Re-fusing Refuge: Connecting Separated Cambodian-Americans from Philadelphia explores Cambodian-American family histories impacted by displacement, genocide, war, poverty, discrimination, harsh legal systems, separation from family members and removal to a strange ‘homeland’. Re-fusing Refuge traces the challenges confronting Cambodian-Americans, illustrating their perseverance in the face of trauma and a devastating legal system that divides loved ones; it is a conduit through which affected community members can amplify the injustice in deportation without judicial discretion, while moving toward positive change.
Through the use of new media documentary, Re-Fusing Refuge leverages the use of a database as well as open source data platforms to engage with the affected Cambodian community and to raise awareness among broader communities. The mainstream media has represented criminal alien refugees in a demonizing light that should concern all Americans, as it stands opposed to fundamental American ideals, especially concerning immigration. The messaging of mainstream representation does little to consider the power structures surrounding the issue, the circumstance of individuals affected by laws and instead works to perpetuate colonialism and other American ailments like the school to prison pipeline. As a social practice, Re-Fusing Refuge intends to confront dominant notions prevalent in American society and re-construct thinking about deporting non-citizens. A look at the historical perspective affecting Cambodian refugees helps to elucidate the bare-bone facts that have led to the unjust deportation of thousands.
The fall of the Khmer Rouge to Vietnamese invaders in 1979 led to a flood of refugees at Thai border camps. In the years following, the United States welcomed 120,000 Cambodian refugees, placing them in various communities throughout the country. At that time, the US provided few social services, little employment assistance, and virtually no settlement networks, effectively isolating, impoverishing and dis-enabling achievement for Cambodian refugees. Refugees were placed in neighborhoods with high crime rates, leading many Cambodian youths to commit crimes that would later affect their immigration status, costing many deportation.
In 1996, Congress and President Clinton passed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA). The AEDPA eliminated judicial consideration of an individual’s social, familial, experiential and moral character on deportation rulings. In combination, the IIRIRA expanded the list of deportable offenses to include misdemeanors, minor and non-violent crimes, as well as adjusting the minimum deportable sentence from five years to one year, including prison time or probation. The drastic changes of the 1996 laws – applied retroactively – lead many to face harsh immigration consequences for crimes committed before the laws even existed. On March 22, 2002, the United States and Cambodia signed the Cambodian Repatriation Agreement initiating the removal of convicted Cambodian refugees from the US.
Between May 18th and June 1st 2011, 4 detainees had been released to Cambodia after 9 months of detainment in the York County Detention Center. In some cases their families were not even notified of their departure, denying them an opportunity to make arrangements with families in Cambodia to prevent mistreatment and extortion by immigration upon their arrival. Young Cambodian-Americans across the country have been taken from their families at an increasing rate since the inauguration of the Obama Administration. The number of deported people in the US increased by 70 percent in the last fiscal year alone, and the number of removals continues to grow. This past fall, Cambodian-American communities across the country were the targets of home raids, detainment and deportations as negotiations between the Cambodian and US governments hastened the rate of removals. An estimated 10 removals will occur every month beginning February 2011; of which many Cambodian-Americans will be forced to ‘return’ to a home they never knew.
When the United States government offered Cambodians refuge it echoed the ideals of a nation and a call for humanity. Essentially, the US promised to provide a life for those that were brutally denied one. It promised to make right from wrong. In the end, the US broke that promise by further complicating the lives of traumatized victims and inevitably penalizing those that were never given a chance to succeed. This project will create a space to learn about their history, connect those affected by an unjust immigration system and help rectify this broken promise. As producer, I have partnered with the One Love Movement (OLM) in Philadelphia who will act as our gatekeepers. Working closely with the community is paramount to the project’s effectiveness. This is an important aspect to social justice workers. It is important to ensure that messaging and representation of the movement is aligned with the desires of the community as not to usurp their voice and further damage their position within the power structure.
As a practice, I used activities from SmartMeme with community leaders at OLM to critique mainstream media’s representation of the target issue and to articulate the narrative from the perspective of the affected community. These activities will help to develop the narratives within the larger project. The emphasis here is that messaging found inside the documentary must carry the desires of the subject being documented in order to create positive social change outside the community, within the power structure that affects the community. The example attached to this post is a first run example of wh at that messaging might sound like. It is compiled from over 30 hours of ambient sound and audio interviews with deported Cambodian-Americans now residing in Cambodia. The final product might consist of short audio episodes like this one that provide a link to other short audio episodes during and throughout the listening experience. The idea is that a web of short audio pieces will connect in various ways for listeners to navigate and fuse their own narratives.