When Veasana Ath got busted for residential burglary in 2004, he had no idea that his future as a U.S. resident was imperiled.
Ath came to this country with his family as a toddler. Although he never became a citizen, he never thought he was anything but American.
After doing three months in jail, Ath was picked up by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, predecessor to the current Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
By the end of the year, he was in Cambodia penniless, with no job, no family or friends and virtually no chance of ever returning home.
The story of Ath and 188 other Cambodian-Americans sent back to their homes has its roots in the 1996 presidential race, the aftermath of the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the roiling world of immigration politics.
When the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was passed by Congress in 1996, among its main goals was expelling and stiffening penalties against aliens who overstay visa allowances and improving security against illegal immigration on the borders and internally.
The law came in the wake of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, when immigration was a hot topic in the run-up to the 1996 presidential election.
While the law achieved some its objectives, it also spawned a population of immigrants, green-card holding “lawful permanent residents,” who could be more easily deported.
One reason for this was a provision in the law that greatly expanded the list of crimes that qualified as “aggravated felonies” that would make aliens deportable.
When the category of “aggravated felonies” was first added to immigration law in 1988, it encompassed only murder and trafficking in drugs or firearms.
Those crimes along with a number of other violent and sex crimes remain as deportable offenses. But the 1996 law also added dozens of lesser offenses. These can include forgery, burglary, tax evasion, domestic abuse and any attempt to commit an aggravated felony.
A number of crimes make aliens deportable if the sentence is a year or more, regardless of time served or whether the sentence was suspended. It even includes crimes that are misdemeanors in some states.
The legislation also reduced leeway for judges to consider providing relief. Issues such as immigration status, time lived in the U.S., existence of family who are citizens, ties to the community, or service to the U.S., including military, are not considered.
Whether this was an intended consequence depends on to whom you talk. But the fallout has been substantial.
According to a Human Rights Watch report in July 2007, deportation of legal immigrants convicted of crimes “has separated an estimated 1.6 million children and adults, including U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents from their non-citizen family members.”
It has hit hard in the Cambodian-American community in Long Beach since 2002, when Cambodia began accepting deportees.