Stop ICE from unfairly deporting Asian refugees

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Dear loved ones, friends, colleagues, and associates,

My husband's best friend, Sivath Yaing, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement ("ICE") in a nationwide sweep of mass arrests targeting Southeast Asians who came to the U.S. as refugees. This action is part of a larger ramp up of ICE raids that began fall of 2017, through which ICE has detained and/or deported record numbers of Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Laotian Americans. 

As is the case for most of those being detained and deported in these raids, Sivath came to the U.S. as a refugee over 35 years ago, when he was just a child. Almost 20 years ago, when he was barely out of his teens, he was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to 5 years in prison and indefinite probation. He served all required prison time and has been attending his probation meetings without fail for the past 15 years. He has not committed any crimes or bad acts since his release from prison 15 years ago; and he has used his life story as a platform for mentoring other Cambodian youth who are at risk of falling into the same traps he did.

When Sivath was convicted of the felony, he became deportable under the U.S. Immigration and Nationality Act ("INA"). The U.S. government issued an order for him to be removed from the U.S., but Cambodia would not take him back because his refugee status effectively made him a "citizen of nowhere." ICE then put Sivath in probationary immigration status, allowing him to remain in the U.S. legally, work here and pay taxes, provided that he would check in regularly with ICE. He has held that probationary status for the past 15 years, during which time he naturally has built a life and community for himself and his family members, most of whom are now U.S. citizens.   

Unfortunately, it appears ICE has taken the position that individuals in Sivath's position are "low-hanging fruit" whose removal will appease Trump Administration's supporters. Federal law gives the Department of Homeland Security broad discretion to waive or stay a deportation order on the grounds that an immigrant is not a threat to society and has been rehabilitated, particularly when deporting the person would cause undue harm to a U.S. citizen family member. But since fall of 2017, ICE has declined to exercise favorable discretion in these cases, choosing instead to deport or detain individuals on the basis of decades-old convictions even if they have never committed another crime and have spouses and children who are U.S. citizens. (See In Trump's America, childhood crimes haunt Bay Area Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees).

Perhaps Sivath is more fortunate than some of the affected immigrants, as he intentionally refrained from getting married and having children after his release from prison because he knew the U.S. government had total control over his presence here. But I will personally attest to the extreme loss the Cambodian community in Metro Atlanta will experience if Sivath is removed. Sivath is one of the kindest, most respectable people I know. To say he has been rehabilitated is an understatement. He was re-born when he went to prison. Isn't that the beauty of the U.S. justice system, after all - its willingness to give the deserving a second chance?

ICE detained Sivath on Wednesday, 9/5 and would not give his legal team any options to challenge the detention. He is scheduled to be deported after interviewing with the Cambodian Consulate in Miami. I am proud and extremely honored to share that Asian Americans Advancing Justice - Atlanta ("AAAJ") has taken Sivath's case and is organizing folks for rapid-response mobilization to show community support for Sivath and his family. As part of this response, I created the enclosed petition. If you disagree with ICE's deportation of law-abiding, tax-paying Asian refugees, like Sivath, on the basis of a crime they committed decades ago, I humbly ask that you sign this petition. Sivath is aware that there may be little AAAJ or anyone else can do for him specifically; but, in keeping with his extraordinarily generous and compassionate nature, he has agreed to be the "face" of this issue in Georgia in case AAAJ's efforts can help others like him.

As members of immigrant, POC, and allied communities, we cannot stand idly by as ICE and this administration continually terrorize immigrant and refugee communities with impunity. We will not let our friends, neighbors, and loved ones be taken, forgotten, and lost in yet another systemic failure to deliver justice and respect humanity. But, even if you do not feel aligned or sympathetic to immigrants like Sivath, I hope you will at least view this ask as a personal request from Chris and me, two people who you know would not ask you to sign your name to a frivolous or untruthful cause. The photo above is from the hospital the day after my oldest son, CJ, was born. Sivath came to see us right away. He has been with Chris and me to celebrate every milestone and mourn every loss. In almost 14 years together, I have only seen my husband cry twice. He cried when he learned what ICE is planning to do to his friend. Please follow your heart and do what you can. 

Thank you for your love, support, and compassion.

Kristin Aquino-Pham



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