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A crowd of immigrant advocates, organizers and Southeast Asian community members began gathering in Burlington around 8:30 Thursday morning, ready to support families who were reporting in to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Last month, the agency sent letters to Cambodians living in Massachusetts, primarily in Lowell, Lynn and Worcester.
These letters, sent to at least 10 Cambodian residents, told individuals with final orders of removal they would be taken into custody Thursday and the deportation process would begin.
For 22-year-old Jassyran Kim, whose father received one of those letters, it was her worst nightmare come true.
"My brothers and I are here taking a stand to show you that my family will fight and we're the next line of defense," she said, speaking to the crowd. "A 22-year-old, a 15-year-old and 10-year-old are going to take the spots of my parents because of what ICE is doing to us."
Kim's father came to the U.S. as a refugee when he was 9-years-old, fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia.
Stepping away from the microphone, Kim gathered her two younger brothers. She's in her final year of school at Davidson College in North Carolina, but she flew home to be here for her dad's appointment.
"I leave on Sunday and who's here for them?" she asked, looking to her brothers. "Who has a stable household now, because it's not us. And why is that fair? Why do other families get to keep their parents and we don't?"
Their father, 44-four year old Saray Im, arrived with his wife and the five walked into the ICE office together.
When he was 21-years-old, Im was involved in a criminal firearm exchange. His attorneys say no one was injured. Im was arrested and jailed for three years before being held for two years in ICE detention. He's regularly checked in with ICE ever since.
But, under the Trump administration, an increasing number of Cambodians, many with decades-old criminal records like Im, are being deported.
Bethany Li is an immigration attorney with Greater Boston Legal Services and represents Im. She said there's been a repatriation agreement between Cambodia and the United States since 2002. This agreement means the Cambodian government will accept Cambodians with criminal convictions. But, Li said, the process is flawed. Many of the former refugees who were convicted of crimes may not have been told by their criminal lawyers about the potential for deportation down the road.
"Many people have valid claims for immigration and post-conviction relief but the Trump administration isn't giving people time to explore those claims," she said.
In a statement ICE spokesman John Mohan said the agency does not target individuals based on ethnicity or race but instead focuses on "the removal of unlawfully present aliens who've received criminal convictions" or have pending charges.
About 20 minutes or so passed in Burlington with Im, his wife and three children still inside the ICE building. Protesters and advocates waited outside.
And then, opening the tinted glass doors, Im and his family walked out to cheers. He said he has one year until his next check-in with ICE. In that time, he hopes to vacate his criminal record.
"I start from nothing to something. I have a home, two pets, a car, and a family. The American dreams. Even though I'm living with fear, I'm still making it work for my family," he said. "I can't give up."
Wiping tears from her face, Kim said she's relieved to have her dad back, at least for a year.
"My first thought was I get a dad that will be at my graduation," she said. "That was going to be taken from me and I get that back. It's more than I could ask for."
Several others who showed up for appointments Thursday were also released under orders to check in with ICE. According to advocates, at least two people were detained.
This segment aired on October 3, 2019.
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