Cambodian Refugee Sues Government Return To U.S.

LOWELL, MA — A Lowell resident who came to the U.S. as a child refugee from Cambodia is suing the federal government to allow him to return from Cambodia, after he was deported in 2018. In June, 2019, an immigration judge found that Thy Chea, 50, was in fact a lawful permanent resident and should be allowed to return, while court proceedings continue. In a complaint filed Monday in federal court, Chea’s lawyers said that immigration officials have “unlawfully” refused to facilitate Chea’s return.

Chea’s deportation stems from a 1999 case, when he pled guilty to assault and battery and “threat to commit a crime.” Chea’s lawyers argue that his charges are not deportable, and the immigration judge handling his case has said that while the case is open, Chea should be allowed to return. The lawyers describe repeated unsuccessful attempts, through the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia and the Department of Homeland Security, to secure Chea’s return.

Chea has a wife and two kids, one- and two-years-old, who live in Lowell. His lawyers also described his post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, likely stemming from the trauma of escaping the Killing Fields in Cambodia. His condition has worsened since his deportation, they wrote.

The Boston immigration court ordered him removed in 2000, but the deportation was suspended in 2004. He had no further arrests or criminal charges, but in April, 2018, he was detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement at an immigration check-in. He was deported in August of that year; a judge found that Chea could be removed based on the threat to commit a crime sentence.

According to the complaint, in the following year, a state court corrected Chea’s 1999 sentence for threatening — while the maximum sentence was six months, he had been given a one year prison sentence at the time. With the correct sentence, the crime is not a deportable offense.

In June, 2019, the “Board of Immigration Appeals” sustained an appeal by Chea, reopened his case, and sent it back down to an immigration judge. The immigration judge said that board’s decision meant Chea was a lawful permanent resident.

“He’s still [a lawful permanent resident] until these proceedings are completed,” the judge said, according to the complaint.

In September, immigration officials amended their “Notice To Appear,” which initially referred to the assault and battery and threatening charges, to allege a controlled substance abuse.

“Mr. Chea disputes that this defense is his,” the lawyers wrote.

Summarizing their description of the facts of the case, Chea’s lawyers wrote, “Despite offenses that were no longer removable on his [Notice to Appear], Mr. Chea was deported and has been forced to remain outside of the United States for over one year. Mr. Chea missed the birth of his son and recent celebration of his son’s one-year old birthday.”

They conclude: “Despite regaining his lawful permanent residence status in June 2019 and many attempts to return to the United States, Mr. Chea remains separated from his family and has been unable to return home to Lowell, Massachusetts.”

Chea is represented by Greater Boston Legal Services. PATCH.COM

Christopher Huffaker can be reached at 412-265-8353 or chris.huffaker@patch.com.

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