In an unassuming White Center pool hall, lives intersect, dreams kindle, and two different wars come home.
Chea’s Place is the kind of place strangers don’t go into: a windowless wooden door flanked by grated windows in a blank low-rise facade that sits just past the point where White Center’s old-fashioned main street yields to a gap-toothed arterial strip. To the left sits a machine shop and, to the right, a sign announcing “Freshwater Pearls Sale” and the storefront offices of the Refugee Federation and the Khmer Community of Seattle/King County. Over the entrance, a plastic banner reads “Chea’s Place” in large script, and in smaller letters, “In Memory of Chea Keo.” Three illustrations give the only hint of the sort of place it is: a rack of billiard balls, a faint outline of the great Cambodian temple of Angkor Wat, and a jaunty rat, the unofficial mascot of White Center (aka “Rat City”), holding a cue and beer mug.
During the week, Chea’s Place and everything around it looks desolate. But by early Friday evening, cars and workmen’s vans are lined up in front, along 16th Avenue South, and five young Asian men huddle against the wind, shooting the breeze and catching a smoke before heading back inside. Pool halls are fixtures in Southeast Asian neighborhoods—along Jackson Street, in the Rainier Valley and the increasingly international suburbs of Southeast King County—and in White Center, where thousands of refugees settled after the Cambodian bloodbath of the late 1970s and the chaos that followed. There, three of those refugees have created Chea’s Place as a homespun shrine to the country they fled more than 20 years ago, and a refuge for others who, driven from one homeland as children, still struggle to find their place in a new one.
Usually these pool halls are sparse, drab places, especially now that home video gaming has supplanted the booth-sized arcade games that once shared space with the pool tables. Chea’s Place, by contrast, is an exuberant surprise. Its ceiling and wainscoting are painted the glossy cerulean of Mediterranean vistas in Italian-restaurant murals; its cantaloupeorange walls are hung with a visual potpourri that affords a crash course in Cambodian history and folklore. Imported paintings in mirror-image pairs show white tigers, Angkor Wat, the divine dancing maidens called apsaras. Around them, in simple glassed frames, hang French postcards of colonial Cambodge, black-and-white photos of Angkor’s magnificent statues before thieves broke off their heads, and snapshots from visits home by local Cambodians. An unsettling larger photo shows a child and war-wounded cripple on a Phnom Penh street. Two pool tables stand behind a low, unpainted plywood wall thrown up to satisfy some arcane state liquor rule.
On this ice-bound Saturday in December, the action at the tables is raucous, loud, and fast. The players, wearing the usual jeans, sweatpants, parkas, and hoodies, cheer and jeer like soccer fans, their Khmer seeded with English phrases. The rest of the room has been converted to something that looks less like a tavern than a clubhouse—a down-market version of the Rainier Club, a Starbucks-style third place with beer and karaoke. At a small table in back, three men—older than the others, and oblivious to their racket—hunch over a chessboard. Patrons lounge around the old couches, easy chairs, and coffee tables. The near-universal elixir, here as in Indochina, is Heineken, though a few patrons with Northwesternized tastes opt for Redhook. The price—$2.50 a bottle on weeknights, $3 on weekends—would be a bargain outside White Center, and no one asks for the check; patrons remember how many they’ve had and settle up when they leave. The pub’s grub is a melting pot on a plate: rice with traditional Cambodian fixings, frozen pizzas, tortilla chips. Though Christmas is hardly celebrated in Cambodia, one of the three partners in Chea’s Place—a bearded, bespectacled fellow named Many Uch (MAN-ee Ook), who looks more like a scholar sidekick in a Chinese costume drama than a pool-hall proprietor in South Seattle—commemorated it by fixing an enormous ham, free for the munching.
Often, patrons play cards on the big coffee table. On slow Sundays, they nap on the couches, but when the Seahawks play they pack in shoulder-to-shoulder: “They call me at nine on Sunday morning and say, ‘Come open up, there’s football,’ ” says Many, with a what-can-you-do shrug. “I say, c’mon, I was just there till one…but I do it.”
Most are in their 20s, some their early 30s, and they’ve clearly known each other a long time. They are truck drivers, landscapers, construction workers—the speediest routes to something like a living wage for immigrants with strong backs and ample determination. Young women often drift in, singly, in pairs, or with boyfriends; for all the conspicuous male bonding, no one seems to mind or harass them. In early evening, parents sometimes bring their kids; tonight one toddler watches enthralled as his dad spins a can of coconut juice on a wobbly stool seat, then tries the trick himself; a school-age girl watches the lyrics roll by on a karaoke video. She’s the granddaughter of Sameth Yim, the third partner, who’s stopped by to replenish the beer supply and eat a bite before returning to the clothing and sundries shop she runs three blocks away. Sameth sits quietly, setting out cards in a crossed circle that looks like a fancy solitaire variation and is actually a mode of fortune telling, then turns to the picture-decked wall with a faraway look, as though she sees something there that others don’t.
When football’s not on, the three TVs play karaoke. The videos—showing cooing lovers, moping solitary men, Cambodian pastorales, and Californian cityscapes—are new. But the songs they enact are mostly old: classics from Cambodia’s musical heyday, the peaceful, fondly remembered “prince time” of the late 1950s and 1960s, before the killing began and the country collapsed. A painting hanging by the stage depicts the singer who epitomized that period, just as the Beatles did ’60s England. His name was Sin Si Samouth; Many Uch calls him “the Frank Sinatra of Cambodia,” but he was also its Elvis and Bob Dylan. Samouth could rock and croon, melding traditional Khmer tunes with Latin rhythms and screeching guitar. He got himself thrown in jail for his protest songs, and outgrowled Dylan in a Khmer version of “House of the Rising Sun,” transmuting its untranslatable lyrics into a lover’s lament. Many Uch is surprised to learn that Samouth’s Khmer version of the J. S. Bach–inspired Procol Harum hit “Whiter Shade of Pale” wasn’t the original: “It fits with the Cambodian beat,” he explains. Its mournful keening also suits the Cambodian mood, and Many’s and Sin Si Samouth’s experiences in particular.
Samouth refused to flee in 1975, when the neo-Maoist Khmer Rouge overran a Cambodia shaken by Vietnam War spillover, massive American bombing, and a U.S.-supported military coup. The Khmer Rouge initiated a reign of terror unmatched since the Nazi Holocaust, exterminating ethnic and religious minorities, the educated elite, and anyone else who stood out or stood up. As many as 1.7 million people—a fifth of Cambodia’s population—perished, including its Frank Sinatra.
After Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, the United States responded with strategies both cynical and compassionate. It let the Khmer Rouge keep Cambodia’s United Nations seat and encouraged China and Thailand to support their counterattack on the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh. At the same time, the U.S. admitted about 150,000 Cambodians who’d wound up in Thai refugee camps, along with a million refugees who’d fled Vietnam and Laos after Communist victories there.
Most of the patrons at Chea’s Place were born after Sin Si Samouth died; they left Cambodia as young children and grew up on South Seattle’s mean streets. And yet they sing his paeans to the homeland they never knew, in a language many cannot read and whose inflections have changed markedly since his day. One even offered Slogn Hean, another partner in the pool hall, four times what he’d paid for the portrait of Samouth. “But I can’t sell it,” says Slogn, with the trademark grin he cracks to express everything from delight to weary resignation. “It belongs here.”
On another night, Many and his older brother Chan, a man with a heavy heart but the dashing looks of a movie pirate, sing along to Samouth together, their eyes half-closed and expressions rapt. “Many has the voice, not me,” grins Slogn, who never sings. At 38, Slogn’s nearly a decade older than most of the others here; arriving in America at the advanced age of 16, he retained an accent and missed out on much that has defined their lives: school, hip-hop, gangs, guns, cops, jails. But he beams as the younger guys belt out tunes from the old country. He dashes about, replacing their beers, and pauses to play a game of pool—the lucky host who can enjoy his own party. This, rather than any profit to be made selling beer and pizza, is what drives him to operate the pool hall. “It was just a social thing, not for money. [Many] made good money already, I made good money. We thought, ‘Why we need to make more money?’ We just thought we could make a place where Cambodian kids can go, not get in trouble, maybe learn something, maybe want to go to Cambodia.”
Be careful what you wish for; going back is a fraught question and a bitter prospect right now, for Many Uch and many young Cambodians.
One of the pictures hanging at Chea’s Place, painted in Cambodia from a photo taken in Seattle, shows a handsome, full-bodied woman, impeccably coifed and made up, in traditional dress and golden crown, beaming with maternal pride beside a young man in a tux with an incipient moustache and a ready-for-anything look. The woman is Sameth Yim, the quiet partner in Chea’s Place, in a happier time, and her then-16-year-old son Chea. It was she who first decided to buy the business, for reasons even more personal and deeply felt than those driving Slogn.
I first met Sameth in early 1989, thanks to an introduction—or more precisely, a deputation—from halfway around the world. A few months earlier, on an extended journalistic passage through Indochina, I’d run into some touring American professors in Phnom Penh; anything or anyone American was a rare encounter then in the nations of Indochina. Their local guide was excited to discover I lived in Seattle. Please, he asked, would I come meet his parents at their farm outside town, and would the tour leader bring his camera? Henceforth I was on a mission, bearing Polaroids of a white-haired couple, standing by their stilted house and jackfruit trees, and the letter they’d written to the daughter they had not seen in 20 years, who they heard had lately reached America and landed somewhere near Seattle.
In 1969 they’d sent their 11-year-old daughter Sameth to attend school and stay with an aunt in another part of Cambodia, which soon became a war zone. She and her aunt fled repeatedly, from Vietnamese incursions, American bombing, Pol Pot. When the Khmer Rouge took power, Sameth and thousands of other children were rounded up to be raised collectively and indoctrinated. In 1978 she was married, in a joint ceremony with 44 other arranged couples, to a man as lean and sere as she is hearty and warm. When the Vietnamese swept in, Sameth fled again with her new husband, hiding in mountain caves. In 1984 they reached America with their two children—a third was soon to be born. An Indian-American missionary they’d met in the camps invited them to Seattle.
“I come live in his house, go to church every day,” Sameth recalls. She applied for subsidized housing and wound up, as did thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, where it was readily available: at the 569-unit Park Lake Homes, the King County Housing Authority’s largest project, just across West Roxbury Street from Seattle proper in White Center. That was where I tracked her down and handed her the letter from her long-lost parents. She seemed both grateful and relieved to learn they were alive, and a little apprehensive, as though she knew she now had more souls to support. Support her parents she did, as millions of immigrant children do, taking money to her parents, buying this and building that. Eventually she brought them to America.
When the Khmer Rouge took power, Sameth and thousands of other children were rounded up to be raised collectively.
Later I was invited down to Park Lake for family occasions: Sameth’s nephew’s “birthday party” (celebrated, as is traditional, at the one-year mark, when a child has fair odds of surviving) and a friend’s lavish wedding (with the obligatory seven dishes for good luck). Sameth was cheerful, blunt, and brassy. She compensated for shortfalls in her English with gestures, a damn-thetorpedoes disregard for grammatical niceties, and sheer insistence on being understood. In White Center’s little Cambodia, she often didn’t need English.
White Center wasn’t always that way. In the 1940s, when Park Lake’s modest tract houses were thrown up to accommodate incoming hordes of Boeing workers, and for decades thereafter, it really was white: “My sister and I were the only nonwhite kids in the high school, other than exchange students,” recalls Filipino community leader Sharon Maeda, who arrived as a child in 1956 when Boeing recruited her engineer father. “It was very much a redneck kind of area. Merchants would not serve my parents. My mother was afraid to let us walk down the street.” Even then, says Maeda, “White Center was a dumping ground. Everyone was passing through. No one wanted to stay.”
Three decades later, White Center was still a dumping ground, but it was a relatively easy place for industrious immigrants like Sameth Yim to get a leg up. The sliding-scale rent at Park Lake was so low, even low-wage workers could save money. Sameth cleaned houses and offices and got enough jobs to hire other cleaners—including Slogn, her future partner in the pool hall. She began making trips to Cambodia, transporting money and medicines from refugees to their families and buying jewelry, clothing, cassettes, videotapes, paintings, and knickknacks to sell here. She and Slogn opened a boutique a block off the main drag, beside a popular neighborhood hangout: a Cambodian doughnut shop that also serves rice porridge and superstrong coffee with condensed milk. Lavish Cambodian wedding dresses were an especially lucrative line; the burgeoning refugee community had a lot of marrying and celebrating to catch up on after years of fleeing and huddling in camps.
Sameth’s husband operated a landscaping business—good money, paid in cash. They were climbing the classic immigrant ladder. Then, in 1995, their Khmer Rouge–arranged marriage fell apart. He ran off with her gold jewelry and a young woman who worked in her shop; she stumbled into the maze of the American legal system. Sameth hired an attorney at an office nearby, but he withdrew three weeks before the divorce trial; he told me soon after that he couldn’t deal with the language difficulties, cultural differences, conflicting accounts, possible “fraud,” Sameth’s husband’s stonewalling, and her reluctance to “pursue him hard” for child support. “And,” he added, “I didn’t think she’d ever pay me.”
Sameth went into family court alone; her husband was represented by an attorney (young, Asian, and female). Even after the judge approved the divorce terms, Sameth thought they weren’t final because, she told me, “I don’t sign anything.” They were. She received custody of their three children, $25 a month in support for each (which he didn’t pay), and tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debt. “The system is rigid,” said the lawyer who’d withdrawn from her case. “It works well for 90 percent of the people, but not all. These are the people who fall through the cracks.”
Sameth worked even harder; she continued running her store by day and took a night shift making cookies in a Vietnamese-run factory for $7 an hour, dozing when business was slow or the factory machines jammed. I bargained with the collection agencies and settled her debts; she paid back every penny without my ever asking. I sought no interest, but cartons of food—fried shrimp on rice, salted fish in spicy sauce—kept appearing mysteriously at my house.
Meanwhile, an all-too-common story played out in Sameth’s family. Cambodian refugees arrived here bearing uniquely heavy burdens. Unlike many of the better-educated, more urbanized Vietnamese refugees who arrived in the 1970s, they were torn away from a peasant society and dropped into a very different one. And they had emerged from a holocaust with psychic wounds they could not even describe; I once heard a counselor lament that “there’s no word in Khmer for ‘depression.’ ” Packed into public-housing ghettoes and left to swim or sink after three months’ orientation, they grappled with an unbearable past and an unfathomable present. Some withdrew into themselves; physicians identified a new syndrome, psychosomatic blindness, in Cambodian refugee women. Even parents with all the advantages can find the schools (and raising adolescents generally) mystifying; traumatized, bewildered, knowing little English, refugees are even harder pressed to monitor their children’s progress. The Cambodian kids, exposed to guns, bombs, and war almost from birth, now ran loose in a crime-saturated milieu. They absorbed the ambient culture and, as kids will, cleaved together in their own subsocieties. Mocked and threatened, they formed what diplomats and anthropologists call “protective coalitions”—gangs, in the common parlance. But in adolescent as in international relations, backing up your buddies can take you dangerous places—as it did for Chea Keo, Sameth’s older son.
According to charges brought by the state, by the time Chea was 14 he’d fallen in with the Little Ruthless Boyz and (easy to do) acquired a handgun. In March 1997 he was summoned to ride along and lend his gun for a preventive attack on a rival gang member who’d threatened a former Ruthless Boy. The shooters were convicted of attempted murder; Chea gave evidence, pled to second-degree assault, and spent a few months in the reformatory. The bill for his stay threw Sameth briefly back in the financial hole.
Perhaps that close shave scared some sense into Chea Keo. He finished school, got a job as a mechanic, got engaged, and moved to Kent. But each weekend he would come back to hang out at the pool hall on 16th Avenue, which then had an even more cryptic name: “Community Center.” “I want to find him, I come here,” recalls Sameth. But the bar’s owner worked another job and was hard-pressed to manage it. A tangle with the Liquor Board added to his pressures. One Friday in October 2005, he offered to sell the business to Sameth for $10,000. She asked Many Uch, who often stopped by the doughnut shop and shot the breeze with folks out front, if he could help bargain the guy down. Many offered to go in on the deal.
That Friday, Chea played pool and slept in his mother’s shop before heading home to Kent. Sameth meanwhile pondered and decided not to buy the pool hall; there was too much going on—her daughter had just bought a house in Burien. Then, on Saturday night, Chea was driving his SUV on Highway 18 near Auburn when it failed to negotiate a turn, struck a guardrail, and rolled over. His fiancée was injured; Chea, then 23, was killed.
A few weeks later, Sameth’s 81-year-old father, whom she had brought to America with her mother, died. For months she was distraught and bleary-eyed; she still cries when she recalls Chea: “He was good boy.” She neglected her make-up, and the gray in her hair began to show. “Before, I like to work any time, day and night. But now, when my son die, I don’t like to work any more. I don’t care. Why work so much and not get anything?” Now she just tends the shop and leaves the cleaning jobs to Slogn.
But Sameth did undertake one more venture. She, Slogn, and Many went ahead and bought the pool hall that had been her son’s home away from home. Many wanted to name it Cheers—“a place for my people, where everyone knows your name.” Sameth insisted on Chea’s, which sounds almost the same in Khmer. For a while, they tried hosting dancing on weekends, but fights kept breaking out. Finally they canceled the bands. The crowds and revenues thinned. “Not so much money,” says Sameth, “but I don’t want a lot of money.”
Indeed, the beer and karaoke crowd barely covers Chea’s rent, and the partners don’t pay themselves. “It’s okay with me, as long as they can come here and feel good,” says Slogn. “A lot of them don’t have any place else to go. If I close the place before they’re ready to leave, I feel sad.”
Where Sameth is reticent, Slogn Hean eagerly recounts how he escaped the Cambodian holocaust. His face is expressive: a square jaw and brow framing serious eyes and a wide, ready grin. That grin can signify many moods, from merriment and gratitude to weary resignation. As he looks back, he seems both to exorcise a horror and to relive its excitement, like an explorer recounting a narrow escape.
When Slogn was four the American bombers came, pursuing North Vietnamese troops sheltering in southern Cambodia, where he lived. “They bomb each morning, early. You can’t even sleep on a bed—you fly out with the vibration. On the farm, you can’t plant anything.” His family hid in the nearby mountains. The Khmer Rouge took him at seven and trained him, with the rest of his generation, to fight and labor. Eventually he escaped and, briefly, rejoined his family. Then the bombing returned, taking them away. He and his older brother fled and hid in the jungle for two years, eating fruit, bugs, whatever they could forage. (His survival tip: You can tell if a strange fruit is safe by the bird droppings around it.) His brother got fever and died without a word. More bombs; Slogn fled across the Thai border. Unshorn and nearly unclothed, he terrified the first villagers he saw. Eventually he wound up in one of the newly opened refugee camps.
When Slogn was four the bombers came: "They bomb each morning, early. You can’t even sleep on a bed—you fly out with the vibration."
Slogn still pines for the family he grew up without. His ordeal seems to have imparted confidence and determination, but also an abiding loneliness. He saw how tough things could get, but also how tough he could be. He is always the shortest guy in the crowd, but possesses outsized strength and energy. He avoids doctors and has never gone to a dentist; even his teeth, though stained, look strong. When, at 17, he arrived in Seattle, he was settled in Ballard, far from other Cambodians. He promptly went to work for a large landscape company, planting instant greenery around new developments. “Oh, it was good money,” he sighs. “If I’d stayed there….” But he couldn’t stand working outdoors in winter and chose fire over ice—a job in a Ballard foundry. On weekends he would bike down to White Center to be around other Cambodians. He used to play Hacky Sack near Sameth’s house, and met her one day when she came out to give the players water. She recruited him to clean houses and he joined her in starting the store. Eventually he quit the foundry and moved to White Center. He still rises each day at 4:30, as he has for 16 years, and heads out in his gray 1993 Corvette (he has a weakness for muscle cars) to clean fast-food restaurants nearby and homes in affluent neighborhoods to the north and east.
A decade ago it seemed rough and raw; now Slogn feels like he’s in a different town. “It’s so safe here now, I could be living on Queen Anne. It’s changed so much.” And it will change even more. Two prominent foundations, UPS-spawned Annie E. Casey and Bill & Melinda Gates, have picked White Center as a test bed for multiyear, multimillion-dollar experiments in community building and, in the case of Gates, early childhood nurturing. The Park Lake projects are gone; in their place, the King County Housing Authority is building a denser, slicker mixed-income development called Greenbridge. Amidst these macro-infusions, a hundred homegrown flowers bloom, from quirky import shops to an alehouse and microbrewery. Starbucks hasn’t arrived yet, leaving the turf to Café Rozellas, a homey, homegrown coffeehouse whose restrooms are papered with poetry. A glut of porn shops still line the main street, but the largest, Stan’s Adult Superstore, is an improbable showpiece: an immaculate facade with a huge illuminated flag and, at Christmas, a crèche in the window.
Professionals are venturing in or moving back, bursting with neighborhood-building ideas and enthusiasm. Both Seattle to the north and Burien to the south are now bidding to annex once-scorned White Center, opening a revealing fault line there. A more conservative faction, heirs to the White Center of the ’50s, fears archliberal Seattle’s high business taxes and favors Burien. Activist newcomers and immigrant organizations are drawn to Seattle’s better police, fire, and social resources, and its minority- and neighborhood-friendly outlook. “We feel like we’re part of Seattle already,” says Sili Savasu, a Samoan representative on a council of local ethnic groups sponsored by the Casey foundation. “I always refer to White Center as ‘the other International District.’ ”
By one count, 56 languages are spoken there. Successive refugee waves have followed the Southeast Asians: Ethiopians, Bosnians, Salvadorans, Colombians, Somalis, Iraqis. Multiculturalism is hip, and for visitors, White Center’s main lure is its food: Salvadoran, Mexican, Indian, Chinese, and a dozen Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurants and produce stands. Mi Bohio, a new bakery and restaurant, offers Ecuadoran, Honduran, Dominican, and Puerto Rican specialties. The apparent proprietor, wearing traditional Ecuadoran garb, says she can cook them all—with help from her Honduran, Dominican, and Puerto Rican partners.
But the Cambodians who jump-started the internationalization of White Center are finding their own hold slipping. As they’ve moved up, many have moved south, to Kent, Auburn, Federal Way, and Tacoma, where they can afford more house; even Burien homes cost about $50,000 less. Many displaced Park Lake tenants won’t likely try to return; those who do will find fewer subsidized rentals among Greenbridge’s 1,000-plus units than Park Lake’s 569.
Slogn and Sameth have watched their sales shrink accordingly. Their wedding-dress market evaporated as Cambodian brides switched to American styles. Worse yet, new casinos opened, two small ones nearby and a large one on the Muckelshoot Reservation, down past Auburn. “Now people spend money at casino,” says Sameth. “Don’t pay bills.” She had to stop extending credit, and lost more customers.
To recoup, she and Slogn now stock detergent (for customers using the Laundromat next door) and select groceries and dry goods, which they buy at Costco unless a supermarket offers a better sale. The markup is low, but it’s cash flow. Ten years ago they gave up half the store’s space to the Laundromat, trimming their rent from $1,500 to $1,050 a month. “Sometimes I have to cover the rent from [cleaning] work,” says Slogn. “It’s not easy, but what can you do? When you have something already, you have to keep it going.”
He suffers from the usual Seattle renter’s regret at not buying a house when it was easy—and it was very easy in White Center. “In 1983–84, a house around here cost 8, 10, 20 thousand dollars. Now it costs 330 thousand.” And the fat lady ain’t sung yet; some residents supporting a Seattle annexation expect it to further boost their property values. “If I had an idea then like I have now…” sighs Slogn. “But I wasn’t interested.” Rat City was just a place to pass through. Then the grin returns. “What can you do? Life’s not easy. But it’s beautiful.”
Many Uch wonders if he has any place in America itself, though he’s lived here for 22 of his 30 years. According to the U.S. government, he does not.
To see and hear Many, you’d think him a special success story. His refined features, close-cropped hair, long wispy goatee, and wire-rimmed glasses give him a bookish air, even when he shoots pool or pops a Redhook. He speaks gently, without the street inflections of many other young Southeast Asians who grew up in the projects. Until last year he had a lucrative courier service with several drivers on his payroll and big banks as clients; he still works at it part-time and is considering bidding for contracts again if his situation stabilizes. Meanwhile he’s found a new vocation as a community organizer and activist. Fueled partly by small grants, he’s talked about refugee and immigration issues at venues ranging from local high schools to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
But he was raised in the Park Lake projects by a single mother, after the war separated his parents. Believing her dead, his father stayed in Cambodia and raised another family; Many still doesn’t feel ready to talk to him. The fleeing Khmer Rouge captured Many, his mother, and two older brothers, and held them in the jungle for nearly a year. Finally they reached the Thai border. Four-year-old Many was so tiny his mother carried him across.
When the police chased Many Uch and his fellow miscreants, they’d escape across Roxbury Street into Seattle—a tradition among local delinquents.
Growing up, Many committed his share of youthful transgressions. When the police chased him and his fellow miscreants, they’d escape across Roxbury Street into Seattle—a longtime tradition among local delinquents. In high school, he joined the Loko Asian Boyz. He doesn’t blame the culture: “I wasn’t a big fan of hip-hop. I’m more into friendship. That’s how we grew up here. My buddies get into fights, I get into fights. I didn’t have the guts to walk away.” And so, 18 and about to graduate, he went along when a buddy of a buddy wanted help robbing a guy who owed him money. They took guns; Many drove the car. He served 40 months for armed robbery and matured in prison, reading widely, taking college classes, never begrudging the lost time: “If I didn’t go to prison then, I would get a longer sentence another time. Or be dead.”
Then, when his release date arrived, he discovered he’d only begun to pay for his crime. For many refugees, and perhaps most of the Cambodians, refugee status and the permanent residency that followed it seemed, well, permanent. But since 1952 immigration law has provided for the deportation of legal residents (as opposed to citizens) who commit “aggravated felonies”—serious crimes. Then, in 1996, amidst another crescendo of anxiety about terrorism and immigration, Congress vastly expanded and toughened that provision. Before, crimes meriting sentences of five years or more were deemed aggravated felonies. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act lowered that threshold to one year, making even some misdemeanors deportable offenses.
Immigration lawyers and public defenders who’ve represented “aggravated felons” swept up in this overhaul say it’s created absurd inequities: One defendant would get a six-month sentence for grand theft, and no deportation. Another who swiped a pack of cigarettes got deported—because Washington judges have routinely given one-year suspended sentences for minor crimes. What seemed like a good deal at the time came back to haunt defendants when Congress made the new standard retroactive to all past crimes. And it made deportation mandatory, with no judicial review. No longer could immigration judges grant waivers to ex-offenders who lived spotless lives and had families to support.
Many Uch and other Cambodians who fell under these provisions faced another wrinkle; Cambodia, along with Vietnam, Laos, and Cuba, had not agreed to accept deportees. And so the Immigration and Naturalization Service locked them up, along with immigrants left stateless by the breakup of the Soviet Union, until “their” countries might take them back. From the Walla Walla penitentiary, Many was whisked into federal detention at the Regional Justice Center in Kent. He found being an immigration “lifer” much worse than prison: “The hardest thing isn’t doing time. The hardest thing is not knowing when you’ll get out.” Or whether.
In jail, Many Uch fought back, organizing two hunger strikes and a near riot to protest both the indefinite detention and conditions that included withholding classes and religious services allowed to other prisoners. Using materials from the prison library, he filed a habeas corpus petition, asserting his constitutional right to a trial or release. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs. “I wrote in ‘double jeopardy,’ which it wasn’t, because I thought it would sound good.” Still, he persuaded about 40 other detainees, held in Kent, Tacoma, and Yakima, to file similar petitions. He hoped a blizzard of appeals, and the cost of defending each one singly, would make the INS release the detainees.
In a sense, that’s what happened, with a detour to the U.S. Supreme Court. A local court consolidated all the petitions into a single case, which the government lost. The INS then released all the Cambodian detainees save one, Kim Ho Ma, another ex-gang-banger from White Center whose initial petition Many Uch had drafted. Kim Ho Ma had been convicted of manslaughter in a group slaying when he was 17, though he claimed he didn’t actually shoot. The severity of his crime made him the government’s best test case. But in mid-2001, in a prelude to its more famous ruling on the Guantánamo detainees, the Supreme Court ruled his indefinite detention unconstitutional. Because Cambodia would not accept them, he and the other detainees were now free, for the time being.
It was a Pyrrhic victory. Soon afterward, the September 11 attacks prompted a new drive to seal America’s borders and purge dangerous aliens. In early 2002, as part of that effort, the Bush administration leaned on Cambodia, and it agreed to accept deportees. Just as their homeland had become collateral damage in America’s war in Vietnam, Many Uch and his peers were now swept up in the War on Terror. Suddenly 1,400 Cambodian-born permanent residents found themselves on a deportation list. Kim Ho Ma was one of the first packed off.
Many Uch and his peers now face deportation for crimes committed more than a decade ago.
Since then, the United States has added more than 100 Cambodians to the list each year and shipped back, on average, around 40. They’re a drop in the demographic bucket among nearly 100,000 so-called aggravated felons, most from Mexico and Central America, deported each year. But they present a particular moral, historical, and policy quandary, and they fall into their own special catch-22.
Ordinarily, criminal deportations are done after an offender is caught and convicted, often in lieu of a prison sentence and when he’s still presumed to be a threat. But because of the long delay in repatriations, Many Uch and his peers now face deportation for crimes committed more than a decade ago, often when the law saw them as children in other regards. Some copped pleas rather than contesting their charges, on the assurance that they would be free sooner that way.
While he awaits his own deportation order, Many Uch worries always about crossing some unseen line that will speed the day. “Every time the police pass, I….” He hunches and grimaces. When “some homeless guys” picked a fight, he didn’t defend himself, for fear of getting blamed. Recalling the high percentage of felons arrested for new crimes, he says earnestly, “I just want to prove the state wrong. I don’t want to become a statistic.”
In fact the statistics are on the side of refugee offenders like Uch, says Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at UC Santa Cruz. Before the 1996 crackdown, Hing recalls, “I represented probably a couple hundred aggravated felons seeking deportation waivers.” Every one got a waiver; none got busted again. “These aren’t hardened criminals other countries are sending to us. This is more a problem of failed refugee resettlement than an immigration problem.”
Refugee and immigration advocates hope the new Congress will agree and restore judges’ power to grant deportation waivers. But it will be the hardest battle in an anticipated comprehensive reform of an immigration system widely seen as dysfunctional. “Anytime you do something for deportees,” notes Hing, “you’re on the wrong side of two hot-button issues: getting tough on crime, and immigration.” Indeed. I asked Texas Representative Lamar Smith, who sponsored the 1996 act, about the deportation of refugees like Uch who’d offended as youths and then gone straight. Smith replied by e-mail: “All an immigrant needs to do to protect themselves from deportation is to make a commitment to America by becoming a naturalized citizen. The law is clear. Noncitizens are on notice that they will be deported if convicted of a serious crime. Most people I talk to are more concerned about keeping criminals out of their neighborhoods than they are about rewarding people who have broken the law.”
But “committing to becoming nationalized” was no salvation for Loeun Lun, formerly of Tacoma (whose travails, along with those of Kim Ho Ma and Many Uch, are movingly recounted in Sentenced Home, airing on PBS’s documentary series Independent Lens on May 15). Loeun, a meek-mannered father of two with an adoring wife, a good job, and an almost-clean record, got nabbed after he applied for citizenship. A one-time, forgotten youthful incident with a gun came up. His wife now cares for their children and sends him money; he’s shown no skill at rice farming, and impoverished Cambodia hasn’t proven a land of opportunity for boyz from the hood.
Before they got in trouble, most on the deportation list were too young to apply for citizenship. Their parents could have obtained it, but either didn’t know they should or didn’t know it mattered. And, like immigrants from many lands, they may have felt they’d betray their heritage by adopting another nationality. “Maybe my mother didn’t want to lose that identity,” muses Many Uch. “It has to do with her community.”
Lately he’s wrestled with two identities at once, rolling Cambodia and America around in his mind and trying somehow to bridge them in Chea’s Place. For him, it’s all about community: the Loko Asian Boyz, the detainees he mustered for the habeas corpus battle, the “solidarity movement” he talks of building among young Cambodians, the improbable pool hall as social mission. Call it Cheers or Chea’s, it’s become a connection to the old country in more ways than one.
Many, Slogn, and three of the regulars have formed an as-yet-unnamed Chea’s charity. They pay $30 monthly dues and boost the kitty with informal fundraising dinners—fried chicken, sushi, and pancit noodles, the three volunteer chefs’ specialties at the last gathering in 2006. They send the cash to Cambodia, to be dispersed to needy families (eight so far) and projects (supplies for a school in Takeo, 90 kilometers from Phnom Penh). “We said, hey, we spend so much money on beer, we could do more,” says Many. “We want to give bigger things—a well, some solar collectors—but we need to raise more.” Their man on the ground is Kim Ho Ma, the kid from the projects who won in the Supreme Court but lost his America. “He’s traveled around the country, he can tell who really needs it. If a family has cows or a bike, he doesn’t give.”
Many talks of slowly mobilizing the young people to campaign for immigration reform and provide the next generation of boyz a safe haven, an alternative to gangs. But it’s hard to make plans. He has an infant daughter but confesses he has “a hard time making a relationship with her, when I might have to leave”—just as his father left him when he was young. “My fiancée doesn’t understand.”
He’s been advised that, with all the good work and works he’s done, he might be able to get a gubernatorial pardon that would save him from deportation. But he has qualms. “The system wants you to be good, get a pardon, and not change the law. At least I would like to see some other guys do it first. If I get a pardon and others don’t, I’ll feel like I betrayed them.” At the same time he thinks about life in Cambodia, the nonprofit work he might do, whether he might actually fit in there. “I can tell you what being Cambodian means,” he says. “It’s being conservative, traditional, respectful.” He pauses, and in a tone at once plaintive and exasperated, wonders aloud, “What is being American?”