A Cambodian man who faces deportation for having taken a car as a teenager has been freed after more than a year of confinement in ICE jails.

Saroun Khan, 41, landed at Philadelphia International Airport from Texas on Thursday night, stepping into the arms of Cambodian and Vietnamese friends and supporters — communities under tremendous pressure from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has used old criminal convictions to deport people who came here as refugees after the Vietnam War.

Khan embraced his brother at the airport, both of them weeping, then quickly phoned his teenage son, telling him, “Daddy’s home.”

“He knows this fight isn’t over,” said his lawyer, Lilah Thompson of the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia. “But he feels very relieved to be home.”

Khan was freed from detention on Wednesday after a mandatory ICE custody review, which came as Philadelphia organizations like VietLead bombarded the agency, its leaders, and elected officials with two weeks of calls, petitions, and social-media queries about the case.

“It shows what can happen when we are organized,” said VietLead Executive Director Nancy Nguyen, “and I hope it gives more folks hope and courage and determination toward our ultimate goal: to free all of our people unjustly detained, bring home all of our family who have been deported, and end this cycle of displacement that has afflicted the Southeast Asian community for generations.”

Khan spent Wednesday night at a Texas motel, too excited to sleep, then flew from Abilene to Philadelphia on Thursday. He was exhausted and sleeping on Friday, Thompson said.

In arguing for his freedom from detention, Khan’s legal team filed for a stay of removal, and also asserted that new, more narrow Biden administration enforcement guidelines put Khan outside of ICE priorities. Those guidelines tell agents to focus on noncitizens who pose risks to national security, border security, or public safety.

Former President Donald Trump had unleashed ICE to arrest anyone who lacked permission to be in the United States.

Khan is a legal permanent resident. And, Thompson argued, he is pursuing significant legal avenues for relief, appealing his immigration case in federal court and preparing to seek a pardon, which has enabled some refugees to stay in the U.S.

Khan was about 4 when he and his parents landed in Philadelphia in 1984, refugees from the Cambodian genocide that killed more than two million people after the war. In March 2020, federal immigration agents arrested him at his family home in Olney, placing him in detention and putting him on track for deportation to a land he doesn’t know or remember.

More than two decades ago, when Khan was 19, he hopped into an unlocked car and took it for a joyride, an offense for which he later served time in prison. Under immigration law, that crime counted as an “aggravated felony,” making him liable for removal despite having legal immigration status.

ICE officials did not immediately reply to a request for comment on Friday.

They earlier said Khan “is considered to be a public safety threat due to numerous arrests in Pennsylvania,” and that in June he was ordered deported by an immigration judge.

Between 1997 and 2005, Khan was involved in fights or incidents that resulted in three convictions for assault, the most serious when he was handling a friend’s gun and accidentally shot his girlfriend in the arm. He had a 2000 conviction for parole violation, by possessing drugs and a weapon. But it’s the car offense, said his attorney, that exposes him to deportation.

Khan still could be sent to Cambodia. But freedom from detention represents a big step forward in his case.

For one, it removes the immediate threat of him being put on a plane and shipped out. That could have happened at any time while he was in custody. Second, it offers him greater access to attorneys, case materials, and even phones. It allows his lawyers more time to craft legal arguments, because they no longer face the pressure of potential immediate deportation.

“Now we can really focus on affirmative steps we can take,” Thompson said.

Today the United States government is deporting larger numbers of Asian immigrants, particularly Southeast Asians, many of them refugees who have lived in this country for decades. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, the detentions and deportations of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Chinese have provoked a crisis for communities that already are often ignored.

Anti-Asian violence, advocates say, doesn’t come only in the form of a man with a gun in Atlanta, or in racial attacks in cities from New York to California. It comes in government policies that put thousands under threat of removal and deposits many of them in the very nations from which they and their families fled.

The public attention and advocacy for Khan “made a huge difference,” Thompson said. “He knows this isn’t the end, but it’s a way for him to have hope to keep going.”