Fear grips immigrants who fled here to escape genocide – ‘They’re going to try to deport me’

Thuoy Phok expected his meeting with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be brief — so brief that he hadn’t eaten breakfast. A plumber from Tacoma, Phok planned on returning to work later that day.

“I thought maybe it was good news,” Phok, 43, recalls of the Sept. 10, 2018, meeting in Tukwila, taking off his baseball cap and running a calloused hand over his balding head.

Phok, a Cambodian refugee whose family escaped genocide and arrived in the United States in 1980, had received a notice summoning him a few weeks earlier. He said the letter told him only that federal immigration officials — who he’d been checking in with regularly over the last 18 years — wanted to see him.

The meeting, it soon became clear, would be a one-sided affair. For Phok, the results would be life-changing.

It wasbrief, lasting 10 to 15 minutes. When it was over, Phok said he was taken to a holding cell. He’d remain detained in various immigration facilities, he told The News Tribune, for the next three months.

Phok said he learned federal immigration officials wanted to deport him to Cambodia, a country he’s never seen, because of a crime he committed more than two decades ago. The 1997 conviction resulted in an active immigration removal order against him.

Stunned, Phok — who was born in Thailand after his family fled genocide in Cambodia — could only think of calling his brother. He had left his 12-year-old SUV in a paid parking lot. Now, he needed him to come and get it.

“He didn’t really believe it, and I had to kind of pound it into his head, that I’m here now, and they’re going to try to deport me,” Phok said of the phone call.
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