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.
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.
Detainees stuck in detention are unable to work, earn income or support their families as husbands and fathers. Iv's fiancée, CJ Vonglaha, gave birth to a daughter just three months before he was detained. "It's heartbreaking that she didn't get to know her father, and she won't ever," says Vonglaha. "Well, I guess she'll know him over the Internet and the phone ... ," she adds, trailing off.
Dang's wife, Ria Cruz, had a baby girl shortly after Dang was imprisoned. During jail visits, she says, "He can't even hold her."
At the beginning of 2011, the four refugees wrote to ICE, begging the agency to either release them back into the community or deport them to Cambodia. But ICE refused.
In a moment of hope, local Cambodians, immigrant rights activists and community allies sent a petition to ICE, demanding that the government free the men until their native country could accept them. They collected nearly 1,000 signatures — to no avail.
ICE officials, the families say, have declined even to provide basic, crucial information to detainees' loved ones. More than a week ago, Cruz found out — not from ICE officials but from Dang's cell mate — that Dang had been removed from the York detention prison. Then, after days of not knowing his exact whereabouts and ICE officials not returning her calls, Cruz learned Monday night that Dang had been put on a plane. Now she's left to worry incessantly that he might be unsafe in Cambodia, where newly arrived deportees are often mistreated and extorted for money.
"They're so cold," she says of ICE.
Community activist Kiernan, who had been accompanying Cruz on her trips to visit Dang, is more blunt about how she feels the current administration has treated her fellow Cambodians: "To the government, they're dirt."