By Felix Poon, AsAmNews Staff Writer
The family of a 44-year-old resident of Lowell, MA isn’t giving up hope they can save him from being deported.
US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials on Thursday jailed Vibol Sok, one of two Cambodian refugees in Burlington that day who showed up for their regular check in, but authorities didn’t allow to leave.
His sister Sophan Smith accompanied him to his hearing.
“He went through the door. The door has a small window pane. And then a gentleman sitting near me said, ‘was that your boyfriend that went in?’ I said no that’s my brother. The gentleman said, ‘I just saw them handcuff your brother.’”
“My heart sank, I became frozen,” Smith explained in a video she posted on Facebook the next day, “I didn’t know what to do. I was waiting for answers, looking for answers, I didn’t know where to get it.”
Smith waited some time before an ICE official called her in to give Sok’s possessions to her. She took the opportunity to ask for more details on her brother.
The official responded that her brother doesn’t have legal status in this country, and that he would be sent to Texas on Monday to process travel documents for him to be deported to Cambodia.
Smith recounted her conversation with the man, “I said, ‘to a detention facility in Texas?’ He said, ‘no ma’am, a prison in Texas.’”
“I said, ‘A jail? A prison? So he’s going to be surrounded by criminals?’ And then he said to me, ‘your brother is a criminal.’”
The incident that originally landed Sok in jail happened in 1997, according to Smith. He was with his friend, a fellow gang member, when they got into an argument with a rival gang. His friend had a weapon in his hand, which Smith thinks might have been a metal pipe.
The rival gang had a small child with them. “Basically my brother said, it’s not worth it, there’s a baby here,” Smith told AsAmNews, “that’s why my brother grabbed the weapon from his friend’s hand and took it from him.” Smith said he then placed the weapon on the ground.
But the rival gang called the cops, and according to Smith, Sok was instantly recognizable because of a natural white streak of hair that earned him the nickname “Skunk” from Lowell Police. He was arrested and, because a child was present, charged with aggravated assault and battery, which is a deportable offense according to U.S. Law. He served two years in prison.
“He paid for his mistake. Everyone [says], ‘you do the crime, you do the time.’ My brother did that. So why, nearly almost two decades later now, you’re going to remove him? ”
According to Smith’s GoFundMe page, Smith and her brother came to the U.S. in 1981 when Sok was five and Smith was two. They came as refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge with their grandmother, mother, aunt, and uncle. They thought their father had been executed, but learned in 2000 that he survived. He passed away in 2003 before they could see him in person.
Smith is now working with Bethany Li, Director of the Asian Outreach Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services, to try to vacate Sok’s charges. Li says it’s unconstitutional to advise someone to plead guilty to a crime without knowing the immigration consequences.
Smith says her brother doesn’t speak Khmer, doesn’t eat the food or know the customs of Cambodia. “He’s as American as American can be,” she said in her Facebook video.
“My brother is someone who loves his Cadillac, always wears a tie to work…at Market Basket where he’s been an employee for 18 years. He loves collecting Hot Wheels. That’s my brother.”
According to the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center, there are nearly 16,000 Asian Americans living in the United States with final deportation orders; 2,100 are Cambodian Americans. The deportations of Cambodian Americans have increased 279% under Trump between 2017 and 2018, according to ICE data. Overall, there have been a total of 900 Cambodians deported, many because of decades old crime convictions like Sok’s.
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