When she was just a year old, Janit Saechao was cruelly separated from her father, who had just finished serving a prison sentence in the US. Many years ago, her family had come to the United States as refugees from the US’s secret war in Laos, hoping to make a better life for themselves. Yet, after her father was detained, Janit had only her mother to raise her. By the time her father returned home, she barely knew him. She struggled for years to understand what had happened and figure out how her father would fit into her life. “I’m happy you’re home, Dad, [but] you missed out on so much of my life,” Janit recalls thinking. “What do we do? Where do we go now?”
Janit’s story is not hers alone.
Children raised without their parents. Spouses torn away from each other. Families struggling to pay mounting legal bills. These stories are shared by more than 16,000 Southeast Asian Americans who have been issued orders of deportation since 1998 — and more than 14,000 continue to live in a state of uncertainty today, wondering if or when they will be deported.
While the Trump administration continues cracking down on immigrants, espousing racism and promoting horrific immigration policies that separate families, these actions come at a real human cost. Detention and deportation have loomed large for many Southeast Asian families, but over the past few years, a surge in deportations has torn hundreds of families apart and put the community on high alert. What’s more, over the past few months, the Trump administration has detained the largest number of Vietnamese and Cambodian community members in recorded history. Yet, for the most part, deportations within the Asian American community continue to go unnoticed and recognition of them is excluded from the narrative surrounding immigration.
A joint report from our organizations, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) and the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), seeks to highlight these narratives and show the effects of the US’s failing immigration policies on the women and families of those who are targeted for detention and deportation.
Detention and deportation hurt families. Southeast Asian Americans who are detained and deported suffer from extreme emotional distress that ensues from being separated from their family and forced to leave the only place they have ever known as home. Many are quite literally being deported to countries they have not stepped foot in since childhood — places they escaped as refugees, whose language they may not even know.
Even for those who are released, trauma continues long afterward and extends to their families as well. Spouses of those who were deported report feeling anxious, restless and uncertain about their futures and what was going to happen. Despite parents’ best efforts to shield their pain from the rest of their family, their children have picked up on their feelings of anxiety and helplessness as well. One woman in the report also describes having to take her teenage children to therapy to help them cope. Many relive these traumas and go on to have feelings of anger, confusion and loss for the rest of their lives.
Our findings also showed that detention and deportation place a significant financial strain on families. Many of the women in the report took up additional jobs to help make ends meet. One of the women we interviewed, Jenny Srey, describes having to shell out thousands in legal fees to help get her husband released from detention. Another woman, Sokha Kul-Nhean, was unable to pay rent after her family became a single-income household and was forced to move back in with her mother. Others recalled racking up hundreds or even thousands of dollars in fees from calling their spouses who were in detention, in addition to the money they spent on transportation to visit them at the detention jails.
The women interviewed in our report are just a fraction of the millions of Asian Americans and people of color across the country whose lives have been disrupted and destroyed by detention, deportation and family separation. When people aren’t able to have control over what happens to their loved ones, they face devastating consequences: Parents are forced to leave behind spouses and children who might not remember them when they come back. Couples have to put their plans to have a child or to grow their families on hold. Children lose contact with their parents and suffer not only estrangement, but experience lasting feelings of abandonment and distress. Separating families is taking a financial and emotional toll on so many people across the US. We owe it to them, and millions of other Americans who have found themselves in the same situation, to fight so that everyone can have the fundamental right to make decisions about their bodies and lives.
The rapid increase in detentions and deportations in recent months is creating a new sense of crisis among the community. The stories of the Southeast Asian American families in the report bring to light the real human cost of failing immigration policy and expose the ugly underbelly of the hateful, racist rhetoric and legislation coming out of the White House. When individuals are unable to make choices about their own bodies and families, policymakers are violating some of their most fundamental rights. We call on our elected officials to stand with these brave women and speak out against the cruel and inhumane separation of Southeast Asian American families.