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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.