Topics & Articles



Ethnic Groups




Viet Nam

Site Tools
Cambodian Americans

This article is an edited chapter on the major historical events and contemporary characteristics of the Cambodian American community, excerpted from The New Face of Asian Pacific America: Numbers, Diversity, and Change in the 21st Century, edited by Eric Lai and Dennis Arguelles in conjunction with AsianWeek Magazine and published by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Overcoming Unimaginable Atrocities

Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, Cambodia is a small country about the physical size of the state of Oklahoma, bordered by Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand. The country, despite being officially neutral, inevitably found itself embroiled in the Vietnam War and its own Communist uprising in the form of the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot.

From 1969 to 1973, the U.S. secretly conducted air-bombing raids on North Vietnamese troops over the Cambodian border, despite Cambodia's neutrality. The bombings caused numerous Cambodian civilian casualties and damage to land and property that increased anti-American sentiment and a rise in the support for the communist Khmer Rouge. When U.S. forces withdrew from the region in 1975, the Khmer Rouge soon defeated the U.S.-dependant Cambodian government.

After taking power in April 1975, the Khmer Rouge began to implement a wholesale restructuring of Cambodian society with the intent of creating an agrarian socialist state. The mechanism for this change was forced labor camps and the systematic murder of all political opposition, ethnic minority groups, individuals from religious, professional and educated segments of society, and all others who questioned the new order. The Khmer Rouge dissolved institutions such as banks, hospitals, schools, stores, religion, and attempted to unravel the fabric of the family. Children were separated from their parents to work in mobile groups or as soldiers.

Cambodian couple in front of Angkor Wat Temples ©  	 Wilfried Krecichwost and Getty Images

In proportion, the genocide in Cambodia rivals that of the Jewish holocaust. During the Khmer Rouge's reign from 1975 to 1979, about one-third of the Cambodian population died by starvation, torture or execution -- 2 million in total. In 1979, the Vietnamese government wrested control of the country, putting an end to Khmer Rouge rule.

With the fall of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese occupation, 600,000 refugees fled to refugee camps along the Thai border. Although refugees began arriving in the United States after the fall of Cambodia in 1975, the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 marked the true beginning of the Cambodian mass exodus and arrival in America.

Demographic and Community Challenges

The 1980 Census was the first to count Cambodians in the United States. It found 16,044, of which nearly half that number (7,739) had been admitted as refugees. During the 1980s, liberal refugee admission policies helped the Cambodian American population increase nine times to 149,047 in the 1990 Census. According to Immigration and Naturalization Service (now reorganized as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) statistics, 114,064 Cambodians were admitted as refugees during the 1980s.

Refugee admissions tapered off sharply in the 1990s -- from 1991 to 1998, only 6,150 Cambodians were admitted as refugees. The Cambodian community continued to grow, however. As of 2000, there were 171,937 Cambodians of single descent, a 13 percent increase over 1990, and 206,052 Cambodians, including those of mixed-race and mixed-ethnicity.

It should be noted that measuring the demographics of the Cambodian American community has historically been challenging; it is widely suspected that the community is repeatedly undercounted by the Census Bureau. A 1992 report sponsored by the Center of Survey Methods Research of the Census Bureau identified language barriers, mistrust of strangers and the government, and unusual residence and household composition as significantly affecting Census counts.

Since the implementation of 1996 immigration and welfare reform laws, Cambodians have been caught up in a dragnet of immigration policies and social service policies that limit benefits to non-citizens and require the mandatory detention and deportation of those convicted of crimes. Although a number of Cambodians have managed to find success in the United States, many continue to face challenges related to their refugee resettlement experience.

Applying the Lessons of Survival

The community as a whole, according to 1990 Census data available at the time of this writing, still deals with a high poverty rate (47 percent), poor English fluency (56 percent are rated as "linguistically isolated"), and low levels of educational achievement (only 6 percent of Cambodians over the age of 25 have a bachelor's degree from a university).

Cambodian American girls practicing traditional dance © Bruno Morandi and Getty Images

Learning English is a challenge for many Cambodians, who by and large arrived with a lack of formal education. The Khmer Rouge genocide decimated the educated and professional classes. As a result, Southeast Asian refugees (not including the Vietnamese), of whom Cambodians are a prominent percentage, have the lowest educational level, averaging just 3.1 years of schooling before arriving in the United States.

This language barrier has made it difficult for many first-generation Southeast Asian Americans to become full-fledged citizens because they are unable to pass the English- language portion of the citizenship test. Due to the fact their parents have not become citizens, the 1.5 generation of Cambodian Americans (young people who arrived as infants or small children but have largely grown up in America) remain non- citizens. This has made them particularly vulnerable to changes in U.S. policies directed broadly at "aliens" or non-citizens.

Having survived near-starvation, violence, and torture, many Cambodians in this country still continue to struggle with day-to-day survival and consequently lack interest in civic participation. Because of their histories of being oppressed by the government, some Cambodians continue to harbor fear and distrust of the government and remain largely ignorant of their civic responsibilities.

In looking at the past twenty years of Cambodian American history, it is clear that the community has come along way in a short period, but there is still much work to be done. Through greater civic and political participation, Cambodian Americans can guide their own course, empower themselves, and foster positive community development.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2003 by Porthira Chhim, Eric Lai, Dennis Arguelles, AsianWeek Magazine, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. Reprinted in accordance with Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.

Suggested reference: Chhim, Porthira. 2003. "Cambodian Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

Related Articles and Blog Posts