A Cambodian refugee who says he was wrongly deported nearly two years ago was reunited with his family in Massachusetts on Wednesday, becoming the fourth such refugee — and first on the East Coast — to be allowed back into the country since the Trump administration stepped up deportations of Southeast Asians.
Thy Chea arrived at Boston’s Logan Airport after successfully petitioning to get his green card reinstated and suing the federal government to allow him to return to the country.
The 50-year-old Lowell resident was welcomed by his family and supporters, who cheered, held signs and handed him flower bouquets as they greeted him at the baggage claim.
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Chea quickly scooped up his young daughter and one-year-old son, who was born after he was deported and had never met him in person.
"I am so grateful to be with my family. It’s been 18 months," he said tearfully. "This is my kid and it’s the first time I’m holding him and meeting him."
Chea joins three other Cambodian Americans, all residents of California, who have returned after being deported. The most recent was Sok Loeun, who landed at San Francisco’s airport this month after living in Cambodia for five years.
Wednesday’s reunion in Boston also comes as Cambodian communities are bracing for their seventh round of deportation raids in the next two weeks and Laotian communities are anticipating increased deportations this year, said Kevin Lam, of the Asian American Resource Workshop, a local advocacy group.
"Many Southeast Asian Americans are facing deportation now because of past criminal convictions," he said after meeting Chea and his family at the airport. "We need to uplift people’s humanity and not reduce them to criminals."
Deportations of Cambodians have been happening since about 2002, when Cambodia agreed to begin repatriating refugees convicted of felony crimes in the U.S.
But they have risen sharply since Trump imposed visa sanctions on Cambodia and a handful of other nations in order to compel them to speed up the process.
The result was a roughly 280% increase, from 29 removals in the federal fiscal year 2017 to 110 in 2018, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement data.
Asian American groups complain many Southeast Asians facing deportation served criminal sentences years and sometimes decades ago, when they were troubled young refugees struggling to adjust to a new country.
Southeast Asians, which include immigrants from Vietnam, represent the largest refugee community in U.S. history, according to advocates. Many fled their countries during the years of upheaval, civil war and genocide that followed the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.
In Chea’s case, he fled Cambodia’s brutal Khmer Rouge regime with his parents and five siblings when he was 10, according to court documents.
The family lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before arriving in the U.S. in 1981.
He was ordered to leave the country in 2000 after pleading guilty to assault and battery and "threat to commit a crime" and serving a three-month sentence.
But the deportation order was suspended in 2004, and Chea was allowed to remain in the country as long as he didn’t commit further crimes and checked in regularly with federal immigration officials, according to court documents.
That changed in 2018, when Chea was detained during an immigration check-in and eventually deported.
Chea’s lawyers argued that his criminal charges weren’t deportable offenses and that he should have been allowed to remain in the country.
The Board of Immigration Appeals agreed, reopening his immigration case and restoring his lawful permanent resident status last year.
Greater Boston Legal Services, which is representing Chea, then sued the federal government in December, saying immigration officials were still "unlawfully" refusing to facilitate Chea’s return.
A spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is named in the lawsuit in Boston federal court, declined to comment.
"It’s been a long fight to get Thy back," said Bethany Li, his lawyer. "We really hope this is the start of a lot more people coming back to our communities."