The War on Undocumented Immigrants’ Unheard Victims

Mout Iv is a Cambodian refugee who immigrated to the U.S. at age 7. After committing a crime in 1998, he should have been deported -- yet I.C.E. placed him on "supervised release". 12 years later, they are suddenly uprooting and deporting Iv as part of the Obama administration's crackdown on undocumented immigrants.

(H/T: J.S.)

The war on undocumented immigrants has dominated news coverage over the last six months, fueled in large part by Arizona’s recent spate of anti-immigrant legislation. While issues of immigration reform are complicated, one of my pet peeves is how the debate has been characterized — almost exclusively — as a Latino issue.

It’s true that here in Arizona, the vast majority of undocumented immigrants originate from Mexico. But, nationwide, the second highest population of undocumented immigrants are Asian American. And while federal and state legislative attention has focused primarily on illegal border-crossers, nearly half of undocumented immigrants actually arrived in the country legally and then either over-stayed their visa or violated the terms of their immigration; 1 in 4 legal immigrants to America are Asian.

So, let’s not get it twisted — all of this talk about undocumented immigration affects affects Asian Americans, of whom more than 70% are foreign-born and currently hold visas or have naturalized. A fraction of these Asian Americans are, also, undocumented immigrants who have overstayed their visas. Changes to federal immigration policies affect these Asian Americans, yet too often their stories are unheard in mainstream coverage of the immigration debate. Interestingly, these populations of undocumented immigrants may actually be disproportionately targeted by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement: unlike undocumented border-crossers who are never registered in the system, visa overstays can be tracked down based on the information filed when they legally entered the country.

One population of Asian Americans who are rarely heard from are the Southeast Asian refugee population. These are Asian Americans who found asylum in the United States to escape war and poverty in their countries of origin. Today, in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the plight of a Cambodian man was profiled.

After he was convicted of assaulting a Philadelphia man in 1998, Cambodian refugee Mout Iv knew he was in the United States on borrowed time.

As it turned out, quite a lot of borrowed time.

He was freed from a Pennsylvania prison after four years, but paperwork snafus prevented his immediate return to Cambodia, as required by law. So immigration agents put Iv on “supervised release,” allowing him to open a barber shop in Olney

The government kept tabs on him with scheduled interviews, random phone calls, and unannounced visits.

Last week, at an ostensibly routine appointment, Iv, 33, was fingerprinted, photographed, and arrested. He’s now in prison being readied for deportation.

Now, we can’t get around the fact that Iv committed a violent crime more than ten years ago: he participated in a mugging during which the victim was stabbed in the side. Being convicted of a crime of this sort is clear grounds for deportation by I.C.E.; all immigrants are (or at least should be) aware of that fact.

But that’s not what’s at issue here.

The Obama Administration — under pressure to prove that they are “tough on illegal immigration” to satisfy the xenophobia of Right-Wingers — has cracked down on visa overstays, as a means of counter-balancing their mantra on immigration reform. The silent victims of that politically-motivated crackdown are people like Iv, who have since reformed and become a contributing — and tax-paying — small business owner.

I will not argue that Iv’s deportation is unfounded. Frankly, if you break the rules, you cannot stay — that’s just part of the agreement immigrants have made in being permitted to enter and work in America.

However, I do think that Iv’s story indicates a fundamental break-down of the system, that extends far beyond the Obama Administration. When Iv first committed the crime that now are the grounds for his deportation, he should not have been allowed “supervised release”, and certainly not for over ten years. Iv’s story demonstrates the fundamental lack of attention that has been given to the nation’s immigration system: immigration and border authorities are so underfunded, so undermanned, and so overwhelmed with cases, that it took them 12 years to find the resources to deport a man who violently assaulted another. These offices are so lacking in basic resources that Tony, an undocumented young man who was profiled on MTV’s True Life would have to wait 13 years to naturalize.

That’s 12 years that Iv’s life was expected to be on hold awaiting deportation. And that’s 13 years that Tony’s life was expected to be on hold awaiting naturalization.

This isn’t Obama’s fault — not really, anyways. This is a chronic problem arising from prolonged band-aid solutions. Legislation like SB 1070 does nothing to fix an immigration and naturalization department with waiting periods measured in years, not weeks or months. Last week’s defeat of the DREAM Act only exacerbates the existing problems of a broken bureaucracy that has crippled this nation’s immigration system.

Meanwhile, as far as Iv’s story is concerned, I think that there should be a statute of limitations on deportation proceedings. If I.C.E. is so underfunded that it takes them more than a decade to deport a person, than they shouldn’t be able to swoop in one day (when the White House needs to save face over a political debate) and unroot him or her from the new life they have made in America. In so doing, the federal government in essence stole 12 years from Iv’s life because they couldn’t get their act together, and then they expected him to sit and wait patiently in some sort of limbo state until they finally could deport him. Meanwhile, he paid taxes, stimulated the local economy, and obeyed the law; clearly the same grounds under which he should have been deported in 1998 no longer apply now. The federal government screwed up in failing to deport him, why are they not facing any consequences for that mistake? Can there not be some sort of compromise reached wherein Iv must still face consequences for breaking the terms of his entry, but that still acknowledges how I.C.E. failed in their responsibilities in this matter?

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