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Featured Story: Cambodian Gangs in America: Then and Now

{11/25/2006--Phnom Penh, Cambodia: 'Popeye' and his Khmer gang tattoos in the 'hood' an area behind the Russian embassy where many deportees have settled in Phnom Penh.}

Welcome today's guest contributor, well-respected and well-published photographer Stuart Isett, who I discovered on flickr when searching for photos of Cambodia. This story is intriguing because of Stuart's connection between the deportation topic and the escape from the killing fields.
All photographs copyright © 2009 Stuart Isett/http://www.isett.com/. All rights reserved. Images and text in this post were used by written permission from Stuart Isett.

Cambodian Gangs in America: Then and Now

From the early to mid 1990s I photographed the subculture of Cambodian street gangs in the United States. Having lived under the Khmer Rouge, most came to the US scarred by their early experiences and soon fell into gang life in the US, as their families moved into some of the country's most violent cities. They came as political refugees to the US and unlike their younger siblings, born in the US, never became citizens.

10 years later, 2006, and nearly 200 of Cambodian men now find themselves living in Cambodia after being deported from the US. Mostly gang members, they served time in jail in the USA only to find themselves punished again on their release. Now, they are serving a life sentence of the strangest sort, shipped to a country they do not know and have no families, thanks to toughening immigration policies post 9/11. In the mid-1990s the US passed laws that allowed illegal immigrants convicted of felonies to be deported without a hearing. These measures were aimed at illegal immigrants filling American jails but these Cambodians weren’t illegal. All were welcomed to the USA as refugees of the wars of the 1970s, but now anti-terror laws have pushed the deportation of aliens, with no chance of ever gaining citizenship.

This is an unusual saga in the ongoing immigration frenzy in the USA, as Cambodia is the only country that has signed a special deal to take back such nationals - only many aren’t Cambodians at all. Some were born in refugee camps outside Cambodia, so they are stateless refugees who the US granted asylum and permanent residence, however impermanent that turned out to be.

For these kids, there were no second chances, even for those who had served their time, come out, gotten jobs, started families. In fact, it is double jeopardy, as some were picked up after they had served their time due to a retroactive clause that sent law enforcement to scoop up non-citizens with no chance of becoming US citizens. Most left behind children and wives and they were initially shipped over with no program or provision for resettlement, hardened criminals dumped on one of the world’s poorest countries, with no provisions for rehabilitation or resettlement.

'Wicked' and other deportees play local kids at basketball most Sunday afternoons.


You can also see the video of this story via http://www.isett.com/data/web/Lostboyz.mov. His flickr site is http://www.flickr.com/photos/stuartisett

Thanks Stuart!

Click here to see his other featured story "U.S. Deportee Brings Street Dance to Street Boys of Cambodia."

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