Phnom Penh, Cambodia - Vuthy Tik was born in Cambodia. He and his family arrived in the United States in 1982 after having fled the war between Khmer Rouge forces and advancing Vietnamese troops.

Tik's family spent three years living in refugee camps in Thailand before they were granted refugee status and resettled. He was 13 years old when he arrived in the US state of Colorado.

But Tik was deported from the US in 2006 under a law that allows non-citizens to be expelled if they commit a felony, three misdemeanours, or any crime for which the sentence is more than one year in prison. There are currently 467 so-called "returnees" in Cambodia according to the Returnee Integration Support Centre (RISC) in the capital, Phnom Penh.

"When I was 18, I got in a fight with a younger kid," Tik said. "Because the kid was underage, they charged me with child abuse."

Tik served 18 months in prison, but he was not deported because the incident occurred in 1987 - before the passing of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) in 1996. While it was possible for Tik to have become a naturalised US citizen, the process was never explained to an uneducated and traumatised Cambodian refugee population.

"We never knew we weren't citizens," he said.

Vuthy Tik is among more than 460 Cambodians expelled from the United States [Nathan A Thompson/Al Jazeera]

"The IIRIRA … drastically expanded criminality as a ground for expulsion from the US," explained Angelica Chazaro, a visiting professor at the University of Washington's School of Law.

Shipped to ghettos, speaking little English, and with few prospects, Cambodians were particularly vulnerable to the change in the law. IIRIRA could even be applied retroactively if a person was picked up again by law enforcement and had their criminal record checked.

At the time the new law passed, Tik was working in a warehouse in Florida. He did not know that his right to remain in his adopted home had been removed. After being picked up by the police for driving under the influence of alcohol in 1998, he was referred to immigration authorities.

"I felt stressed and worried because I didn't know when they would throw me out," Tik said.

He had a partner and young son in Florida and another son in Colorado, where he grew up. "After I was deported, my partner moved, and I lost contact with my son. I haven't been in contact with my boys since before 2006."

'No greater punishment'

Defenders of the deportations say people such as Tik were invited to the US and then abused the rules.

"No one is deported from the United States because of a non-violent or petty crime," said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, DC. "Advocacy groups … leave out important details … to make it seem as if the [returnee] was deported for some 'minor' or 'unfair' reason."

But advocates say deported Cambodians have already served their time in prison; to exile them - a punishment historically reserved for the most heinous crimes - is a cruel added penalty, they argue.

"Of course it's inhumane," said Kosal Khiev, a returnee who is now a successful poet in Cambodia. "Deportation is legalised human trafficking; the only difference is paperwork."

Kosal Khiev, a 'returnee' from the United States who is now a successful poet [Nathan A Thompson/Al Jazeera]

The crux of the issue is that, under US law, deportation is not considered a punishment and, because it is regarded as a civil matter, the rights and protections that apply in criminal proceedings are waived.

Border control agencies and conservative analysts insist deportation is not inherently punitive. "To say so is offensive and insulting to other nations," said Vaughan.

But Chazaro disagreed with that assessment. "I can think of no greater punishment than permanent banishment from one's home, family and community … It [also] harms any family left behind in the US."

While returnees such as Khiev prove it is possible to blossom in Cambodia, others fall into crime, drug addiction, and suicide. "One of my returnee friends jumped off a bridge down Monivong Boulevard [in Phnom Penh]," said Tik, shaking his head slowly.

"I know more who are addicted to drugs," he added. Indeed, according to a Human Rights Watch report, six returnees committed suicide between 2002 and 2010.

 Cambodia: Circus of Hope

Deported without documents

On top of this, some returnees have been deported illegally without valid documents, according to a report released last month by the New York-based advocacy group Families for Freedom. Often, Cambodian returnees do not have passports, so in order to deport them, border control agencies must negotiate with the Cambodian government in order to procure travel documents.

But some returnees were born in Thai refugee camps, in the jungle, or in wrecked villages in a war-torn country.

"I've never seen my birth certificate," said Tik. "But I was told the Cambodian government provided it to [the Immigration and Customs Enforcement] ICE."

It would certainly be difficult for the Cambodian government to provide accurate documentation from such a turbulent period.

This is not the first time ICE's procedures have been called into question. In a 2007 report, Human Rights Watch found the department was "failing to keep accurate data on deportations from the United States". 

ICE released a statement in response to the allegations that reiterated its commitment to "smart, effective immigration enforcement", and stated its authority "is not punitive".

In 2002, the US threatened Cambodia with aid cuts if it did not agree to repatriate Cambodian refugees, according to a Newsweek report.

"There is no proof that happened," said Khieu Sopheak, spokesperson for the Cambodian Ministry of Interior. "But, of course, relations between our two countries have been weakened in relation to this activity."

For Khiev, the problem is a lack of accountability.

"From the moment refugees say, 'I pledge allegiance to the flag', they become your product, so [the US government] should take responsibility ... I'm not saying that criminals shouldn't be punished ... [but] if they get deported, there is no end to the punishment."

Follow Nathan Thompson on Twitter: @NathanWrites

Source: Al Jazeera