The family of a Cambodian-American jailed awaiting deportation last year are appealing the deportation order after a district court ruled his planned December deportation should be postponed.
Kosal Chhim was sentenced to five years in prison in 2001 for domestic violence, however, more than 16 years later he was re-arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers while leaving home for work early in the morning on October 2 last year. He was due to be sent to Cambodia, which he left as an infant refugee, on December 18.
Since President Donald Trump came into office on an anti-immigration platform, ICE officers were given new powers to effectively arrest and detain any undocumented migrants. In the Trump administration’s first year in office, more than 155,000 were arrested, an increase of more than 170 percent.
Some 70 Cambodian-Americans who had prior criminal records for felony crimes were due to be deported along with Chhim, but the California court order halted the process. In a class-action lawsuit filed by civil rights advocates in November last year, lawyers for the Cambodians argued that their clients would suffer "irreparable harm" if they were returned to Cambodia and asked for an opportunity to re-open the Cambodians' immigration cases so they can appeal the deportation orders.
“This is what our attorney filed for a motion to reopen his court case to the board of appeals,” Chhim’s wife, Sanghear Prak, told VOA Khmer in an interview at their house in Stafford, VA., last month. “We’re just waiting to hear back from them.”
Chhim’s fate now rests with the Board of Immigration Appeals, which is the highest administrative body for interpreting and applying immigration laws.
He came to the United States in 1983 with his parents and a sister and brother when he was eight years old, but never became a US citizen.
Kosal purchased a home in Stafford, Virginia, two years ago to fulfill his American dream and brought his extended family to live with him.
“If my son is deported, it would be really hard for me,” said Mouy Krouch, Chhim’s mother. “I have only this son to take care of me. My husband has died.”
Krouch suffers from myasthenia gravis, a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease, and requires regular support.
“I cannot speak clearly,” said Krouch. “My tongue is stiff. I cannot swallow much food. From time to time I have to be tube fed.”
Chhim is currently being held at the Farmville Detention Center in Virginia.
“It’s been really hard without him,” said Kim Sor, Kosal’s sister-in-law. “This is going to be really hard. I don’t know how everybody’s going to move on from that. We can try, but we do need him here, especially the kids, and the house. He takes care of the house.”
Kosal worked as an AC technician and has a two-year-old daughter with Prak and two other children with his two previous partners.
Sanghear said that after his release in 2007, Kosal had not committed any other offenses.
"He never hurt me,” said Prak. “When I was in Boston for several years until I graduated, he helped me. He worked. We were not together. I was in Boston and he was in Virginia. He gave me some money. He never mistreated me since we’ve been together. He is not a bad person."
Neighbors also petitioned Senator Mark Warner’s office for support.
“He has shown us and everyone, all of our neighbor's great compassion and friendship,” said Ellie Conley, a neighbor. “He supported his family. He loves his wife and his daughter and his family. We would be disappointed if he could not come home.”
Another neighbor, Jeri Stephens, said at one point Kosal Chhim offered to mow her lawn.
“Well, I think we’ll be losing a good citizen,” said Stephens. “Someone that’s willing to come in and abide by community standards or by the constitution of our country. It will be a loss for us. And for his family to have to go through what they are going through is really hard for me to understand how they can survive it.”
Across the United States, there are nearly 2,000 Cambodian refugees facing deportation. Since Cambodia signed an agreement with the US in 2002, more than 500 of them have been removed, according to rights activists.
Prak sees being sent back to Cambodia as a “life sentence” for Kosal as he has no knowledge of the country.
“If a person changed [after] they committed a crime and they grew from it and they are rehabilitated into the society and everybody loves him and respects him and he hasn’t done anything else wrong, then he deserves a second chance,” said Prak. “And everybody who is in that situation deserves a second chance as well, not just my husband.”
The family is now campaigning on the Internet to raise money for defense fees.
If they fail in court, Prak says she will have to move back to Cambodia with Kosal.
"If he is sent to Cambodia, I and my kid will follow him,” she said. “We do not want to break up the family."
But his mother would not be able to because of her health condition.
"My health does not allow me to live there,” she said. “Where can I find treatment there? I survive on medicine. Without medicine, I cannot eat anything.”