Chally Dang has made a few mistakes in his life — but the biggest was being born at the wrong time.
Had he waited a couple of years, he would have been a citizen of the United States, and thus would have enjoyed all the rights and privileges therein. Instead, he came to this country as an 18-month-old baby, growing up and living as an American but not, technically speaking, an American — a distinction that makes his current situation possible.
Dang has spent most of the last year in an American jail, though he's been charged with no crime. What's more, his stay has been an indefinite detention, a concept normally outside of American law, and subject to the seeming whim of a federal bureaucracy that's asserted its right to hold him as long as it deems him a public threat — though the same bureaucracy allowed him to live free for the last seven years.
And all the while, he's awaited deportation "back" to a country he's never seen.
Although his parents are from Cambodia, Dang himself was born in 1982 in Thailand, in a refugee camp. His parents had fled there to escape their own government, the Khmer Rouge, which, under the leadership of dictator Pol Pot, massacred an estimated 2 million Cambodians in just a few short years in its effort to eliminate "enemies" of the state. The manhunt targeted intellectuals, the handicapped, and Buddhist monks, among many others, and employed such tactics as skinning people alive and forcing them to dig their own graves.
Dang's mother, father and three brothers managed to escape by crossing the border into neighboring Thailand and running from one squalid refugee camp to another while dodging attacks by communist guerrillas. As they waited for a new country to take them in, Dang was born. In 1983, the U.S. welcomed his family into the country as refugees under a resettlement program, and they became legal permanent residents shortly thereafter.
The Dang family eventually settled into the Olney neighborhood, a part of Philadelphia that quickly became dotted with dozens of Cambodian-owned stores, restaurants and homes as thousands of other Khmer Rouge refugees joined them in America throughout the '80s. Philly is now home to one of the nation's largest Cambodian populations.
The story of that community is, in some ways, a classic American dream come true: Fleeing violence and oppression, the Cambodian refugees found in America safety, opportunity and hard-won, working-class success.
But now, many local Cambodians say, that dream is under attack by the very government that extended a hand in their moment of greatest need — and they hold up Dang as a blazing example.
On Sept. 21, 2010, Dang was taken into custody by federal officials and sent to a prison to await deportation to Cambodia, a country he's never stepped foot in — all because of a 12-year-old felony conviction for which he's already served time and since which he committed no other crime. Dang and other legal immigrants — some of them refugees, like him — here in Philly and elsewhere have found themselves smack dab in the middle of a new push by the Obama administration to deport more "criminal aliens" than in the history of the country — a move many see as a goodwill gesture to conservatives.
They've also found themselves in a bizarre legal predicament: Unlike most Americans, these immigrants are granted no trials and require no convictions before being detained. Nor does the traditional right against being punished twice for the same crime ("double jeopardy") apply: Old offenses — for which detainees have already served time — are being used against them.
Nor does it appear, according to records reviewed by City Paper, that they have been granted even that most fundamental of democratic rights: habeas corpus, or the right against indefinite detention.
Community members and immigrants-rights groups denounce these policies, calling them inhumane and in violation of basic American principles. What's more, many of Philly's Cambodians feel their community and others have become sacrificial lambs in the country's political immigration wars.
The Obama administration, says Mia-lia Kiernan, a Philadelphia Cambodian community activist, "thinks they have to show they're still tough on 'criminal' aliens. ... But they'll have to face the consequences of separating families and breaking hearts."
If the first defining moment of Dang's life — being born in a refugee camp to parents fleeing for their lives — was involuntary, the second was, he readily acknowledges, a terrible mistake.
Life in the U.S. was better, but not easy. Shortly after Dang was born, his father abandoned the family. His mother spoke no English, and Dang and his siblings grew up poor. "Pigeon became the common meat for us," says Dang, because it was "readily available and easy to capture." Dang also faced violence at school and at home, and fell in with a tough crowd. He and his friends — other Asian immigrants and refugee kids — morphed into a gang.
The low point came one day in 1997, when Dang was 15. He was driving in North Philly with a friend, when they were spotted by a rival gang. Their enemies hurled bottles and rocks at their car, Dang says, and his friend handed him a gun.
"I recklessly fired a few rounds in their proximity," he says.
No one was injured, but Dang was later apprehended and charged with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy and possessing criminal instruments, and sentenced to five-and-a-half years in prison. He writes in a letter from a York, Pa., detention center that he still feels remorse for firing the gun — "regret," he says, is part of "a chain that binds me to my past."
He got out of prison in 2003, when he was 21 years old. Since then, he hasn't committed another crime. Indeed, Dang, according to those close to him, emerged from prison and from his troubled past a better man. He stayed straight, got married, had kids. Now 29, he's an all-around "family man," friends say, with five children and a steady job operating vending machines. Within an immigrant community still struggling with the challenges of inner-city life and the absence of fathers, Dang became an example of a ne'er-do-well who turned his life around and made the best of a second chance.