Advocates Try to Keep Brothers Together as One Fights Deportation, The Other for His Life

ICE target Touch Hak (far right) with (from left): his brother Puthy's wife Tammie Pheak; cousin Saron Pos; Puthy Hak (center); and sister Nalin Chhim.
ICE target Touch Hak (far right) with (from left): his brother Puthy's wife Tammie Pheak; cousin Saron Pos; Puthy Hak (center); and sister Nalin Chhim.
Southeast Asia Resource Action Center

A Cambodian refugee who was spared deportation last year so that he could donate his kidney to his brother recently learned he is not a blood match with his older sibling and that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is coming after him again.

The Touch Hak saga illustrates what is wrong with America's broken immigration system. He was 8 years old when he and his older brother Puthy Hak were brought to the U.S. by their parents, who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia in 1985.

Touch later became a lawful permanent resident but, like many Cambodian refugees, the resettlement was marred by poverty and violence in Stockton, where as a fifth grader at Cleveland Elementary School he witnessed a gunman walk into the schoolyard and kill five Southeast Asian refugee children. He never received any counseling or support and eventually began to struggle in school and later with addiction.

In 2005, Touch was charged with possession with intent to distribute drugs, and his public defender advised him to plead guilty, without understanding that a conviction could later result in deportation. (Such advice has since been deemed unconstitutional.) While incarcerated, Touch earned his GED, successfully completed substance abuse treatment and parenting programs, and earned a number of other certificates.

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"Unfortunately, people like Touch grew up as young Americans, struggled as young Americans, are Americans in all rights but their citizenship status, and continue to be disproportionately and doubly punished by criminal immigration laws that tear parents and siblings from their families," said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC), which is among the groups fighting to keep Touch here as he "clearly poses no threat to the community, and his transformation should be celebrated by allowing him and family to thrive by staying together."

That family not only includes his brother Puthy, who is the supervisor of an Orange County machine shop, but sister Nalin Chhim and a teenage daughter--all American citizens. Yet, ICE agents strove to deport Touch before a groundswell of community support nudged the immigration agency into allowing him to stay for the kidney transplant for Puthy, who suffers from end-stage renal failure and has been undergoing dialysis for almost three years.

Jacqueline Dan, Touch's lawyer and staff attorney at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ)-Orange County in Garden Grove, says her client has always complied with the conditions of his federal probation and his ICE supervision. He has been working steadily as a machine operator when he was not spending time with his family.

After undergoing a lengthy testing process that concluded this month, Touch and Puthy were crushed: It turned out they were not a blood type match and the donation could not go through. But the brothers were still candidates for a Paired Donation Transplant Program--where they would be matched with another donor-recipient pair, enabling the two recipients to receive organs with matched blood types--but the transplant center has determined that it cannot ethically enroll the brothers into the program without a guarantee from ICE that Touch will be allowed to remain in the U.S. long enough to receive post-operative care, which would take at least two years.

Groups like SEARAC, AAAJ-Orange County, the National Day Labor Organizing Network, the UCLA Dream Resource Center, RAIZ, and the Immigrant Youth Coalition have launched a campaign and petition requesting that ICE grant Touch a 3-year stay to cover the necessary period of post-operative care after transplant surgery, which the hospital is requiring. Go here to sign the petition:

Meanwhile, Touch exercises regularly to ensure that he will be healthy enough to donate his kidney, even though ICE mandates that he do so while wearing what Dan called "a heavy and uncomfortable GPS monitoring device on his ankle." He also recently started counseling to help him deal with the anxiety of potential imminent deportation.

"Puthy was a true older brother to me because he protected and supported me no matter what," Touch says. "There's nothing I wanted more than to donate my kidney to save his life."

That true older brother comes out when Puthy says, "I can't imagine life without my brother. I worry about him being in a foreign country with no family or friends. It's frustrating to know that I am unable to protect him from this."

Email: Twitter: @MatthewTCoker. Follow OC Weekly on Twitter @ocweekly or on Facebook!

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