LOS ANGELES (CN) – A federal judge Monday certified a class of Cambodian refugees who claim the federal government is infringing on their constitutional rights by unlawfully detaining them without proper notice and a chance to stand before a judge.
In Oct. 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a series of raids that swept up individuals of Cambodian descent who later were held in detention facilities. Many of them were born in refugee camps and had never set foot in Cambodia, according to advocates.
With support from the firm Sidley Austin, and two California chapters of advocacy group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, detainees sued to stop any further detentions and filed a nationwide class action lawsuit to challenge their arrests.
They claim the arrests are unlawful and deny detained Cambodians their due process rights.
Advocates believe there are at least 1,900 Cambodians in the country who could be subject to detention and deportation by ICE. Many of them were released by ICE years ago, but could not be deported due to Cambodia refusing to accept them.
U.S District Judge Cormac Carney said Monday he would certify the class after adjusting the language of his order to ensure that class status doesn’t extend to individuals who pose a danger to their communities.
“I assume that some [members of the proposed class] are not perfect angels,” Carney said. “By certifying, am I impeding or making it difficult for the government to arrest class members if they need to?”
Darlene Cho of Sidley Austin said any injunctive relief would only prevent unlawful detention and deportation, not impede law enforcement.
“We are not aware of any member who is a danger,” Cho said, adding that plaintiff’s counsel has not yet completed a comprehensive review of all 1,900 class members.
ICE also detained Cambodians after regular check-ins with the agency. Many were lawful permanent residents with criminal records and had received deportation orders.
After initially refusing to accept deportees into the country, the Cambodian government eventually agreed to issue them travel documents.
Two of the plaintiffs representing the class, Nak Kim Chhouen and Mony Neth, were detained under those conditions.
“I came to the United States when I was six years old as a refugee from the war. This is the only place I’ve ever known as home,” Chhoeun said in a statement.
Chhoeun and Neth were born to families that fled Cambodia to the United States to escape the Khmer Rouge, a brutal regime whose genocide killed over 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979.
Cho asked the court to acknowledge the more than 20 community members that attended the hearing in support of the class members.
Carney has taken a compassionate stance towards the proposed class members. He has said the federal government can’t deport them without notice.
He granted a temporary restraining order in Dec. 2017 to block the deportation of over 50 detained Cambodian refugees in order for them to challenge their deportation cases.
Carney said he was concerned about individuals with criminal records being included in the class.
“I want to ensure that if there’s an incident involving terrorism, that the government can move swiftly,” he said.
“Under extreme cases like terrorism, the government can find other grounds for detention,” Cho said.
Justice Department attorney Troy Liggett said he was concerned about individual class members being granted relief and then absconding from deportation proceedings.
The federal government wants individuals transferred from criminal custody to immigrant detention to be excluded, Ligget said.
“I share your concern,” Carney said.
Jenny Zhao, staff attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said the proposed injunctive relief wouldn’t prevent ICE or other law enforcement agencies from detaining anyone that committed a crime.