Cambodian Refugee Faces Return Home Cambodian-born Andrew Thi committed crimes in the United States as a teenager. Now 30, he faces deportation to a homeland he barely remembers. Thi's story is told as part of "Crossing East," a radio series about Asian-American history.
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Cambodian Refugee Faces Return Home

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Cambodian Refugee Faces Return Home

Cambodian Refugee Faces Return Home

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Andrew Thi was six years old when his parents and four sisters came to California from Cambodia. Now because of a 1996 immigration law, he faces the possibility of a deportation tomorrow to a country he barely remembers. Producer Robynn Takayama prepared this report.

Mr. ANDREW THI (Native of Cambodia): My name is Andrew Thi. I am 30 years old. I came to America on September '81.


Andrew Thi and his family arrived in the US as part of a refugee resettlement plan. Andrew's father built a gardening business from nothing, with help from Andrew.

Unidentified Man: He can do like the heavy stuff, loading and mow the lawn, blower and cut the tree.

Mr. THI: It makes the job easier when you have a helper that have experience. It make the job faster.

TAKAYAMA: But life for him and his family was very difficult as they tried to make the transition from being refugees, escaping the brutal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, to coping with life in the United States.

Mr. PATERA CHIM(ph) (Worked with Cambodian Refugees): There were folks that suffered through mass starvation, that were highly traumatized...

TAKAYAMA: Patera Chim worked with refugees at Cambodian Community Development, Incorporated, in Oakland, California.

Mr. CHIM: ...that were called to be farmers and told not to learn by, you know, a regime that murdered you if you were educated whatsoever.

TAKAYAMA: Chim says the problem was that America's resettlement plan left much-needed mental health and social services.

Mr. CHIM: They were expected to come to America and learn history and learn how to read and write when many of these folks didn't know how to read and write in Cambodian. And so, you know, there's a lot of obstacles faced by folks like Andrew.

TAKAYAMA: One of those obstacles was becoming naturalized US citizens. His parents were simply too overwhelmed with adapting to life in America. That was an oversight that would later haunt Andrew. When he first became a high school student, he was on the honor roll. He eventually received a scholarship to attend Cal State Hayward. But as he tells it, he was attracted to a life of fast living and stealing cars.

Mr. THI: Living in the poverty area, you're not 16 yet, you can't bet a license yet. It's just a lifestyle of a teen. I mean, you want to get around. You want to hang around, you want to take the girls out, you know what I mean? You don't have the patience to wait for your parents, wait for the bus. Hey, you need ride? Get it right there. That's what I did.

TAKAYAMA: Andrew's sister, Sing Thi(ph), remembers her brother changing when he started high school.

Ms. SING THI (Andrew Thi's Sister): I guess maybe he just start hanging around with the wrong friends, and then he's just stealing cars. My dad warn him, you know, `What have you been doing? You better stop. I mean, you might go to jail for a long, long time.' My dad did warn him about that, and I guess he didn't really listen.

Mr. THI: My first time I got caught was my sophomore year in high school. I got caught with stealing cars, joyriding, doing what you got to do, just to have fun. And when I got caught, they sent me to six months in camp. Then I go on a home pass, I do some more car burglary, got caught again. Then they sent me almost two years total, my first time in juvenile hall. Then I got caught with a robbery somewhere in LA. Cost me five year in prison.

TAKAYAMA: Bill Hing, professor of law and Asian-American studies at the University of California at Davis, argues the US really did a disservice to refugees like Andrew and his family by not providing them with adequate social programs. As recently as 1990, Hing says more than 60 percent of all Southeast Asian households headed by refugees were on public assistance. That's three times the rate of African-Americans and four times the rate of Latinos.

Professor BILL HING (University of California, Davis): For many, many years now, policy-makers and the public, I suppose, are upset when they hear that there are immigrants that commit crimes. And that's been embodied in the immigration laws, so that since 1986, there's been additions made to the law to broaden when people can be deported for criminal convictions.

TAKAYAMA: Now Andrew is one of those who is scheduled for deportation. But he doesn't blame the system for his fate.

Mr. THI: I wasn't born here. I was granted to live here to earn a new life, a freer choice life, and I made the wrong choice. I mean, they didn't put a gun to my head, `Hey, you got to do this now.' It was my choice. I made it to make a little money, to get better things.

TAKAYAMA: Now he waits for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, currently under the Department of Homeland Security, to call.

Although there are more than 1,500 Cambodian-Americans to be deported, Cambodia's only accepting a small number each month, so deportees like Andrew do their best to carry on their lives until they are notified their deportation date is scheduled.

Mr. THI: They can take your life any time they want by the pick of the draw, the name. To me, sometime I just feel so helpless. I mean, like, wow, when is my name call up?

Ms. THI: If they're going to deport my brother back to Cambodia, it's going to be really hard, because my dad, he traveled ...(unintelligible), walking through muds and through dead body and he does everything for us to try to get away from that.

Mr. THI: But I will do something in my power to show to America, to the world, to society, the community, I am a changed person. I mean, everything I do every day is good.

(Soundbite of lawn mowing)

Mr. THI: ...(Unintelligible), you can leave. I can finish it up. Don't worry about that!

Unidentified Man: Andrew!

Mr. THI: Before I don't plan for the future right? But now I look at the bright side. Whatever happen, happens, that's what's meant to be. I mean, but while I'm still here, I'm going to make the best of my life and go forward with it.

TAKAYAMA: For NPR News, I'm Robynn Takayama.

BRAND: Andrew Thi's immigration hearing is tomorrow in San Francisco.

Our story was co-produced by Dmae Roberts as part of the Crossing East Asian-American history series. And for more on that series, go to

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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