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This Man May Be Deported To Cambodia Before He Can Give His Brother A Kidney

Courtesy of the Hak family.
Touch Hak poses with his daughter.

A man being held in the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma could help save his brother’s life by giving him a kidney.

But that won’t happen if the U.S. goes forward with plans to deport the man to Cambodia, a country he left as a baby. The case shines a light on what some consider the U.S.'s overly harsh deportation policies.The Only One 'Who Can Provide Me The Kidney'

Touch Hak was picked up by U.S. immigration agents a few weeks ago and taken to the federal detention center in Tacoma. About 40 former Cambodian refugees are being held in the detention center, the first stop on the way to deportation to Cambodia.

Meanwhile, Hak’s brother in California, Puthy Hak, who’s been on kidney dialysis for the past year and a half, has been told he needs a kidney transplant. Puthy says his younger brother is the perfect match.  

“I need a donor for the kidney, and only him [is] the one who can provide me the kidney,” said Puthy, who works as a supervisor at a machine shop in Orange County, California.

'It's Like Someone Pulled My Heart Away'

But Puthy says beyond his own health concerns, he and his parents are beside themselves over the pending deportation because of what it will do to the family.

“I don’t think it’s right to send him over there and the whole family [is] over here, so it kind of like, it kind of breaks us apart. It’s like someone pulled my heart away from me or something,” he said.

Life After The Killing Fields In Cambodia

The family arrived legally in the U.S., as refugees in 1985.

They’d escaped the killing fields of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Puthy remembers life under the brutal dictator Pol Pot and of being forced, as a 6-year-old, to work full-time hauling rocks.

Once in the U.S., Puthy and his parents became naturalized citizens. But for whatever reason, Touch never did. Eventually, Touch got in trouble with the law and served eight years in federal prison on a drug charge. Even though he’s done his time, U.S. immigration law considers him a criminal alien who can be deported at any time.

Immigration Judges Have No Leeway

Many Uch is a Cambodian refugee and Seattle activist who’s been working on Hak’s case. Uch says he’s trying to see if, on humanitarian grounds, the deportation can be delayed a bit.

“Give him some time to donate kidney to his brother first,” he said.

But Uch says he knows, given the way U.S. immigration law works, there’s virtually no chance of stopping the deportation altogether. That's because the U.S. immigration reform law passed in 1996 and signed by President Bill Clinton cracked down on deportation waivers. Under the act, immigration judges no longer have the discretion to grant waivers.

Many Live In Legal Limbo

Uch says Touch's story of facing deportation after having lived in the U.S. since he was a baby isn't unique. He himself lives under that threat. His story is one of the documentary "Sentenced Home."

Many Cambodian American men who committed crimes as teens have lived for years with the threat of deportation. Because Cambodia has often been slow to accept returnees (the country didn't accept any at all until 2002), the men have often gone on to have families, mortgages and jobs, always with the knowledge that they could be be sent back to the country they left as children.

Uch says those who are deported are thrust into a completely alien culture.

“When they’re raised in America, all they know is the American culture," Uch said.

'Doing As Well As You Could Expect' 

Jay Stansell has seen what happens to the returnees first hand. He’s a federal public defender in Seattle who lived in Cambodia in 2005 to see how his former clients, who had been deported, were doing.

“They are doing as well as you could expect people to do when they’ve been ripped away from their families. Some survive OK, but others struggle with the realization that they’ll never be able to return for a parent’s funeral or a child’s graduation," Stansell said. And, he says, it seems like very harsh punishment for people who, in many cases, committed minor crimes.

All Deportations Up Under Obama

Immigration reform advocates point out that hundreds of thousands of people from countries all over the world are deported from the U.S. each year, many for minor crimes.

And, surprisingly to some immigration advocates, is the fact that deportations have soared under President Obama. An investigation by the New York Times revealed that deportations of criminal aliens quadrupled during Obama's first five years in office over those during the term of President George Bush.

Proposals Wouldn't Change Status Quo

Uch and others say what could make a difference is a return to the days when immigration judges were given discretion to grant a waiver to people like Touch if circumstances warrant it.

“All we're asking for is a fair day in court, a second chance," said Uch.

Such a second chance provision is not part of the current debate over immigration in Congress.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.