Nina Ahmad, chair of Mayor Michael Nutter's Commission on Asian American Affairs, has met Dang and his family and affirms, "Chally completely remade himself."
Nonetheless, eight years after his release, the government has moved to have Dang deported.
In 1996, Congress passed a group of bills that made deportation a requirement for any immigrant — legal or not — who commits an "aggravated felony," a vague term that includes everything from nonviolent drug offenses to tax evasion. These laws also rendered non-citizen immigrants ineligible for forgiveness or individual consideration before a court.
Members of the Cambodian refugee community, advocates say, didn't comprehend the impact of these laws at first. After all, even following the Vietnam War and the fall of the Khmer Rouge, the U.S. didn't return a single Cambodian refugee until 2002, three years after Dang's conviction.
At first, the U.S. deported only a very small number of Cambodians each year. But then, in 2010, the Obama administration deported 195,000 convicted criminals — more than the country ever had before — including some Cambodian refugees. Though Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will not release detailed data on 2010 removals until August, Cambodian communities around the country say that 2010 saw record deportations. And they expect even more.
Conservatives like the Obama administration's new strategy. Bob Dane, a spokesman for the right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform, argues that immigrants -— even refugees — ought to be held to a "higher standard" than U.S. citizens, and therefore, if they commit a felony, should be deported. "Refugee status is never guaranteed," he says. "It's granted."
The administration has also billed its effort as a sensible and humane use of resources: The idea is to round up the bad guys and leave the good guys alone. "We're focusing our limited resources and people on violent offenders and people convicted of crimes," Obama said during a speech on immigration in May. "Not just families, not just folks who are just looking to scrape together an income."
But when U.S. law prevents courts from weighing the details of a potential deportee's life, the difference isn't always obvious.
Harold Ort, an ICE spokesman, says the agency must deport people "whose serious criminal histories mean they would pose a significant threat to local communities." But that doesn't apply to Dang, say his family and friends — nor does it apply, they insist, to other Cambodian detainees in Philadelphia.
In the same week in September 2010 that ICE picked up Dang and sent him to prison, he was joined by three other Cambodians from Philly: Mout Iv, Vanney Van and Davy Phean.
Their stories are remarkably similar: They are all refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge regime as children. The oldest, Iv, was 9 when he arrived in the U.S. Many were poor, raised by single mothers, and lived in violent neighborhoods.
They also all committed crimes in the '90s as minors or young adults, and are now facing deportation as a result of those crimes. Also like Dang, they've changed — before getting locked up, they all had mortgages and steady jobs. Three of the four have children. Iv had his own business, a popular barbershop in Olney.
That's not all they have in common. All four spent more than six months in prison awaiting deportation — a length of detention that may violate U.S. law.
"The U.S. cannot detain anyone without a purpose, regardless of their immigration status," says Valerie Burch of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, adding that there are only a few valid reasons to jail immigrants awaiting deportation past six months: if they're extremely violent, mentally ill or have pending terrorism charges.
She cites Zadvydas v. Davis, the 2001 case of a Lithuanian immigrant whom the U.S. had held in deportation custody for half a year while trying to find a country that would take him. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if an immigrant sits in jail for longer than six months awaiting deportation, it's the government's duty to prove that the removal will happen in the "foreseeable future" or that the person presents an "extreme threat."
ICE has used the vagueness of both criteria to hold all four of the Philadelphia Cambodians in excess of six months, according to documents provided to City Paper. Van, Phean and Iv all arrived in Cambodia during the past two weeks, after each waiting for about eight months in detention.
According to those documents, it appears that the four men were detained, essentially, because of a paperwork problem: "ICE is currently working with the government of Cambodia in securing a travel document," an ICE official wrote to Dang in February. Likewise, in March, ICE wrote to Iv, "A travel document ... is still pending."
ICE officials have argued that they can imprison the local refugees for longer than six months because their trip to Cambodia will be happening in the "imminent" future, and because they are a "threat to society." Spokesman Ort explained simply, "Detention is used to ensure the safety of the public."
Community activist Kiernan calls those arguments preposterous. "I'd like to know what their definition of 'imminent' is. They said their removal was imminent in January. It's May."
How many other immigrants have been held for longer than the six-month limit upheld by the Supreme Court is unclear. But a one-day survey of ICE detainees awaiting deportation conducted by the Migration Policy Institute in 2009 showed that 9 percent had been in jail for more than six months. Many detainees, lawyers say, never challenge their imprisonment in court. Of the four Cambodian men, only one hired a lawyer — the rest, their families say, decided to save their money for their uncertain futures in Cambodia.
Meanwhile, even as the government claims that its indefinite detentions are legal, Congress is considering a law that would explicitly let ICE detain immigrants for longer than six months.
In a hearing on the bill last week, a lawyer for the ACLU said it would "result in the unnecessary detention of thousands more individuals."
As for the "threat to society" that ICE had claimed the four men posed, community members dismiss the notion as ridiculous. Three of the four had already been out of prison for seven years or more (immigrant detentions notwithstanding) and had never been charged with another crime. Iv was picked up on a single DUI charge.