 1995. 

Both were then ordered deported to Cambodia, which has historically failed to fully cooperate with U.S. officials to accept deportees. After attempts to repatriate them were unsuccessful, they were released on supervision, which required regular check-ins with immigration officials.

The lawsuit says both men had obeyed the rules and stayed out of trouble. Chhoeun, whose case KPCC reported on last week, has been employed as a technician with AT&T for 14 years, according to the court filing. He was arrested Oct. 20 during a scheduled check-in with immigration officials and was taken to the Theo Lacy detention facility in Orange County.

"When I was detained two weeks ago, I felt betrayed and confused. My family and entire livelihood was taken from me without any reason or explanation," Chhoeun said in a statement provided by Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

The lawsuit states among other allegations that federal officials revoked the detained immigrants' release "without evidence that any particular person can now be repatriated ... ." It also alleges that officials failed to provide "adequate and timely notice" of the reasons for detaining the two men.

ICE officials said they could not comment on pending legislation.

Last week, ICE officials told KPCC that Chhoeun's arrest was part of an ongoing effort to repatriate Cambodian nationals with deportation orders.

In September, the Trump administration announced visa sanctions against Cambodia, Eritra, Guinea, and Sierra Leone "due to lack of cooperation in accepting their nationals ordered removed from the United States." Temporary visitor visas for Cambodians were discontinued. 

While Cambodians have been deported over the years, U.S. officials have had problems getting Cambodian officials to issue the travel documents to repatriate deportees. More recently, the Cambodian government had moved to suspend deportations due to humanitarian concerns, according to the complaint.

ICE officials told KPCC last week that there are more than 1,900 Cambodian nationals in the U.S. who have final deportation orders. The U.S. has more than 500 travel document requests pending with the Cambodian government, some dating back nearly a decade.