Saroun Khan can’t shake the sense that his freedom might be temporary.
After 13 months in ICE custody, he’s back in the Philadelphia rowhouse where he grew up. He can walk the streets of his Olney neighborhood, savoring the thick summer air and drenching evening rain.
But with every step he knows there’s nothing to prevent the immigration authorities that targeted him for deportation, based on a 20-year-old conviction, from seizing him again.
“Anything could happen,” said Khan, 42, who was about 4 years old when he came to the United States with his parents, refugees who escaped the Cambodian genocide that followed the Vietnam War. “I’m out there always looking over my shoulders, left and right, left and right.”
For now at least, the federal government is likely to leave him alone, though he remains under an ICE order of supervision that requires in-person check-ins.
In the six weeks since he arrived home, Khan has been adjusting to his independence, having been bounced among detention centers from Pennsylvania to Texas, sickened with COVID-19, and kept apart from the family he loves. His mother died while he was in custody. His father’s health worsened, and the older man moved in with an aunt who feeds and bathes him.
Khan works nights at a Lansdale print shop, feeding paper into machines from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. He’s spending time with his siblings and preparing to celebrate his 18-year-old son’s high school graduation.
“Physically, I’m worn out. Mentally I’m half there and half not,” Khan said. “It just changed me.”
His goals for the future? He can’t begin to say. It’s hard enough to understand the past.
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.
Federal immigration authorities never bothered him about it. Not until former President Donald Trump empowered Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest anyone who could potentially be deported, including people like Khan, who is a legal permanent resident.
In March 2020 ICE agents appeared at the family home and took him away, putting him on track for deportation to a Cambodia, where he knows no one. While in detention he could have been flown out at any time.
Khan finds himself plagued by questions, about why he in particular was identified for arrest, and why after so much time, and why the same country that extended itself to bring him and his family here after the war would seek to force him back.
“Twenty or 21 years later,” he said, “they came and got me because … just because?”
Today the U.S. government is using old criminal convictions to deport larger numbers of Asian immigrants, particularly Southeast Asians, many of whom came here as postwar refugees. In Philadelphia and other cities, the detentions and deportations of Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians, and Chinese have provoked community crises, with thousands threatened with removal to the very nations from which they fled.
Many never understood that despite their legal immigration status, they needed to formally secure U.S. citizenship, a bar against deportation.
The removals of Southeast Asians that rose dramatically under Trump — deportations of Cambodians tripled in a year — have continued under President Joe Biden.
Many found themselves in immigration trouble because of crimes committed decades ago. The same for Khan.
Between 1997 and 2005, he 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, Lilah Thompson of the Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia, that exposes him to deportation.
The term aggravated felony sounds serious — and under immigration law it indeed applies to the most violent crimes, such as murder, rape, and kidnapping. But it also includes offenses that are neither aggravated nor felonies.
Selling marijuana, shoplifting, writing a bad check, or failing to appear in court can be aggravated felonies. Misdemeanors can count. The penalty can be life-altering: permanent deportation.
Advocacy groups like the Immigrant Legal Resource Center say the federal government aims to classify as many immigrants as possible as “aggravated felons,” because it triggers the harshest penalties and limits their ability to fight in court.
That Khan can walk the streets of Olney, and catch a nightly ride with a friend to his job, comes as the result of enormous effort:
Thompson and other members of his legal team worked tirelessly on his case, and continue to try to secure his ability to permanently stay in this country. Philadelphia activist groups like Vietlead mounted a public campaign, bombarding ICE and elected officials with phone calls and petitions, and spreading Khan’s image and the words Free Saroun across social media.
Khan worked to help his attorneys and to stay positive — even when all seemed darkness.
“With any sort of piece of the puzzle missing, we wouldn’t have gotten this result,” Thompson said. “Of course it’s not over for him. But this is about a person in our Philadelphia community — the only place he’s ever known.”
The roots of Khan’s dilemma extend back to events that occurred before he was born, to the American war in Vietnam and its expansion into neighboring lands.
The secret U.S. bombing of officially neutral Cambodia caused civilian casualties that helped set in motion the rise of the despotic Khmer Rouge. That regime carried out the genocide known as the Killing Fields, murdering an estimated two million people.
Khan’s parents fled with him to a refugee camp in Thailand, where his brother, Sarith, was born. They came to the United States in 1984, among the more than three million people who left Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos in the two decades after the war, part of the largest refugee resettlement effort in American history.
Today about 56% of the 339,000 Cambodians in the United States were born in Cambodia.
ICE called Khan “a public safety threat due to numerous arrests in Pennsylvania,” and noted that in June 2020, an immigration judge ordered him deported.
Still, the agency freed him on April 30 after a mandatory custody review, as his legal team asserted that new, more narrow Biden administration guidelines put Khan outside of ICE enforcement priorities.
The agency has the power, on its own, to cancel his case forever — or to take him into custody again.
“If I would have got deported, that’s it, I’m not seeing [my family] again,” Khan said during a walk through the Olney playground. “That’s a scary feeling. I just want to move on with my life. But in the back of my mind I’m still afraid of getting deported.”