Melissa Pheng reacts while talking via video chat with her husband, Chamroeun, who was deported to Cambodia in July because of a criminal conviction from 20 years ago. The two are preparing to ask Gov. Janet Mills for a pardon, which might pave the way for Chamroeun’s return to Maine. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Chamroeun Pheng waited to greet his wife at the airport in Cambodia’s capital city early this month.

The couple spent two weeks visiting historic temples and snapping selfies and picking out gifts for family members. They had married at Portland City Hall six months prior, and they wanted the trip to feel like a honeymoon.

But when it was time for Melissa Pheng to go home to Maine last weekend, her husband could not go with her.

Chamroeun Pheng, 38, had been deported to Cambodia in July. His family came to Maine as refugees when he was a toddler. When he was 19 years old, he was arrested and ultimately convicted of aggravated assault in connection with a fight in Payson Park. Because he was a permanent legal resident and not a citizen, a judge issued a final order of removal in 2004. But Pheng was allowed to live and work in Maine for 15 more years, until the immigration enforcement priorities of the Trump administration put him at risk.

Chamroeun Pheng says goodbye to his wife, Melissa, in the upper right corner of the screen, while the two video-chat in August. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

From the other side of the world, Pheng is now planning to petition Maine Gov. Janet Mills for a pardon. Executive clemency would not guarantee his return, and he would still need to spend hundreds of dollars and many months on waivers that could still be denied. But the family is determined to try.

“It’s our last hope, it’s my last hope,” Pheng said during a video chat from Phnom Penh.

Governors have used pardons to prevent deportations in other states, and some advocates see the process as a political tool to oppose federal immigration priorities. Mills, a Democrat and former attorney general, has not taken that stance publicly, and a spokeswoman for her office said she does not base pardons on the threat of deportation. Still, public records confirm that Maine’s governor has so far pardoned two men who faced immigration consequences because of old criminal convictions.

“The Governor takes into consideration a wide variety of factors, including how long ago a conviction occurred and the individual’s character, personal development and professional accomplishments since that time,” spokeswoman Lindsay Crete wrote in an email. “The hundreds of collateral consequences of a conviction may include a greater likelihood of deportation for some individuals, but we cannot predict what impact a pardon might have on federal immigration officials and therefore cannot base a clemency decision on possible immigration enforcement action.”

PARENTS FLED KHMER ROUGE

Until he was deported to Cambodia, Pheng had never actually been there.

His parents fled their home country during the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge. Pheng was born in 1981 in the Khao I Dang camp just over the border in Thailand, which at its peak housed nearly 140,000 refugees. The United Nations Refugee Agency helped his family and many others resettle in the United States, and Pheng moved to Maine with his parents and two siblings. The family settled in Portland, where four more children were born.

Pheng grew up like many American kids. He ran track and joined school clubs, trying to fit in as an Asian student in a predominantly white community. Court documents show he got odd jobs to help his family while he was in high school, working at a factory in Biddeford and a cookie kiosk at the Maine Mall in South Portland.

Peter Pheng, one of the younger brothers, said the siblings spent their days playing hide-and-seek together or creating new outdoor games. Their parents did not have much money for new toys or technology, he said, but they emphasized the value of family.

“That was a big thing,” Peter Pheng said. “Everyone stick together, protect each other, just be together as much as you can.”

Chamroeun Pheng was a Deering High School senior in September 2000 when he went to Payson Park one night to drink and hang out with friends. He has denied being part of the group that beat up another high school student that night, but the victim identified Pheng and two others as his attackers. A grand jury indicted 19-year-old Pheng on an aggravated assault charge in December of that year.

Chamroeun and Melissa Pheng together in Cambodia in September. Photo courtesy of Melissa Pheng

Pheng and another young man took their cases to separate trials. A jury returned a guilty verdict for both. The third defendant was still a juvenile, and court documents show a judge acquitted him in part because he did not find the victim’s testimony to be credible.

A different judge sentenced Pheng to seven years in prison, with all but four years suspended.

Court documents from the sentencing show the prosecutor asked for more time to punish what appeared to be an unprovoked attack, but he told the judge there was no evidence that gang activity factored into the incident. The defense attorney argued for less time because of Pheng’s age and his newborn twin sons. Both lawyers also mentioned that Pheng previously pleaded guilty in juvenile court to reckless conduct with a dangerous weapon because he was driving a pickup truck when his friend fell out of the back and died.

The victim told the judge that he had known Pheng for years in school and was scared to know that a person he considered a friend could hurt him. The victim’s father described his injuries and recovery. The victim and his father could not be reached for this story.

“I don’t have much to say,” Pheng told the judge, according to a transcript. “I’m sorry that this incident happened. And that’s all.”

Superior Court Justice Paul Fritzsche said at that hearing that he believed Pheng did not start the fight but participated in it. He also said he thought Pheng could avoid criminal activity in the future, but he mentioned the possibility of deportation.

“So what happens to you is really unclear,” the judge said. “But you certainly run the risk of possibly being deported or being released in the United States subject to the potential for later deportation.”

Pheng pursued every avenue for appeal or relief in state and federal courts, but he lost every time. He was released from state custody in 2004 and transferred to immigration detention. A judge soon ordered him deported. Instead, court documents show he was released with a requirement to make regular reports to his local immigration office, in part because he did not get official Cambodian documents when he was born in the refugee camp.

He reported to immigration officials for 15 years. He has never been charged with or convicted of another crime.

“I kind of wish now I was deported back then,” Pheng said.

OBAMA POLICY UPENDED

Federal law has long identified certain crimes that make noncitizens subject to deportation, but not all of those people are immediately removed from the country.

The Obama administration prioritized the removal of people who had recently been convicted of violent crimes. Others were allowed to stay under supervision because they had young children who were citizens, or because their criminal conviction was not recent. But the Trump administration upended that policy. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement now targets anyone with a final order of removal, even those who have been in the country for decades.

It is not clear how many people in the United States fall into that category, and ICE did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

“As of three years ago, (Pheng’s) case would have been totally exceptional,” said Bram Elias, a clinical professor at the University of Maine School of Law. “Odds are that in a previous administration, ICE would not have focused on someone like Cham who had done so well since his conviction.”

The relationship between the United States and Cambodia has also complicated immigration enforcement because Cambodia has not always accepted deportees. The two governments reached a new agreement last year, and the number of removals spiked. Annual reports show 110 people were deported to Cambodia in fiscal year 2018, a nearly 50 percent increase over the 74 deportations in fiscal year 2016.

Pheng said he was deported on a July 2 flight from Dallas to Phnom Penh. An ICE news release from that week announced the deportation of 37 Cambodian nationals, including 35 people with criminal convictions. The release also said 1,900 people remain in the United States with final orders of removal to Cambodia, and nearly 1,400 of those have criminal convictions.

Lawyers have said people who have been in the country for years with final orders of removal are increasingly afraid to check in with immigration officials.

“People are scared to go to those appointments, and they’re not feeling secure,” Portland immigration attorney Marcus Jaynes said. “It’s not like they were promised they were going to be able to stay forever, but I think, after 15 years or so, to all of a sudden have things change is extremely upsetting and alarming for families.”

A pardon forgives a criminal conviction rather than erasing it from a person’s record. But legal experts said governors can still use pardons as a check on the federal immigration system.

For example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom pardoned two Cambodian immigrants earlier this year for crimes committed years ago. His predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, had similarly pardoned immigrants facing deportation last year.

“Clemency is very unique because it is something governors can do on the state level to cure some of these draconian restrictions on immigrants,” said Jane Shim, an advocacy staff attorney for the Immigrant Defense Project, which has worked specifically on pardons for people at risk of deportations in New York.

The issue is much more complicated after deportation, however.

People who have been deported typically cannot apply to return to the United States for many years, and waivers are complicated and expensive. A governor’s pardon can be attached to an application, but it does not obligate immigration officials to act in a certain way.

“By seeking the pardon after he’s been deported, they move from the position where the governor has power over the immigration system, to where the governor is just asking the immigration system to do the right thing,” said Elias, the Maine Law professor.

The state had received more than 80 petitions for executive clemency as of August. Information about those people is not public, so it is unclear how many are facing immigration consequences. Maine does not have a process to expunge a person’s criminal record in almost all circumstances, so a pardon is the only option for most people who want to reduce the many impacts of a past conviction.

But the state warns petitioners that not everyone will be considered. For example, people are unlikely to get a hearing on a petition if it has been less than five years since the end of their sentence, or if they are trying to get their name removed from a sex offender registry.

By the end of August, Mills had granted pardons to four people, including two men who faced immigration consequences. Attorney Robert Levine, who represented one of the pardoned men, said his client has changed his life and started a family since his convictions.

“If you are facing deportation and your only remedy is a pardon, it’s a motivating factor to apply for one,” Levine said. “You still have to meet the criteria of rehabilitation and community service and all the things that they look for. When you appear before the pardon board, they may be sympathetic to the consequences of being deported, but you have to earn it.”

BAD NEWS IN MARCH

When Melissa Pheng spotted her future husband in a Portland nightclub three years ago, she wasn’t even looking for a boyfriend. She was looking for a mutual friend she had lost on the dance floor. But Pheng was only interested in her.

When they started spending time together, she asked him why he had not settled down in a relationship. He told her that he could be deported someday, and he did not want to put a partner through that pain. Still, they started dating. They lived together with her children in North Yarmouth. He worked for a warehouse company, and she manages a local Friendly’s. In January, he asked if she wanted to go to Jared to pick out an engagement ring, and she said yes.

“I was waiting for, OK, when is he going to change and become a jerk?” Melissa Pheng, 36, said. “And it never happened.”

Then the March 5 letter told Pheng his release was revoked and he needed to report for detainment. He and Melissa Pheng took his teenage twins out to lunch and told them their father could be deported. They were infants at the time of his trial and said in an interview that they never realized he could be sent back to Cambodia.

The twins described their dad as someone who looks out for other members of the family, taking their grandmother to medical appointments and trying to reassure them even as he gave them his unexpected news.

“His main concern – he told me not to worry,” said DeeShawn Pheng-Bresette, one of the two boys, now 19. “I think he’s more worried about us.”

Unsure when they would be together again, the couple got married March 14. Less than a week later, Pheng embraced his family members outside the ICE office in South Portland and then turned himself in. Melissa Pheng said the extended family paid more than $12,000 to two different lawyers in frantic and unsuccessful attempts to keep him in the country, and she recalled his mother’s wail in the parking lot outside the ICE office that day. Before he was transported to another facility, his sons could visit him in a New Hampshire jail after school. Melissa Pheng took pictures of their high school graduation for him.

Peter Pheng, his younger brother who now lives in North Carolina, said the process has been confusing and upsetting for the family. He said they feel taken advantage of by the justice system and lawyers.

“We’re going to have to work with the system that’s not working very well for us,” Peter Pheng said. “Where else do we go?”

Since Pheng arrived in Phnom Penh, he has been living at the Khmer Vulnerability Aid Organization, which offers housing and other transitional services to new deportees. He got a warehouse job, similar to the work he did in the United States for years. He grew up speaking Khmer, but he is now trying to learn how to read and write it. He plans video chats with his family around an 11-hour time difference, trying not to think about the distance between them.

“I’m not around to cheer them up,” he said.

Melissa Pheng is collecting letters of support for his pardon petition and plans to submit the stack of paperwork soon. If their efforts fail, she said she would move to Cambodia. Earlier this summer, she planned a big meal for his sons and siblings with a traditional noodle soup, but gatherings are not the same.

“I’m not cooking so much,” she said. “Cambodian meals are built for families.”

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