Aggressive deportation policies, like those that have been enacted since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, tear families apart — including elders and the family caregivers they depend upon.
Since 1980, the share of households headed by an immigrant has doubled (from 7 percent to 14 percent in 2012). In 2009, 16 percent of households headed by an immigrant were multi-generational, compared with 10 percent of households with a U.S.-born head. Many immigrant and refugee elders depend on their grown children for support for daily tasks, emotional support or even full-time caretaking.
In Cambodian refugee communities, nearly two-thirds of older adults have been found to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and nearly all of those who survived the country’s genocide in the late 1970’s suffered from near-starvation and witnessed terrible violence.
When Sameth Nhean was detained and told he would be deported, he worried not only for his wife and their three children, but also for his father, who suffers from severe PTSD and depression. His father had been living with his sister for eight years, but she could no longer care for him after her own child was born with special needs.
Just as Nhean’s father was getting ready to move in with Nhean’s family, Nhean was thrown into immigrant detention. If he is deported, his father would have no place to go.
Since Nhean’s detention, his family lost their three-bedroom home, forcing his wife, Sokha Kul, and their three children to move into her mom’s one-bedroom apartment. Debt collectors call every day, as she struggles to support herself and her children with just one paycheck.
Nhean came to the U.S. as a refugee at the age of 3. He was born in a Thai refugee camp after his family fled the Cambodian Khmer Rouge, and he has been a lawful permanent resident of the U.S. for 32 years.
Like many refugees from Cambodia, he has overcome significant generational poverty and trauma. In 2002, he was charged with second-degree assault with a dangerous weapon after trying to prevent his then-girlfriend from driving home while intoxicated. Nhean was sentenced to 21 months in jail but only served 90 days with probation.
Even so, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security is trying to deport him to a country in which he has never set foot.
After almost a year in detention, a judge granted Sameth a 212(h) waiver canceling his deportation and allowing him to regain his green card. Despite the judge’s finding that Sameth should reunite permanently with his family, the Trump administration’s Department of Homeland Security plans to appeal the decision.
“I don’t understand why this government wants to waste time and taxpayer dollars to deport Sameth, a loving father and husband who is clearly not a threat to anybody,” said Nhean’s wife, Sokha Kul. “It saddens me to see how cold and heartless this administration has become.”
Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, offered this observation: “The Trump administration does not care that its policies have real consequences for entire families, including devastating impacts on children and elders. The administration has attacked the very foundation of our immigration and humanitarian systems, from the Muslim and refugee ban, to the indiscriminate dragnets of immigrant families for deportation, to supporting the…nativist RAISE Act, which would eviscerate family-based immigration programs and drastically slash refugee admissions. We…demand justice for Sameth and others facing unjust deportation.”
Mari Quenemoen is communications and development director for the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), which supports Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans. It does so through empowerment, advocacy and leadership development. This essay and these photographs, which are being published with permission, first appeared in the Diverse Elders Coalition blog. The Diverse Elders Coalition, based in New York City, works on policy advocacy, education and the sharing of stories for communities in which people are age 50 and older. About the top photo: Sameth Nhean is seen in this image courtesy of #ReleaseMN8.