A Riverside auto mechanic who escaped the Khmer Rouge terror may be headed back to Cambodia — without his American wife and 4-year-old son — if the latter-day Javerts of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) have their way. Sopheap Puth, 29, has made some mistakes since coming here with his parents as a boy, including several minor brushes with the law that culminated in a 2002 car-theft conviction. In July 2003, after serving 13 months of a 16-month sentence in San Bernardino, Puth was set to begin a three-year parole when ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, had him detained and brought up for deportation. Since then, Puth has been kept in Lancaster’s Mira Loma Detention Center, a facility run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department under a contract with ICE; in September a judge ordered him removed from the country.
You would think Puth’s case is noteworthy because of the destruction of his family. (His wife and son, U.S. citizens, would remain here.) But, in these days of Guantánamo Bay and the new American Gulag, it is not. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has taken up the mechanic’s case, is not contesting the government’s right to deport Puth, who is a permanent resident of the U.S. All it is seeking, in its April 1 petition for a writ of habeas corpus, is to allow him to spend the time he has remaining in America with his wife and son under ICE supervision — the same right enjoyed by anyone awaiting deportation for more than half a year.
This is where it gets tricky: Puth has spent seven months at Mira Loma since receiving his deportation order — even though federal law, based on Fifth Amendment guarantees of due process, says noncitizens awaiting final orders of removal cannot be held longer than six months, unless their deportation is imminent. The Cambodian government hasn’t even gotten around to deciding if and when it will accept Puth, yet he remains in custody.
“This is not a three-strikes case,” his lawyer, Ranjana Natarajan, told me by phone. “I would say in the post-9/11 environment the government is being very aggressive in enforcing its immigration laws.”
Part of Puth’s troubles stem from his not understanding the dangers in sentences noncitizens receive; had he plea-bargained for a sentence of one day short of one year, his conviction would not have fallen under the “aggravated felony” category that automatically marks longtime residents for deportation. Moreover, because ICE waits until such immigrants have served the last day of their criminal sentences before detaining them, their subsequent incarceration falls under “civil detention,” meaning the government has no obligation to provide them with federal public defenders.
For its part, ICE insists that Puth’s deportation is imminent. Not only that, says agency spokeswoman Virginia Kice, an estimated 400,000 immigrants who have been served deportation notices have absconded. She also points out that the law responsible for Puth’s deportation order was enacted in the late 1990s, not after 9/11. “Where do you draw the line?” Kice says. “Where does a person stop being a criminal we should deport and become a criminal we should keep? This law is a powerful reminder that people who are here as guests of the United States must be careful to obey our laws.”
“I’ve known him since I was 15,” says Becky Puth, Sopheap’s 26-year-old wife. “It was sort of that first-love, sweetheart thing.” Becky, who works at a truck and trailer repair shop, describes her husband as an easygoing man who listens to Metallica and Linkin Park, and enjoys fishing Lake Elsinore. (Sopheap’s parents and three siblings live in Long Beach and Garden Grove.) March was the last time she visited him at Mira Loma, which she describes as “overall decent,” although there have been unpleasant moments there.
“Honestly,” she says, “one of the sheriffs told my mother, because we’re white, ‘Couldn’t you teach your daughter better?’”
Then there was a visit that was abruptly terminated when their son Alex reached out to kiss his father. On the phone, Becky Puth sounds resigned to her husband’s deportation, though he’s told her he won’t survive Cambodia.
“He can’t make it,” she says flatly. “He can’t read or write the language and just speaks enough to talk to his parents.” Still, she hopes a federal judge will allow Sopheap to remain in America just to spend a little more time with Alex, who has undergone several surgeries for a range of illnesses.
The ACLU’s Natarajan says Sopheap Puth remains hopeful of being released from custody. There is always the possibility, she adds, that an attorney can get Puth’s case reopened so that he could retroactively plead to a sentence a day shorter than one year and get out from under the deportation mandate. There is even the chance that Cambodia will decline to accept Puth, in which case he will be free to remain in America. Since Phnom Penh signed a repatriation agreement with Washington in 2002, it has accepted only 88 Cambodians for repatriation, leaving a backlog, the ACLU petition says, of about 1,500 more cases, many of whose subjects remain in custody.
“He’s not a violent person, he’s never hurt no one,” Becky says of Sopheap. “I never had my father around growing up, and it’s important to me to have him with his son as much as possible. My son asks for him all the time, it’s not even funny.”