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.”
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.”