At the Association of Asian American Studies annual conference this past spring, I had a chance to preview a remarkable film, SENTENCED HOME, co-produced, directed, and written by Nicole Newnham and David Grabias. Like other viewers, I was struck by the power of this film to put a human face on a critical problem facing immigrant and refugee communities today—forcible deportation. Since 2001, over 1.5 million U.S. residents have been deported, many for minor felonies or misdemeanors. Deportation has not been limited to undocumented “aliens,” but has also targeted permanent residents.
SENTENCED HOME sensitively explores the impact of deportation on deportees, their families and their communities through the stories of three Seattle area Cambodian Americans. Each fled the Killing Fields of Cambodia as children. Two have since been forced to return to Phnom Penh 25 years later. SENTENCED HOME tells their stories, covering their flight from Cambodia and struggles as refugees in the U.S., the strain on family and friends prior to deportation, and the extraordinary challenge of starting new lives in an alien homeland.
The educational value of SENTENCED HOME is virtually limitless. With support from an interdisciplinary group of co-sponsors, we screened SENTENCED HOME to an audience of 125 at Boston College this fall. Nicole Newnham and Many Uch, one of the film’s featured subjects yet to be deported, accompanied the film. They participated in a graduate level seminar on human rights offered by our Center for Human Rights and International Justice, held a lively Q/A session following the screening, and then met with undergraduates over a dinner sponsored by the Southeast Asian Student Association. The seminar discussion highlighted the daunting task of seeking legal restitution after deportation, and the virtually nonexistent psychosocial supports for deportees and their families. These issues resonated with the work of several faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students who are part of a new Boston College initiative, the Post-Deportation Human Rights Project. For many students, though, SENTENCED HOME was an eye-opening introduction to the assault on immigrant rights. The film inspired outrage, interest in learning more about legal and policy debates surrounding deportation, and the desire to take action.
Like many other films distributed by CAAM, SENTENCED HOME is a powerful catalyst for introducing critical issues into the academic experience of students and linking classroom learning to social action. In our case, the screening created an opportunity to connect students with our own Post-Deportation Human Rights Initiative as a way to sustain the energy generated by the film and deepen understanding of the fate of deportees. It also enabled Nicole and Many to network with members of the Post-Deportation project and students, thereby expanding their own organizing efforts on behalf of immigration reform.
As one student remarked to me at the dinner, “I learned more today than in a lot of the courses I’ve taken. This is what all of our academic experience should be like.”
Professor of Psychology and Co-Coordinator, Asian American Studies Program