The ‘Criminalization of Immigration’

‘Destined for death’ in Cambodia, Socheat Chea now helps immigrants make new lives in the U.S.

Published in 2016 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2016

To say that Socheat Chea came to the United States under dire circumstances would be an understatement.

In 1975, with the insurgent Khmer Rouge only five days away from taking the capital city of Phnom Penh, the Chea family—whose patriarch was a major in the army—fled Cambodia by helicopter and landed at a makeshift refugee camp on the deck of the USS Okinawa in the Gulf of Thailand.

“It was clear that [if we stayed] we would probably be killed,” Chea says, who was 9 at the time. “My father was in the war. We were destined for death.”

Instead, Chea was destined for Georgia. His father had worked with a U.S. military officer named Col. Martin, who lived in Georgia and who offered his home as a safe haven for the Chea family until they settled in. With a brief break for law school at Boston College, he’s lived in Georgia ever since.

“When I first came here, there wasn’t much diversity,” he says, adding that there were maybe three Chinese restaurants in the city. “Eventually, they had the Olympics, and the city really shifted in terms of commerce. It grew by leaps and bounds. It’s very exciting to live in a place like that.”

Immigration law found him. “It was almost like fate,” he says. “I worked for a guy that had an opening.”

Chea founded his solo firm in 1992 in Midtown Atlanta, then moved to Duluth in 2004, where, he notes, “you can break into the field and make a name for yourself.” Since the late ’90s, his five-attorney immigration practice has focused on helping researchers and scholars come to the U.S.

Post-9/11, he has also experienced what he calls “the criminalization of immigrants,” and ticks off many new detention centers and officers, as well as jails being run by the private sector. He describes current enforcement as akin to a police state.

“Everybody got a bond back then,” he says of life before 9/11. “You literally had to be a mass killer not to get a bond. And now, just for driving without a license, you can’t get a bond.”

He adds, “We ended up getting a lot more Muslim clients, because they were being asked to come in to register. And they’d register, and then they’d end up getting arrested, put in removal proceedings.”

In general, he thinks U.S. immigration law is dysfunctional.

“My corporate clients are very frustrated with the fact that the laws are so behind compared to the needs of society,” he says. “You have to understand—the law that we work on was passed in 1965, signed into law by LBJ. The world has changed dramatically since the ’60s, right?”

In one way it has: It can now take years or decades for applicants to become U.S. citizens. “We have a backlog,” he says. “If you have a brother and sister, it’ll take you 12 years to file to get them over here; if you’re from the Philippines, 20-plus years; Mexico, maybe 30 years. If you’re from India, you can wait 10 to 15 years for your green card. And you constantly have to keep renewing your work permit, and somehow you have to be employed throughout that whole time.”

As a refugee whose family came to the United States seeking urgent relief, Chea empathizes with those who are disheartened with how sluggish the process can be; but he remains an optimist. “It’s new challenges every day,” he says, adding that he hopes one day there will be major changes to the immigration process.

“My firm, we’re in the trenches,” he says. “We’re a medic at the front line.”

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