Jennifer Abbey Zelnick

Award Information

2018 IDRF Program

AnthropologyUniversity of California / Irvine

Deported "Home?": Cambodian-Americans and the Limits of Legal Permanent Residency

What does it mean to "return" to a country one doesn't remember, or where one has never lived? Since 2002, 566 Cambodian-American legal permanent residents have been deported from the U.S. to Cambodia, and thousands more await final orders of deportation. Unlike most deportees who return to countries where they previously resided, and have citizenship and family ties, Cambodian-Americans are exiled to Cambodia as stateless non-citizens largely unfamiliar with their "homeland." Born during and after the Khmer Rouge genocide of an estimated two million Cambodians (1975-1979), Cambodian-Americans who are deported were originally accepted into the U.S. as refugees. This project examines how legal mechanisms, social and political histories, transnational flows, networks and absences of kin, and geopolitics of inclusion and exclusion complicate anthropological theories of migration, removal, and "return." How does the emergence of "deportable refugees" challenge extant notions of transnationality, migrant precarity, documentation, and illegality? How does the removal of Cambodian-American LPRs problematize notions of refugee futurity alongside notions of return that invoke the past? I will investigate these questions through sixteen months of transnational ethnographic research among deportees, their friends and family members, policy makers, police and ICE agents, activists, and community-based organizations in Phnom Penh and Battambang, Cambodia and Long Beach, California.