Lundy Khoy, 31, stands in the doorway of her home in Washington, DC. Lundy… (Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON…)
Back in 2000, Lundy Khoy was just another young person who had made a stupid mistake.
The George Mason University freshman, a green card holder, had a boyfriend who was dabbling in Ecstasy. He gave her some pills, and during a night of partying she was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute the drug. She pleaded guilty, served three months and was on probation for four years.
End of story, for most people. But for Khoy, now 31, it was the beginning of a 12-year saga of incarcerations, deportation proceedings and the specter of being sent to live in a country she has never even visited.
The difference between Khoy and others whose youthful indiscretions led to criminal charges is that she was not born in America. The consequences can be catastrophic.
“There is a misconception among some immigrants that once they have a green card they can no longer be deported, and that’s simply not true,” said Ben Winograd, staff attorney at the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy organization in the District. “All it takes is one criminal conviction. Regardless of whether it results in jail time, it can be the basis for deportation.”
In 1996, Congress passed laws that limited judicial discretion for immigration judges and broadened the scope of what is considered an aggravated felony for the purposes of federal immigration law. The category includes a wide range of crimes, from murder to nonviolent offenses such as theft or fraud.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls, acknowledged that the law can unfairly target less serious offenders but added that it was necessary because otherwise the government would allow more serious criminals to evade deportation.
“The abuse of discretion makes it impossible to give the executive this kind of wiggle room, because they can’t be trusted,” he said.
Last year, the government deported nearly 400,000 people, the largest number ever. It’s unclear how many among that number had been green-card holders.
Unlike illegal immigrants, many of whom try to keep a low profile in order to evade detention, legal permanent residents who commit a crime are often cavalier, unaware that the stakes are starkly different for them than for their citizen peers.
This presumption that they cannot be deported appears to be especially true of young green-card holders such as Khoy, who grew up here.
Khoy’s story is not unusual in Southeast Asian communities. Her Cambodian mother gave birth to her in a Thai refugee camp a year before they moved here. She and her parents received green cards; her siblings, born after they arrived, are U.S. citizens.
Often, Southeast Asians who came in the 1970s and 1980s escaped war or genocide, and worked long hours in low-paying jobs.
“They are traumatized, shell-shocked, and can’t understand how to effectively raise adolescents in impoverished America,” said Jay Stansell, an assistant federal public defender in Seattle who has defended many Cambodians in this situation.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said that 1,894 Cambodians are in deportation proceedings. Since Cambodia started accepting deportees in 2002, it has taken only about 500. More were deported last year than ever before: 97 compared with 55 in 2010 and 48 in 2009.
Often the deportation proceedings don’t begin until years after they immigrants have served sentences and cleaned up their lives, getting jobs and starting families.
“Years later . . . ICE would catch up with them and say, ‘Hey, you were supposed to have been deported years ago,’ and send them back to Cambodia, which many of these youngsters had never been to,” said Pang Houa Toy, deputy director of the D.C.-based Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.
Many don’t speak the language, and don’t have friends or relatives in their parents’ homeland. They also face discrimination. “They’re stigmatized,” Toy said.
Khoy says she was obedient and responsible while growing up as the eldest child of strict parents who forbade nighttime events during high school. By the time she started college, she was thirsting for more freedom and took up with a “bad crowd,” she said, adding that because she didn’t want her mother to think she was using drugs, she falsely told the arresting officer that she planned to sell the pills to her friends, a statement that resulted in a more serious charge.
Because her crime was an aggravated felony, she lost her green card and was put into deportation proceedings.
“I didn’t believe it,” said Khoy, a delicate-featured woman perched on her living room couch in the Southwest Washington townhouse she shares with three roommates. “I was like, ‘There’s no way that my country could just kick me out.’ ”