Aplane packed with around 50 Cambodian Americans set for deportation was scheduled to depart on Monday from Texas for Phnom Penh. But a court order issued late Thursday has blocked, at least for now, the Trump administration’s plan to expel them.
A US district-court judge granted a month-long temporary restraining order after attorneys argued that—in the course of raiding, apprehending, detaining, and attempting to deport more than 100 people to Cambodia in recent weeks—Immigration and Customs Enforcement denied people due process and violated the agency’s own procedures.
The restraining order doesn’t cancel the deportation orders. But it does offer these Cambodian nationals, many of whom are refugees and have lived in the United States for decades, time to sort out their cases. The request for a temporary restraining order was filed last Monday as part of a lawsuit brought by the Northern and Southern California chapters of the umbrella civil-rights organization Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and the next hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for January 11, 2018. (Disclosure: My father, an immigration-law professor, filed a document in support of the lawsuit. I learned of this not from him but in the course of my own reporting.)
More striking than the temporary reprieve this offers Cambodian Americans facing deportation is the utter rarity of such a move. As a matter of course, judges do not stop deportation flights days before departure. Immigration attorneys defending the Cambodian community say their frantic work in recent weeks has been prompted by the unprecedented speed with which the federal government has sought to deport Cambodians from the United States. The restraining order is proof of how reckless the federal government under Donald Trump has become in its all-out push to detain and deport immigrants.
“It’s definitely extraordinary,” said Laboni Hoq, litigation director at Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Los Angeles. “But I think we are in extraordinary times in terms of how the government is treating people.”
For Cambodian Americans swept up in this latest enforcement attempt, the panic began in early October when ICE began arresting people who reported for routine check-ins at their local ICE office or who, at the agency’s direction, came to ICE on their own. More than 100 Cambodians were arrested and detained in October. That number alone gave immigration attorneys cause for alarm.
“This is my seventh round of raids [on the Cambodian community] since I started working at the Asian Law Caucus in 2010,” said Anoop Prasad, senior staff attorney at the San Francisco-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus. “It’s always chaotic. But normally they are a fifth of the size.”
Typically, when immigration attorneys get word that people are getting picked up, they head to detention centers to talk to detainees so they can understand the circumstances of their arrests and immigration records. “But the numbers were so overwhelming this time we were struggling to do even that,” Prasad said. “Our phones were ringing constantly.”
What became clear was that the federal government was identifying Cambodians with deportation orders and apprehending as many people as they could as quickly as they could, Prasad said, without following proper regulations which dictate how ICE should go about detaining people.
The arrests surprised the Southeast Asian community alongside reports of similar mass arrests of Vietnamese Americans. “Individuals were often convicted when they were teens or young adults,” said Katrina Dizon Mariategue, immigration-policy manager with the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center. Their convictions are for crimes like domestic violence, weapons possession, joyriding, and assault. In the intervening years, they’ve cleaned up their lives, and “have been going in for check-ins for years, sometimes decades. Now they’re in shock that all of a sudden ICE is rounding them up to remove them.”
ICE began apprehending people in California, home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia, as well as Massachusetts, Washington, Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, and North and South Carolina, Mariategue said.