Deported to Cambodia: a love story

A Sac State student follows the man she loves as he returns to a homeland he doesn’t know

Jacinda Montgomery fell in love with a man who’s now being deported, so she’s decided she’s going with him.

Jacinda Montgomery fell in love with a man who’s now being deported, so she’s decided she’s going with him.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Jacinda Montgomery is preparing to leave the only country she has ever known. Her boyfriend, Yuthea Chhoueth (last name pronounced “chew”), who was born in Cambodia but raised in the United States, is being deported, and she plans to go with him. Hers is the love story of an all-American girl who fell for an almost-American guy in a country that is now forcing them out.

Chhoueth came to the United States from Cambodia with his family at the age of 4. Like thousands of other Cambodians, they came to escape the terror of the Khmer Rouge and the aftermath of U.S. bombing in Cambodia during the Vietnam War. The refugees made their home in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood. Chhoueth and his family became permanent residents of the United States and began living the only life he can remember.

The rough streets of Oak Park led Chhoueth into trouble in his teenage years—trouble that would follow him and shape the outcome of his life. The apex of Chhoueth’s youthful criminality came at the age of 18, when he attempted to rob a bank in Roseville. The botched robbery—a federal crime—landed him in prison, but because there was no weapon involved, he got off with a sentence of three years.

After serving his time, Chhoueth was given an Order of Supervision, or probation for non-citizens. The order required that he routinely check in with the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and commit no other crimes. Eight months ago, however, 12 years after the robbery conviction, Chhoueth was stopped and arrested for driving without a license. He was on his way to check in as a condition of his Order of Supervision.

The traffic violation was considered a parole violation, so it landed him back in jail for a month and a half to await a court date. But, instead of receiving a court date, Chhoueth learned that he was being deported. He was sent to the INS in San Diego and is being held there until the day he will be sent back to Cambodia, a place he has not seen since he was 4.

Chhoueth is not alone. An estimated 1,400 Cambodians will be sent back to Cambodia during the next year according to Sharon Rummery, a spokeswoman for the INS. “These are people who have been convicted of serious crimes,” said Rummery. “This is perfectly legal based on the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.”

Bill Herod, coordinator of the Returnees Assistance Program in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, said not only serious crimes can result in deportation. “Technically, [people] are sent back for ‘aggravated felonies,’ but that now covers many minor offenses, like violation of a restraining order or a drunk-driving offense.”

With the 1996 act, Congress expanded the number of crimes that made people subject to removal and allowed non-citizens to be detained without bond on the basis of criminal conviction. The law is retroactive, meaning crimes committed before 1996 are included.

“If you haven’t become a citizen, you are here as a privilege. And, if you commit a crime, you lose that privilege,” Rummery said.

Although this law applies to people from every country, Cambodia did not accept deportees back until March of this year. Herod said the Cambodian government finally gave in to U.S. pressure and agreed to receive all 1,400 Cambodians facing deportation. The U.S. pressure, Herod believes, intensified because of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Rummery, however, said the change had nothing to do with September 11. “The United States-Cambodian relationship has improved, and now deportees are able to be returned,” she said.

What all this means for Chhoueth is that he will be going to a country he does not even remember and a culture he does not know. For Montgomery, given her decision to stand by her man, it means perhaps an even greater culture shock.

The half-African-American, half-white woman was born and raised in the United States. She has never lived anywhere else, but, although facing an uncertain future, she seems ready to take on any challenge as long as she is with Chhoueth.

Throughout her accounts of their lives, their relationship and their current situation, Montgomery referred to Chhoueth as her husband at some times and her boyfriend at others. When asked about their official relationship, she said that although they are not legally married, she feels as though he is her husband.

“He is my soul mate, and a piece of paper wouldn’t make a difference,” she said. The piece of paper would not even help Chhoueth’s case. Even if he and Montgomery were married, he still would be sent back. “People who are married and even have children have been sent back. It wouldn’t make a difference,” Montgomery said.

The 25-year-old woman comes across in conversations as an activist, someone who views life as a struggle. Growing up as a biracial woman from a single parent, low-income home may have a lot to do with that. Montgomery described her life before Chhoueth as a search.

She left Oregon to attend college in Nashville, Tenn., at the historically black college Fisk University. As a government major, she began working on voting campaigns, specifically for minorities. Although she treasured the experience, she found the southern life tough to adapt to and moved back out west, this time to California. She accepted a job at the Capitol, working for the Office of the Speaker of Assembly, and attended school at California State University at Sacramento. It was in Sacramento that she met the man of her dreams.

Montgomery and Chhoueth met at the Midtown dive bar Benny’s, located just a block from where Montgomery lived. “We just hit it off,” said Montgomery. “I had never felt that kind of ease with anyone before. We just felt each other.”

They were dating for two years before Chhoueth’s arrest and detainment. Chhoueth introduced Montgomery to Buddhism, something she said has helped her put many things in perspective. Describing their relationship as spiritual, Montgomery said she believes they both found what they were searching for in each other. Now her focus is on what to expect in Cambodia.

Deportations to Cambodia have started and continue on a monthly basis. Organizations like RAP work to ease the adjustment for returnees. Herod began working with returnees in June of this year, when the first group arrived in Cambodia.

“It is a difficult adjustment, but they are coping. We are concerned about their adjustment over time as the full impact and permanency of their situation takes its toll,” Herod said.

RAP assists with job placement and housing and even offers classes in Khmer (the language spoken in Cambodia). “The majority of returnees can speak the language, but cannot read or write. RAP offers literacy classes that can help,” Herod said.

Attorney Jay W. Stansell works for the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Seattle and has been working with Montgomery and Chhoueth’s case. He got involved in the Cambodian struggle first by representing convicted Cambodians being held in jail indefinitely before March 2002.

His first client, Kim Ho Ma, was kept in jail even after serving his time because Cambodia would not accept him back. Ma was not the only one. Many non-citizens were in prison because their countries would not accept them back. This, Stansell said, is unconstitutional.

He took on Ma’s case and won in a Supreme Court decision last year. The court affirmed that detention was not authorized for more than a reasonable time beyond 90 days. Stansell since has helped 60 Cambodians be released from jail. He also follows up with those who have been sent back to Cambodia. “My office has remained in close contact with clients that have been returned. It’s mostly e-mail contact. The major adjustments for the first couple of groups has been the climate, the bugs and language barriers,” Stansell said.

He said returnees can be subject to detainment once back in Cambodia. “The group sent over in October were held in prisons or ‘immigration guesthouses’ for 27 days,” Stansell said. The immigration guesthouses are homes where returnees are kept under house arrest.

T.C. Duong, a project manager for RAP, said treatment of returnees is a concern. “We are concerned that as more and more people come back, there will not be the support for them to resettle,” he said.

The last group of nine, including an 81-year-old man, who were sent over in late November are being detained, Duong said. “Cambodian authorities have announced their intention to detain the nine for four to six weeks, though there is no legal basis for this. Human-rights organizations are questioning this policy.”

Does this worry Montgomery? “At this point, I just want it to be over with. If we have to go, then just send us. At least we’ll be together,” she said.

Because of her ordeal, Montgomery has become a student of Cambodia. She has been researching the Cambodian way of life and what she and Chhoueth can expect. She said she even has a business idea. And, in preparation for their departure, she has joined an online chat group of others who face deportation or who have arrived already.

Montgomery recently returned from Washington, D.C., where she attended a conference put on by RAP. “I’ve met a lot of people who have been helpful,” said Montgomery. For now, she and Chhoueth can see each other for only an hour a week. Montgomery flies or drives out to San Diego just to have supervised conversations with him through a window.

“We can touch hands through the opening, but that’s the only contact allowed,” she said.

They have no idea when Chhoueth will be sent back.

“After September 11, the INS restricted access of information on the status of the detainee to the detainee himself or their legal representative. Previously, that information could be released,” Duong said.

So, she waits. Montgomery is angered when people ask her why she is going with him. “You deport him, you deport me. I want us to be recognized as a couple. People are just so stuck on the piece of paper,” she said of the marriage certificate. She said she is committed to leaving with Chhoueth and is looking only to their future.

It’s not so classic, not a happily-ever-after, but it’s love nonetheless.