The yellowed eyes of Phal Pen stared, unseeing, as he lay on his hospital bed, waiting for another scan at the Khmer-Russian Friendship hospital in Phnom Penh.
Since doctors diagnosed him at the end of 2022 with bile-duct cancer, Pen has been struck low by a constant pain in his abdomen. He could barely eat, let alone move.
His bed was one of several lining the hospital’s open-air hallway, where weary patients waited, sweating it out in the humid Cambodian heat. Families surrounded him, women rubbing damp cloths over their loved ones’ foreheads and fussing over every pained expression. Bored children napped on the ground in quieter corridors while others entertained themselves by roughhousing one another.
In Cambodia, you need your family with you if you’re hospitalized. You need somebody with the wherewithal to advocate for your care in a system where money talks, and where those who cannot afford to pay are overlooked. You need somebody for the most basic tasks: pushing your bed to the exam room, or walking you to the restroom. You need someone to bring you meals and small comforts like blankets and pillows – none of which the hospital provides.
But Pen, 48, is alone. He’s been alone since he was forcibly sent back in 2018 to Cambodia, a country he left when he was just six years old.
Pen and his family were among the more than 195,000 Cambodian refugees who resettled in the US between 1975 and 1999. Escaping the unrest left behind by the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, these refugees were granted green card status as permanent residents, free from the harrowing violence that tore through the country of their ancestors.
Pen spent almost four decades in Modesto, California, where he grew into adulthood, raised four children as a single father, and opened an auto repair shop. He knew no other home than the one he and his family built from nothing in the US.
He was ripped from that home five years ago when he was deported to Cambodia, one of hundreds of wartime refugees the US has cast out over the past 21 years.
“I was sent to Cambodia and abandoned,” Pen whispered from his hospital bed. “I have no family bloodline here. If I pass away, who is going to be at my funeral?”
Since Cambodia and the US signed a repatriation agreement in 2002, opening a gateway for deportations, 1,033 individuals have been forced to leave their homes and completely rebuild their lives in a country foreign to them.
More than 76% of Cambodian deportations since 2002 were based on criminal convictions. As of March, there were 1,801 Cambodians with final orders of removal on the national docket for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) – 1,342 for past crimes.
The deportees had already repaid their full debt to society when they were sent back. Many had entered the prison system while still in their youth, leaving in their middle age.
While the crimes that led to these deportations vary – from drug possession to check fraud to murder – many of the former prisoners have gone through counseling, attended classes and participated in restorative justice programs. They either fulfilled their sentences or underwent the taxing process of getting approved for parole. But as they’re finally released – to reunite with their families and to rebuild the communities they played a part in shattering – the US is punishing them once more by exiling them from their home and loved ones.
They are, for all intents and purposes, handed a second sentence – this time for life.
“It’s made me feel like a lost cause,” said Chamroeun Mich, who was deported in 2022. “It was a strenuous process to get parole. It took years and years of discipline, of educating myself, of changing the way I thought, and then I had to go in front of a board of six to seven members who scrutinized everything that I did during my incarceration and my life prior to that. But even though I made it out of that strenuous process, the federal government decided, you know what, he’s not rehabilitated. He can’t be rehabilitated. Send him away. We don’t want him.”
Many were deported back to Cambodia with little to no memory of their homeland. They were just children when they arrived in the US as part of the wave of refugees that began in the late 1970s, when hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled the region after surviving years of civil war, genocide and US-led bombings that decimated nearly a quarter of the country’s population. Others hadn’t ever set foot in the country, having been born in refugee camps across the border in Thailand.
To be sent to a place that is so unfamiliar, without a support system, leads some to desperation. Drug and alcohol abuse is not uncommon within the returnee community; it’s a way to numb the crushing loneliness. The Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organisation (KVAO), a non-profit that helps returnees acclimate to their new lives, has found that about 8% of the 772 returnees in its program have died since 2002. In comparison, just 2% of parolees released from prison in California during that same time period have died. The causes of death among deportees range from traffic accidents to drug overdoses, according to the organization. Some were also suicides.
In November, the prime minister of Cambodia, Hun Sen – a former Khmer Rouge soldier who had held his position of power for 38 years until this month – beseeched the US to reconsider its 2002 repatriation agreement with the country, “in light of the humanitarian aspects of the issue”.
“Some of the deportees committed suicide and some have died of other causes,” Sen said. “Their families – parents, spouses and children – are all in the US.”
Some returnees have made the best out of their new lives. They’ve launched non-profits, landed teaching jobs, opened new businesses and started families. But even the ones who have done well for themselves told the Guardian about an ache that persists. Knowing they can never return home to their family feels like a part of their soul has been torn from their bodies. They feel forever incomplete, forced to live a half-life with the missing piece of themselves firmly rooted thousands of miles away.
“You see everyone else here with their families, and they’re so happy,” said Phal Pen. “For us deportees, we never get to have that again. We push day by day to put a smile on our face, but after that, you just start thinking: is this all it’s going to be?”
Before ending up alone in a hospital in Phnom Penh, Pen followed a path in the US that’s all too familiar among Cambodian Americans of his generation.
Pen’s parents had survived the terror of the work camps, losing three children to starvation before they were able to secure a way out for them and their two remaining sons in 1981 – first to Chicago, then to Modesto, California.
As new immigrants with little money, Pen and his family had no choice but to move into a lower-income neighborhood. There, they found other displaced Cambodian refugees just like them – a community. But they also found themselves fighting for the same scarce resources alongside the Black and Latino populations that had occupied that space before them.
Pen and the other neighborhood Cambodian youth he grew up with were bullied by rival gang members, who were known to jump or beat up any Asian kid seen walking alone. Pen was 13 the first time he got jumped. It would not be the last time. In response, Pen joined a street gang made up of his childhood friends when he was 15. “You had to protect yourself,” Pen said. “You had to have friends around you, to have your back.”
Dispersed throughout lower-income neighborhoods in California, the east coast and Minnesota, much of Pen’s generation found themselves in similar situations: targeted by the other youth gangs and forced to form their own for protection. “They were resettling in neighborhoods that had a long history of gangs already,” said Kevin Lam, a Drake University urban and diversity education professor who studies Asian American youth violence. “These were neighborhoods with a lot of folks who were struggling for a long time. You picked on the new kid in town.”
Pen’s parents had broken up after having two more children, and he needed to find a way to help his single mother with the bills. As a poor kid growing up with other poor kids, he turned to a ready solution proffered to him by his gang: drugs. Pen began selling weed and crack cocaine, and started using the drugs he was selling.
Like the other Cambodian American gangs across the country at the time, Pen’s gang mirrored the aesthetic, violence and drug-dealing of the gangs that targeted him and his friends. They came together not just for protection, but for a sense of belonging they could not find elsewhere. Who else could comprehend the unspoken trauma of the killing fields and work camps, now made heavier by the new trauma of immigration, poverty and gang violence? “It was a means for survival as well as a form of brotherhood,” Lam said.
Lawmakers responded to the rise in gangs by enacting a number of laws that disproportionately punished youth of color, Lam said. States passed a form of three-strikes law in which individuals – juvenile offenders included – convicted of a third felony offense would receive an automatic lengthy prison sentence. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 implemented mandatory minimum sentencing for drug offenses.
The result was that from 1977 to 1997, when the Asian population in the US tripled, arrests of Asian American and Pacific Islander youth increased by 726%.
“That’s what they don’t get,” said Phoeun You, who was deported to Cambodia last year. “The US came to my country,” he said, referring to the US bombing of Cambodia to flush out communist forces – a military campaign that left the country in a chaos from which the Khmer Rouge rose to power. “And because of that, I had to leave. Then they claimed to be our savior for bringing us to their country, but they dropped us off in the middle of the hood and forced us to fend for ourselves. And then they’re shocked when we’re not angels.”
In 1996, amid America’s “tough on crime” era and push for tougher immigration policies, Bill Clinton signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The law expanded the criminal convictions for which legal permanent residents could be deported. Green card-holding refugees could now be sent back to a country many did not remember for crimes committed in their youth. “We are still a nation of immigrants; we should be proud of it,” Clinton said in his State of the Union address that year. “But we are also a nation of laws.”
Deportation would not have been possible had they become citizens, but as minors, they could only become citizens if their parents received citizenship – and many did not seek it, having had enough to grapple with trying to survive in a new country. For others, crimes committed in their youth meant they were barred from seeking citizenship.
“Folks with old convictions, folks who had already paid their debt to society, who had already served their full sentence in jail and prison, were being targeted by immigration,” said Elijah Chhum, the community engagement and advocacy director at the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland, California. “Even though they had businesses, families, homes, they were being targeted and ripped away from their children and wives and mothers and fathers.”
The practice continues today. Phoeun You spent 26 years behind bars for killing a teenager at the age of 21 in a retaliatory drive-by shooting against a rival gang that had beaten up his nephew. He went straight from prison to immigration detention and on to an airplane in August 2022, escorted by three officers. He never got to see his family as a free man – he never got to tell his elderly parents goodbye.
Some of the earlier deportees were escorted on to the plane with nothing but the clothes on their back, while some spent years with the threat of deportation hanging over their heads. Others were fortunate enough to have had family track down relatives who could accept them, or had been able to raise enough funds for them to cushion their first arrival.
You ended up in transitional housing provided by KVAO. He got a room to himself, but the window had bars on it. “It felt like I was back in jail,” he said.
He could not get used to the heat at first. He woke up every two hours his first night, his back drenched in sweat. Then the depression hit like a punch to the gut. After a quarter of a century in prison, this foreign land where nothing was familiar felt overwhelming, overstimulating, too much all at once. He couldn’t grasp the language fully, and nor could he read the signs written in Khmer script. He could not fathom how to even walk down the roads where motorbikes came from all directions, and tuk-tuks seemed to follow their own rules.
And no matter how hard they try to fit in, returnees stand out among the locals. The gloss of their time in the US never leaves them. “The way you look, the way you dress, and then the smallest details, like your skin’s clear. Your teeth are a little bit whiter,” You said.
That leaves many deportees feeling like outcasts in what is supposed to be their new home. But beyond feeling at odds with his surroundings, You has been plagued with a painful yearning ever since his arrival. Though his parents are still alive, they are 90 and 81 and cannot make the long journey to visit him. They will never get to truly experience the man he’s worked so hard to become today. He will never have the chance to take care of them in their old age the way he knows a son should.
A few weeks after he landed in Phnom Penh, You connected with some family in the countryside, where he finally found a semblance of peace amid the turmoil roiling inside him. He was drawn to watching the fishermen casting their wide nets over the water, providing for their families and fishing in the way his ancestors had for generations before him.
Those fishermen were exactly where they were meant to be, You realized. And he was not.
Even before his cancer diagnosis, the depression was heavy for Phal Pen. He had worked hard to stay off drugs and away from crime, dedicating his life to raising his four children. But now without them, he felt bereft. Anchorless. Without a purpose.
Pen’s youth passed by in a haze of violence and drug use. He dropped out of school. He survived getting shot in a drive-by. He ran afoul of the law a number of times, serving time in jail for criminal threats and disturbing the peace. But during this period, he also met the mother of his children. His only daughter was born.
Then one night, during one of the many heated, drug- and alcohol-fueled arguments that marked their relationship, Pen grabbed his wife’s arm. She called the police. He was high, and could barely remember the circumstances that led to that moment. But in the aftermath, he was sick with himself. Violence had been such an integral part of his life, but he had never let it near his family.
He pleaded guilty to domestic violence, just wanting to do what was necessary to get home. He served three days in jail for the offense. He began looking for an exit from the drugs and violence as he and his wife had two more children, both sons.
But he had trouble finding a job because of his criminal history. He worked for a short while at a warehouse, and was fired after they discovered his past convictions. By then, his wife was pregnant with their fourth child. He panicked about how he would provide for his growing family. “I went back to what I knew,” he said. He was convicted of drug possession for sale in 2001.
While he was serving his sentence, his wife ended their relationship, leaving his four children in the care of Pen’s mother. Pen was going to be a single father when he was released. He had a mission now: to get his life together for his kids.
The man who emerged from prison four years later was the man Pen’s children know as their father: a responsible, hardworking man who always put them first. Phollo Say, his youngest, was in the womb when Pen was incarcerated. He had never met his father before the day he returned from prison. Say, 22, described that day: “My whole family was outside. We didn’t know who he was. This buff Asian man just got out of the car, all tatted up. And he had the biggest smile on his face.”
Pen’s four kids had been living with their grandmother in a two-bedroom apartment, stretched to house 10 people. Pen immediately went to work to get them out of there, taking on two jobs, one at a warehouse and another doing auto repair, and taking classes toward getting his GED. Within a few years, he moved them out of the neighborhood, away from the gangs that dominated his youth. Eventually, Pen would open his own auto repair business. His two youngest sons still speak proudly of the moment their father had finally earned enough money to buy a BMW – the first person they knew to own a luxury vehicle. “My dad, he showed us that you can work hard, and whatever you want, if you put your mind to it, you can get it,” Say said.
Pen saw his kids through elementary school and middle school, terrified that they would be separated again – he knew that with his criminal record, his parenting would be under extra scrutiny. Say said their father feared even allowing them to play sports, in case authority figures misconstrued any sort of boyhood bump or bruise. But Pen had remained hopeful. He attended his immigration hearings. He stayed as steady as he could, away from crime and the gang lifestyle that had ruled his existence before then.
But a lot of his friends were still involved in that life, his kids said. With the stresses of being a single father weighing on him, Pen relapsed back into drug use. One night, a gathering at his house brought the police, who found crystal meth. It was enough to draw the eye of immigration agents.
Anumber of returnees in Cambodia continue to actively campaign to end deportations and allow for their return home. They brainstorm with immigration attorneys in the US who work to secure their pardons, one of the few ways to reverse a deportation order based on a criminal conviction.
At the same time, the accepted wisdom passed around the returnee network is to accept what it is: this is your life now. Make the best of it.
Some manage to make a fresh start. KVAO, the non-profit funded in part by the US Agency for International Development, has a 73% employment rate for the returnees in its program. Of the 772 individuals in the program – there have been 789 total from the US who were deported based on past criminal convictions – 168 are now teaching English, while 12 live and work abroad.
There are more than a few success stories. Chandara Tep, who is 50 and was deported in 2011, is one of them. At first, he ran a tattoo shop with an artist who specialized in Khmer art. For almost five years, he owned a restaurant – fellow returnees used to gather there to celebrate Thanksgiving. He’s now setting up his own chicken farm on a small plot of land outside Phnom Penh, all while working part-time as a nightlife guide for tourists.
Few people knew how heavily he used to drink up until just a few years ago. They don’t know that even after more than a decade, he still retreats to a dark place during the holidays, and has to go on long drives to take his mind off the happy, raucous memories of Christmas mornings long past.
“Being deported is like becoming a refugee again,” Tep said. You arrive in a new country, unsure of anything. You seek out others who eat the same food as you do, who understand your traditions. You try to find that sense of belonging and home that was taken from you.
Even after all these years, when Tep thinks of home he thinks of Modesto, California. He thinks of the three children he left behind, now almost grown, and the backyard barbecues and ball games. He thinks of the life that could have been.
The criminal offense that led to Tep’s deportation occurred when he was a teenager: assault with a deadly weapon. In his family’s first home in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, where drug deals still take place out in the open, he witnessed both his mother and father get mugged. They moved to Modesto when he was 12, and he became an outcast both in the predominantly Black neighborhood where his family lived and also at the school he attended in Chinatown, where his classmates considered him too dark to be accepted as one of their own.
He gravitated toward a group of other young Cambodian Americans for protection. “We started meeting each other, standing up for each other, fighting for each other, everything,” Tep said. “It was like a pipeline to prison.”
He was arrested when he was 17, convicted at 18. The original charge was attempted murder: Tep had been accused of firing into an inhabited dwelling while participating in a criminal street gang. But he pleaded to the lesser charge, and was released from prison after four and a half years. He returned soon after for being in possession of a firearm, a violation of his parole. During this stint behind bars, he began corresponding with the woman who would become his wife. And just like that, he was done with that life. When he was released at the age of 25, he knew he would do whatever it took to never go back to prison again.
For 13 years, Tep and his wife lived the American dream. Tep got a job as a laser machine operator, working his way from minimum wage to $30 an hour. He began pulling an income from his hobby of raising backyard chickens. They bought a house in Modesto, and his wife started her master’s degree. They had three children, two sons and a daughter. Tep lived for their Sundays together, when he’d pile all of them into his giant GMC pickup truck and take them to the Stanislaus River to go fishing.
Then one morning, he dropped his daughter off at kindergarten and returned home to find six officers with machine guns waiting for him.
In a statement, an Ice spokesperson said whether a person is deported is ultimately at the discretion of federal immigration judges in immigration court. But returnees and immigration reform advocates said it feels as if there is no rhyme or reason as to how Ice chooses the person to bring before the judge. Under the 1996 law, any immigrant with a criminal conviction that falls under the “aggravated felony” category – crimes that range from murder to fraud to drug trafficking – is subject to deportation. Yet some deportees have siblings who grew up similarly to them, racking up criminal convictions, and they still remain in the US. Some went straight from prison to Ice detention to Cambodia, while others were released and lived free before they were deported.
Tep had spent 110 days in Ice custody after his first stint in prison before he was allowed to go home. Though he did whatever he could to fight his deportation, consulting with attorneys and attending his immigration hearings, the possibility hung over his head like an ax. He used to return from working the graveyard shift to a quiet house, his whole world safe and asleep in their beds, and think to himself: “I’m going to lose this all one day.”
He was pragmatic about it, however. He spent those 13 years of freedom saving up money for the day the worst-case scenario would come to fruition, and hit the ground running when he touched down in Phnom Penh. He dedicated his first two years in Cambodia to carving out a place for his family to eventually join him. He bought a five-bedroom house by the airport. He found a job for his wife, as a bank manager.
But the distance became too much for their marriage. Tep said it was his wife who one day decided she couldn’t do it – she couldn’t uproot her life and move across the world, even if it meant keeping their family together. (In a phone interview, his wife said it was Tep who decided that their children were more likely to get a better education in the US than in Cambodia.)
Tep began drinking more and more. His wife filed for divorce. And suddenly, his kids stopped returning his calls.
Tep believes it was his ex-wife who cut off contact between him and his children. His ex-wife said it was the children’s choice. Either way, despite his best efforts and attempts by his friends and family to reconnect them, he never spoke to his kids again.
It’s been almost 12 years since his deportation. His kids are almost grown now – he keeps his social media open, in the hope they’ll one day contact him. Though he hasn’t been able to stay in touch, he knows everything about them, drilling his friends and family back home for the latest details. He knows they stayed with the after-school martial arts program he enrolled them in to keep them out of the trouble he got into as a kid. He knows his eldest was a star student, and is now studying at Stanislaus State. He knows his son sold the ’64 Chevy Impala that Tep had fixed up and left for him – a piece of knowledge that hurt him to his core.
Not a day goes by when he doesn’t wake up thinking about them – remembering their laughter, their silly reactions as he taught them to bait a worm for fishing. He remembers everything, but also far too little – he missed so much of their childhood, years he can never get back. “I never got to fix my son’s tie before prom,” he said. “I never got to give them advice.
“Everybody thought I was fine, that I accepted it, because I had business after business after business [here in Cambodia] and was making it work,” Tep said. “But you always still have America in the back of your mind.”
In the US, the same ache haunts the hearts of many of the deportees’ families. For these families, there will always be an empty seat at the table for family dinners. Mothers who dreamed of finally having all their children in one room again after years of incarceration must accept this will never happen. Children who longed to finally get to know their fathers have to pinch their pennies to afford the airfare to see them.
For Pen’s two youngest sons, Phollo Say and Phalvan Saypen, 23, each day is a struggle. For almost 10 years, they woke up each morning to their dad’s silly antics as he whipped open the blinds and danced around the room. To not have that, even after all these years, is jarring.
Since their father left, their lives have been aimless. They entered foster care for a short time before their uncle in Texas could take them in – a traumatic, emotionally scarring experience they both still struggle to talk about. After high school, they got jobs at the Tesla factory in northern California, following in their father’s footsteps in his passion for cars.
But to them, it was just a way to pay the bills, and just barely. They wanted to send their father financial help, but they were living paycheck to paycheck in San Jose, California, where the median rent is $3,175 a month.
At 22 and 23 they’re technically grown, but in so many ways, still in need of a parent. Phalvan Saypen described the past five years for the brothers as surviving – scraping together enough money to get through to the next day. He sees kids his age on social media moving back in with their parents to save up for the future, able to go to school and discover a purpose in their lives. They can’t ever have that, he realized. They have no parent they can rely on in the US. “We just have to basically figure out ways to do things on our own,” Saypen said.
And then came their father’s cancer diagnosis.
In December 2022, a sudden pain in Pen’s abdomen stopped him in his tracks. His skin and eyes turned yellow. He couldn’t catch his breath. It hurt to eat, and the formerly muscular man began dropping pounds at an alarming rate – yet his stomach swelled as if he were pregnant.
Pen sought medical treatment immediately, but so much was lost in translation, between the Khmer, the French in which Cambodian doctors are trained, and the medical jargon. Doctors told him at first that they had found “meat” in his liver – according to his medical records, it was a 1.4cm mass in one of the bile ducts that would steadily grow to 7cm in just a few months – a tumor.
They told him first that he had 20 days to live, then six months, then possibly years – only if he kept returning to the hospital for the costly treatment of getting his stomach drained of built-up fluid. Doctors needed to remove the mass in Pen’s liver – but they warned Pen that if he got the procedure done in Cambodia, he would probably die. They advised him to go to Thailand for treatment – westerners living in Cambodia are often advised to seek medical treatment in Thailand instead, as the country’s medical facilities do not meet international standards.
Pen did not have the money for that. It cost him $170 a night whenever he needed a hospital stay. He had to pay a friend of his family $150 a month to help care for him and to act as his family when he needed to go in for tests or treatments. It cost another $300 to drain his stomach.
As a security guard, he earned only about $350 a month, and once he got sick, he was too weak and in too much pain to continue working. His kids wanted to help, but there was only so much they could do. His youngest sons were living paycheck to paycheck. His daughter just had her third child, and his oldest son was struggling as well, dealing with a newborn with medical issues.
Looking back on his life, Pen regretted all his wrongdoings. But for the life of him, he could not think of any crime he committed that would have warranted such a torturous and painful sentence as this.
He had paid for all his crimes, serving time in prison and on probation. In deporting him, the US government sentenced him a second time – this time to death.
Phal Pen spent his 48th birthday in the hospital, calling his four kids on video chat from his hospital bed. His two oldest had their own cakes on the call to celebrate their father. Later, his grandson tried to feed him crackers through the screen, eliciting a wan smile across his gaunt face.
A few weeks later, Pen passed away in his sleep.
Pen had feared dying, but more than anything, he feared dying before he could be reunited with his children. He died yearning not for anything splashy like their summer vacations to Yosemite, but for everyday life with them; reminiscing about surprising them with fast food after school, and taking them shopping for essentials – the little things that don’t mean anything until they’re gone.
He spent his last months alive in tremendous emotional and physical pain, wanting to go home and be with his children again.
In the end, Pen will get to do what so few deportees have been able to achieve. Once his kids raise the funds, they will fulfill their father’s dying wish to return home to the US – in the form of ashes to be divided between the four of them.
This article was amended on 18 August 2023 to clarify that Hun Sen is the prime minister of Cambodia and not the “former”.
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Howard G Buffett Fund for Women Journalists.