Sentenced Home, a 2006 documentary directed by David Grabias and Nicole Newnham, aims to prove that U.S. immigration policy can be exceedingly unjust to refugees who hold permanent residency in the states. In a short, one-hour film, audiences are introduced to three Cambodian refugees who must battle the consequences of deportation back to their home country.
The documentary follows three men: Many Uch, who committed a robbery as a teenager, Kim Ho Ma, who was involved in a gang drive-by shooting, and Loeun Lun, who shot a gun in a mall parking lot eight years prior to the documentary’s making. All three were young boys when they were brought from Cambodia to the U.S. by their parents in brutal, heart-wrenching escapes. In the documentary, the parents of the boys talk about how in their escape years ago, they were all on their death beds in the forest, starving, sick, and with little hope of survival. They risked everything they had in order to bring their children to a better place.
Uch remembers stepping off the airplane in the United States. He says, “When we went to America, we thought we were American…like the rest of Americans.” He and his family did not speak English, nor were they familiar with American traditions, laws and customs. The government did not bother helping them out, nor distinguishing between citizenship and permanent residency. So, Uch didn’t bother to learn the difference. The family thought they were Americans, with full rights, just like everyone else.
Uch now faces deportation, along with the two other men, for felonies committed years ago. All of the men already served their time in prison after being convicted. But that does not matter. For legal, permanent residents who are refugees who have been sentenced to a year or more for an aggravated felony, new laws require mandatory deportation. I do not think this is fair to any of these men, especially since all of them served time for the crimes committed. For me, it almost defies what we define as “double jeopardy,” or the forbiddance of being tried for the same crime twice. These people are being punished again for the same crime they committed years and years ago. The worst part? The refugees usually are not aware of their circumstances until they’re already assigned to be deported.
Kim Ho Ma comments, “I’m an alien…I ain’t from Mars, but here I am, categorized.” Ho Ma is angry that he wasn’t treated fairly and for what he believes to be a flawed legal system. Once deported, he goes to an immigration prison and later a halfway house. He has no friends, no family, and no understanding of the culture in Cambodia. It’s interesting that it is expected for these people adjust to new cultures and circumstances, when all they know is English, American holidays and foods, and a completely different lifestyle. Of course, these ex-refugees have no clue what to do or where to start. They have no lifelines.
Loeun Lun has two children, a wife and a job back home, but it does not matter. There is no opportunity for him to appeal his deportation since cases are not reviewed individually. In Cambodia, he tries to make a life for himself, but the way of living is so different that it is very difficult to do so. He goes from living in “luxury” in the U.S. to a hut, with well water and fish to be caught for dinner.
I do not think it is right to pick up a person who has been living in the U.S. for essentially their entire life, and send them to a different country after they’ve already spent time in prison for the crime they committed. An American with citizenship who committed the same crime would spend just the same amount of time in prison, but never have to worry about facing additional charges for the crime. At the same time, the parents of all these boys literally gave up everything they had at home in order to give their children a better life in the U.S. Escaping Cambodia meant battling death, and it’s hard to see these refugee children take all of that for granted. I wonder if they were conscious of everything their parents went through to give them a new life. All the men committed a crime they knew was wrong, and by doing this, threw all of their parent’s hard work away. I feel like they might not have appreciated what they had until it was taken away from them, which is a sad thing to see.
With that said, I think that since all of the boys were very young children when they immigrated, they must have a different outlook on American life than their parents do. American life is all they ever knew, and since they believed they were Americans, just like everyone at school and in the neighborhood, they must have never really thought twice about their circumstances in the U.S. And it’s hard to blame them for that. But, if their parents made a greater effort to really show their children what they have now, that could have made all the difference.