The forgotten story of Cambodia’s Lost Boyz in America

Welcomed to the U.S. as children, deported as adults

Between 1975 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime devastated Cambodia. Millions were killed, and an exodus of refugees left first for neighboring Thailand, and then further abroad to France, Australia, and the United States. In the 1980s, the U.S. government helped settle 150,000 Cambodians in American cities, where families were often placed in poor, inner-city neighborhoods hardly equipped to handle an influx of outsiders. Hundreds of Cambodian boys joined or formed gangs in response to their new surroundings.

Photographer Stuart Isett started documenting these communities, in Uptown Chicago and elsewhere, in the early 1990s. Though not typical of Cambodians as a group, many of his subjects were gang members. These young men had witnessed atrocities back home as young children, or were born shortly thereafter in Thai refugee camps, and most understood their “permanent resident” status in the U.S. as equivalent to citizenship. But by the late 1990s, many were facing the prospect of deportation back to Cambodia—a consequence of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act signed into law in 1996. The new legislation brought big changes to U.S. immigration policy, allowing deportation of permanent residents convicted of misdemeanor crimes — even retroactively.
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