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Court gives detained Cambodians temporary reprieve from deportation

John Moore/Getty Images

Roughly 100 Cambodian immigrants detained this fall by U.S. immigration officials have received a temporary reprieve from deportation, at least until January.

A federal court judge in Los Angeles last week granted a temporary restraining order that prevents federal agents from initiating deportations, which according to court documents were set to start as early as this week. 

Civil rights advocates filed a class-action lawsuit in October against U.S. immigration officials after a series of arrests that targeted Cambodian nationals. The lawsuit alleged that the immigrants were illegally detained and their due process rights were violated.

"Given the speed with which the Government intends to remove Petitioners, the Court finds that a temporary restraining order is necessary to stay removal until the Court can give proper consideration to the complex issues presented in this action," said the Dec. 14 order by U.S. District Judge Cormac Carney. 

The judge's ruling applies to "all Cambodian citizens in the United States who received final orders of deportation or removal to Cambodia, and were subsequently released from ICE custody, who have been or may be re-detained for removal by ICE."

Carney ordered a new hearing for Jan. 11. 

"The court thankfully agreed with us that the speed with which they were trying to deport these folks was a problem," said attorney Laboni Hoq with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles, which is involved in the litigation. "So the court ordered that they could not deport anybody until it has had an opportunity to review their due process rights."

Hoq said her group's goal is to get the detained immigrants' deportation cases reopened.

The detained Cambodians, many of whom live in Southern California, came to the U.S. as refugees from the Cambodian genocide of the 1970s, according to immigrant advocates. They lived here legally but committed crimes, in some cases many years ago, for which they received deportation orders. But because Cambodia has a history of not accepting deportees, the immigrants remained in this country legally on supervised release.

In September, the Trump administration imposed limited visa sanctions on senior Cambodian foreign ministry officials as part of its efforts to get the country to take back deportees.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they could not comment on pending ligitation, but said in a statement that "the United States continues to work with the Government of Cambodia to establish a reliable process for the issuance of travel documents and their acceptance of the prompt, lawful return of Cambodian nationals" subject to removal from the U.S.

"There are at least 534 travel document requests pending with Cambodia, which have been requested since 2008," ICE said.

There are more than 1,900 Cambodian nationals residing in the United States with final deportation orders, about 1,400 of them with criminal convictions, according to the agency.

In addition to the Cambodian nationals, several dozen Vietnamese immigrants with deportation orders around the country have also been arrested in recent months, immigrant advocates said. The court order does not apply to the Salvadorans.