Prosecution for an old crime puts Cambodian refugee at risk
By Michael Matza Inquirer Staff Writer 29/09/2010
After he was convicted of assaulting a Philadelphia man in 1998, Cambodian refugee Mout Iv knew he was in the United States on borrowed time.
As it turned out, quite a lot of borrowed time.
He was freed from a Pennsylvania prison after four years, but paperwork snafus prevented his immediate return to Cambodia, as required by law. So immigration agents put Iv on "supervised release," allowing him to open a barber shop in Olney
The government kept tabs on him with scheduled interviews, random phone calls, and unannounced visits.
Last week, at an ostensibly routine appointment, Iv, 33, was fingerprinted, photographed, and arrested. He's now in prison being readied for deportation.
It "was always in the back of my mind," said his fiancée, CJ Vonglaha, 26. "But I didn't think in my wildest dreams it would be like this."
Nor did many of the thousands of other noncitizen refugees being rounded up nationwide because of crimes largely committed years ago. In Philadelphia this month, the heat has been on the Cambodian community, which has protested deportation proceedings against at least six of its members.
Behind the rash of detentions and expulsions is the Obama administration, which is attempting to win public and congressional support for immigration reform.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) is on track to deport 400,000 people this year - a 10 percent increase over expulsions in 2008, the last year of the George W. Bush administration, and more than double the number in 2005.
In the last five years, the increases in deportations have largely been the result of federal campaigns to catch illegal border crossers and visa violators, according to a February report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, an independent research center at Syracuse University.
Another TRAC study released this month, however, documented a "shift in targeting."
"Focusing just on aliens who have committed crimes in this country, the number . . . removed by ICE has already broken all previous records," the authors wrote. They wrote that the number of undocumented immigrants removed for overstaying visas or entering illegally had dropped for the first time in five years.
In a June 30 memo to staff, ICE assistant secretary John Morton told agents to focus on felons and repeat offenders, but reminded them not to neglect other categories of illegal immigrants.
"Politically, [the administration has] focused on the low-hanging fruit," said Steve Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington group that advocates strict immigration control.
Those who support targeting noncitizens convicted of felonies or multiple misdemeanors say it's only logical to pursue them as a matter of public safety.
Defenders of refugees with criminal records generally do acknowledge the seriousness of their crimes.
Iv was 21 when he and two or three other men took part in a May 1998 mugging on the 4900 block of Old York Road in which the victim was stabbed in the side. Convicted of aggravated assault, he was sentenced to 31/2 to seven years in prison and paroled after serving the minimum.
As a noncitizen, he went immediately into immigration detention in prison. For reasons not specified in his criminal record, Cambodia did not issue travel documents so he could be returned. After a year, he was released under supervision.
In 1996, Congress enacted two laws expanding the categories of deportation and largely eliminated judges' discretion in deciding who stays and who goes.
Immigrant advocates such as Mia-lia Kiernan, of the group Deported Diaspora, say the system fails to credit the importance of rehabilitation and community ties.
Both figure in her defense of Iv, who survived the genocide of Pol Pot's Cambodia in the 1970s, lived with his mother and a sister in a Thai refugee camp, came to Philadelphia at 7, "did a crime, did his time," and turned his life around.
Now he sits in ICE detention at a jail in York, where he and the other Cambodian detainees were interviewed last week by a Cambodian consular official handling their return to the country they fled as children.
Iv's lawyer, Steven Morley, is trying to win a stay of his deportation with a last-ditch motion to the Board of Immigration Appeals.
It is "unfair" to allow people to develop ties to the community while on supervised release, "and then to rip them away," said Morley, of Philadelphia, who advocates for more discretion by immigration judges and ICE officials.
"The solution is to examine people's backgrounds on a case-by-case basis," he said.
Responding to an e-mail blast after Iv's arrest, about 350 demonstrators swarmed the intersection of Front and Champlost Streets near his three-chair shop.
His fiancée, a nurse's aide, held their 3-month-old daughter, Sarai. Deportation will shatter their family, she said, leaving her unable to pay the $1,400 monthly mortgage on their rowhouse. Her job pays $700 every two weeks.
"He has changed for the better," said demonstrator Shappine Servano, 27, a real estate agent. "He has his own home, his own business. He is paying taxes."
Except for a 2009 guilty plea and suspended sentence for impaired driving, Iv appears not to have had other troubles with the law.
"I have known him since 2001," said Rorng Sorn, executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia, a service agency for the region's approximately 20,000 Cambodians. "He is a responsible, respectful, positive influence on the children who come to his shop."
Iv's childhood friend Will McClinton, 32, a union laborer, said he loved him like a brother.
"He's been cutting my hair since we were 12. He ran into a little bit of trouble. . . . He started his life over," McClinton said. "If they could put up a poster of someone who reformed himself, his face should be on it."