Community leads effort to keep Khmer families together

KhAAG celebrates the release of Thuoy Phok and Roeuth An. (Photo by Bunthay Cheam)

As we cherish our loved ones this holiday season, 36 Khmer Americans will be oceans apart from their families in a place most have never been before.

Roughly a week before Christmas, these community members were packed on an Omni Air International flight to Cambodia. The 36 Khmer Americans were part of a late summer wave of raids by ICE in our communities, which included the seizure of seven Khmer Americans (known as the WA7) from the Seattle-Tacoma area.

Khmer Americans are one of the most vulnerable refugees in the United States and have endured a continuous cycle of displacement and re-displacement: U.S. bombings, a genocide, an ensuing refugee wave, and now deportation.

Jane Chan’s uncle Thouy Phok is one of the WA7.

“He’s my father figure,” Chan said. “Since my great grandmother passed … he’s been the one to hold us all together.”

Chan’s situation is particularly devastating; last year, her father was deported and now the trauma has played out all over again: “I don’t even know, I just feel like I would shut down, I don’t want to have to go through this again.”

Lorng Raing’s son Roeuth An is part of the WA 7. She’s been separated from him before.

“When he was five, the Khmer Rouge took him away from me,” she said. . “When they [ICE] took him away, all those emotions came rushing back.”

The removals of the 36 community members have sent shock waves through the community. However, the tide is turning. Following this latest wave, an ad hoc group led by some of the family members of the WA7 has come together.

The Khmer Anti-deportation Advocacy Group of Washington (KhAAG) was formed to mobilize on behalf of the WA7, and to arm the community with resources and information to push back. This group works with a broader coalition of legal experts, partners in policy, and community activists.

We’re calling for:

  • Re-open your case: Don’t wait until the next raid to scramble for legal help or learn how to fight back during a crisis. Once you or a loved one are detained, it’s exponentially harder for lawyers to start the process of fighting a deportation order. Community members that are not detained now, look into your old case(s) ASAP. There are viable legal options for most of our members. Here are steps to take in preparation for re-opening your case and working with a lawyer.
  • Know Your Rights (KYR) training: Fund culturally appropriate and language accessible Know Your Rights (KYR) trainings. This needs to be county funded for our community, and the renewal of the Legal Defense Fund (2.2M in King County 2019-2020) budget can be a funding source to equitably distribute among high impact communities like ours.
  • Elected officials, stand with us: We call on our elected officials to publicly stand with us and demand justice for Southeast Asian refugees faced with the uncertainty and terror of deportations. Sign onto congressional letters, championed by many of our local leaders in support of families under attack. Denounce policies or bilateral agreements  that would remove protections for our most vulnerable members. Also, until the pardons and clemency process is restructured to properly address the crisis our communities face, there needs to be a pathway that will expedite and/or prioritize our pardon hearings and case relief options when families find themselves in crisis.

A ripple effect has begun. Roueth An received a pardon by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and will not be deported; he will stay with his family.

“I’m just so happy he’s back with us, I spent many months of sleepless nights,” said Raing through tears.

In the process of applying for a pardon, Phok was released from ICE detention due to a technicality in his case. He will also get to stay with his family.

“Breathless. In shock. Overwhelmed,” Chan said. “I don’t know. It’s hard to find words to how we felt.”

These victories were won on the shoulders of tireless SE Asian organizers since 2002, leadership of impacted families, community advocates, intersectional allies, national networks, legal aid, The Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, and the Washington State Clemency & Pardons Board.

Inslee’s decision to grant a pardon speaks to the crisis so many of our families face across the country. Too often and for far too long, our communities were drowning in silence, believing we were undeserving, hopeless in fighting this battle.

Breaking through the fear and shame has been difficult, but that tide is shifting, and currents change, slowly but surely.

Thank you to Governor Inslee, you stand on the right side of history.

Congratulations to the An and Phok families!

However, there are more storms to weather. Before the wheels even touched the tarmac on the latest flight, the Khmer community was put on alert yet again by news of imminent ICE raids in the new year. The Trump administration has also set their sights on our Vietnamese brothers and sisters, with them we share space on our vessel. Please add your name to the thousands who have urged the administration to stop upending Vietnamese and Southeast Asian refugee communities here:

There is still much more work to be done, we will continue to rock the boat together.

We know that this is a long-term fight against the deportation machine. If you are interested in staying updated about the fight against Southeast Asian deportation, and potential opportunities to engage in organizing efforts, please fill out this contact form.


A community effort to advocate, support and provide resources for our community members who are unfairly targeted by ICE with orders of removal, detained, or deported in Washington.

Created by non-profit and community organizations to provide resources and up to date information for people facing deportation to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.

Southeast Asian Solidarity Toolkit: A Guide to Resisting Detentions and Deportations
Tools, tips, and best practices around organizing, advocacy, and legal strategies employed by #ReleaseMN8 campaign organizers in their fight to free their loved ones.

Resource Guide for Southeast Asian Americans Facing Criminal Deportation
This resource guide was designed to help noncitizens from Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian and Vietnamese American communities who have criminal convictions and currently face deportation, or who have pending criminal charges and may face deportation in the future.

Washington Pardon Guide

California Pardon Guide

Legal Support for pro-bono case consult and pardon relief

Immigration Lawyers for order of removals if the above resources cannot assist

Sophath Chou
11900 NE First St., Ste. 300
Bellevue, WA 98005
425-830-0400 (Main)
425-298-3749 (Khmer)

Nick Marchi
108 S. Washington St.  No. 406
Seattle, WA 98104

Brent DeYong
PO Box 1668
Moses Lake, WA 98837
(509) 764-4333

Criminal Defense Lawyers for post-conviction relief

Attorney Tim Askerov of Black Law PLLC
(206) 623-1604

Resources in Cambodia

Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization

1Love Cambodia

Zin Adventures (Deportee led for work opportunities)