By Roueth An, former NWIRP client
My family came to the United States in 1981 after fleeing Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. After spending a few years in Iowa, we moved to Tacoma, Washington when I was a teenager. I thought the Pacific Northwest was beautiful – the deep emerald trees, the white peak of Mount Rainier, the deep blue of the Puget Sound – it was like a different world.
One night in 1994 when I was 21 years old, I was giving a ride to a friend of mine who was in a gang. As we drove down the street, my friend started yelling at some rival gang members he saw on the sidewalk. Then he pulled a gun on them and fired. One of the gang members was wounded. It was terrifying. I was definitely at the wrong place at the wrong time.
I was arrested shortly after the shooting and charged as an accomplice. I took a plea deal and ended up serving time in prison. After spending 18 months in prison, I was taken by immigration officials to a detention center where I faced deportation back to Cambodia. However, Cambodia was not accepting deportees at that time, so I was able to stay in the United States even though I still had been issued an order of deportation.
When I finally got out of the facility, I looked at myself in the mirror and saw how much I’d aged. I’d been in prison and immigration detention for several years. I knew I needed to start building a life for myself. I became an electrician, got married, and started a family of my own. And for nearly 20 years my life was happy and normal.
In 2018, my required check-ins with immigration officials became more frequent. While I used to meet with them once every six months, I was now being asked to check in every month. My wife and I were getting worried. Through a fellow Cambodian refugee, we were connected to two pro bono attorneys with the Seattle Clemency Project who helped me submit an application for a pardon from Governor Jay Inslee which would put an end to my deportation order.
Shortly after, I was asked to report to my monthly ICE check-in early. When I arrived, officers informed me that I was being detained.
They took me to the detention center in Tacoma and I was certain that I was going to be deported to Cambodia. I started mentally preparing for what life would be like without my wife and son. It was at this difficult point in my story that I met Northwest Immigrant Rights Project. One day, Tim Warden-Hertz, a NWIRP attorney, met with me and let me know that NWIRP would be representing my immigration case. He immediately struck me as a very kind person.
After being in detention for several weeks, we received good news on my pardon application. I was granted a pardon hearing on December 13th. But just two weeks before the 13th, we found out I was going to be transferred to a facility in Texas on December 11th and deported on December 19th. My Seattle Clemency Project and NWIRP attorneys requested an emergency pardon and four days later, Governor Inslee signed my pardon..
But the case was far from over. I now needed my immigration case to be reopened in immigration court. Tim worked around the clock to speed up this process so that I would be spared from deportation. On December 12th, the day I was supposed to travel to Texas, I was released.
After being reunited with my family, Tim continued to work on my case. And on June 17th of this year, I finally became a US citizen. After almost 40 years of living in this country and over 20 years of uncertainty, I can finally rest easily knowing that I am safe from the threat of deportation. I am so grateful to organizations like NWIRP and the Seattle Clemency Project for their hard work on my case.