I arrived in America as a refugee from Cambodia when I was only one year old. This country is the only place I know.
But if an amendment proposed by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) is included in the final immigration reform bill that is currently being marked up in the Senate, immigrants who are convicted of similarly minor crimes, and even those who are not convicted of any crime, could be detained indefinitely, even for life.
We’ve been down this road before. Prior to a 2001 Supreme Court ruling, if the government was unable to remove someone ordered deported like I was, it took the position that it could detain the person indefinitely, with no plan for release. In many cases, detainees — referred to as “lifers” — were held in custody for years, with no end in sight.
You might be wondering — who are these people that cannot be deported? These people are me and many others — non-citizens who cannot be removed because they are stateless or because the U.S. lacks a repatriation agreement with their home country. In some cases, these noncitizens are incarcerated not for any criminal violation, but held by the civil immigration jail system that is designed to ensure eventual deportation — not punishment — of non-citizens.
For my crime, I served three months of jail time and was then put on probation. I went back to school and continued on the path to earning my degree. Four years later, I went to what I thought would be a routine visit with my probation officer. At that visit, I was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers and taken to Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Virginia, where I was locked up for nine months. Ultimately, an immigration judge ordered me removed on the grounds that my drug offense was an “aggravated felony” and therefore subjected me to mandatory deportation. However, because Cambodia accepts only a limited number of requests for travel documents each year, I was eventually released from detention and put on an order of supervision. I’ve been reporting regularly to ICE ever since.
If the law worked the way Grassley’s amendment envisions, people like me could be detained indefinitely, wasting away in jail with no end in sight. Such a detention regime would also be a massive waste of government resources, expanding an immigration detention system that already costs taxpayers $2 billion a year. There is simply no good reason to end the liberty of thousands of non-citizens posing no public safety threat, and taking them away from their families and community support.
Proponents of the amendment and a similar measure introduced in the U.S. House by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) say that they are protecting the public from dangerous criminals being released. This is specious. All people living in the U.S., citizens and non-citizens alike, are already subject to the same criminal laws. As Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has said, the government already has effective ways to deal with truly “dangerous aliens” who cannot be removed.
What this amendment is really about is allowing the government to imprison immigrants indefinitely — potentially for their whole lives — simply because they are immigrants whom no country will accept, or are stateless. And that shouldn’t be allowed in the United States of America.
Khoy works as an enrollment advisor at the University of Phoenix and lives in Washington, D.C.