Nearly every weekday morning before work, Touch Hak bikes a quarter of a mile to a Santa Ana gym where he will spend hours running and lifting iron. The 38-year-old does it to stay in shape and blow off steam, focusing on his breathing and movement instead of the fact that his older brother Puthy spends an equal amount of time at a clinic undergoing dialysis three times a week because of his failing kidneys.
For years, Hak has wanted to donate one of his kidneys to his brother, and though a battery of tests a few months ago proved their blood types incompatible, there was still hope: There is a program that would allow Hak to donate a kidney to someone else so that another person could donate a kidney to his brother.
There's only one problem: The process can take upward of three years, and Hak is scheduled to be deported in a couple of weeks.
Hak pled guilty to a drug charge in 2005 based on advice the Supreme Court later ruled unconstitutional in an unrelated case in 2010. Despite pleas from family members and activists, immigration officials have not yet changed their minds. Their one act of lenience–a one-year stay–is scheduled to expire on Sept. 4.
"I messed up. I understand that," Hak says. "I don't mind getting deported, but I just need someone to help me help my brother."
Hak and his family fled the Khmer Rouge, arriving in the United States in 1985, when Hak was 8 years old. The family settled in an apartment complex in Stockton with other Cambodian families, and as with many new refugees, it had a difficult time adjusting to America.
"It was like a housing project," Hak says. "We never had a lot of stuff, but we all tried to do the right thing. I really focused when I was in elementary school. I remember I got As and Bs all the time."
But in 1989, when Hak was in fifth grade, a drifter with a lengthy criminal record, a legally purchased semi-automatic rifle and a hatred of Southeast Asian refugees, attacked Hak's elementary school. The drifter opened fire on the schoolyard, killing five children and wounding 30 other students and teachers before committing suicide. Though physically unharmed, Hak received no crisis counseling, and his school performance began to dip. Those As and Bs became Cs, Ds and Fs, and by his sophomore year in high school, Hak had dropped out, turning to work programs and community involvement instead. "I had to grow up a little faster than people normally do," Hak says. "I got married early, when I was 19 or so. I lived in a gang-infested neighborhood, and I was looking for a way out. The best way to get them to leave you alone was to settle down. That was my escape route."
Hak and his wife eventually moved to Florida, and for a time, they were able to put together a life. He held a steady job, bought a house and a car, and had a daughter–but he had also developed a substance-abuse problem. In 2005, he was arrested and charged with possession and intent to distribute MDMA. His public defender advised him to plead guilty for leniency, without realizing he would also face deportation.
While imprisoned, Hak's wife left him, and he lost his house, though he did earn a GED and completed substance-abuse and parenting programs. Near the end of Hak's sentence in 2012, his brother revealed that he had been dealing with kidney issues for years, though he had kept that information quiet. "He didn't want to stress me out more," Hak explains. "When he broke the news, I said, 'Let me get out, and I'll donate a kidney to you.' I didn't smoke; my body was healthy. I would do that for him."
But when Hak did get out, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detained him and began deportation proceedings. They held Hak in Texas before flying him to Tacoma, Washington, to meet with the Cambodian consulate to work out travel papers. "When ICE detained me, I was surprised," Hak says. "But I didn't know a lot about the laws or anything."
His family appealed to the community, and after a groundswell of support, ICE granted a one-year reprieve. Hak moved to Santa Ana to live with his brother, carpooling to La Mirada to work as a machine operator and helping out around the house as much as he possibly could.
When testing at a UC San Diego facility confirmed the brothers were incompatible, however, they were crushed. The facility offered them another avenue, participating in a paired matched-donor program. The brothers accepted, but the facility decided they couldn't participate unless Hak had more time in the United States. "We got all of the paperwork processed, and we had a good interview," Hak says. "They took it to a board meeting, but then they told me that the decision was really hard, but they couldn't do it. It was the right decision because of the deportation."
Now, Hak and his supporters are asking for another stay in his deportation. They're seeking a three-year reprieve so that Hak and his brother can participate in the program, then let Hak recover before being sent to a country he hasn't seen in decades with a language he can barely speak. On his side are multiple nonprofits, including the Sacramento-based Southeast Asian Resource Action Center and LA-based Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which is providing pro bono legal representation. ICE received the request in late July. "Although we are unable to speculate on next steps in this case, ICE continues to focus on sensible, effective immigration enforcement," says ICE spokeswoman Lori Haley. "Determinations regarding prosecutorial discretion are based upon the agency's priorities–taking into consideration an individual's criminal and immigration histories and the specific facts of each case in totality."
"I've been trying all of this time to help my brother out before I get deported," Hak says. "It's hard. My brother, he really tries to keep his mind on different things. His legs are swollen every day. I see his struggle; I see his pain. I don't know how he manages every day, but he's a strong dude."