by Bunthay Cheam
In 1997, Many Uch first walked into what was the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) building in the International District after being transferred directly from the Department of Corrections (DOC) custody after serving a three-year prison sentence. He faced an indefinite detention in an INS facility.
On Friday, Jan. 22, Uch walked out of the Department of Homeland Security building in Tukwila, WA to the applause of a dozen supporters and organizers. This time, with a Certificate of Citizenship in hand after being sworn-in as a naturalized citizen.
“This is one of the three achievements in my life that I’m proud of,” Uch said upon his release.
Between those two days — more than 20 years apart — Uch got married, bought a home, and started a family. He also became a community organizer and activist and helped define U.S. immigration law that led to freeing thousands of detained immigrants caught in a legal limbo because, in some cases, the country of destination would not accept them.
His story is told in the 2006 documentary Sentenced Home, which follows three Khmer Americans from the Seattle-Tacoma area and their journey through the deportation process.
Uch and his family, like many other Southeast Asians, were part of the largest refugee resettlement program undertaken by the United States during the 1980s following the Vietnam War.
Uch grew up in King County Housing Authority’s Park Lake Homes in White Center. But in 1994, he was arrested as part of a robbery, and he pled guilty and spent three years in jail. After he finished his prison sentence, he was directly transferred to immigration custody.
The documentary includes Uch’s accounts of his time in indefinite detention in the former INS building in the International District. He was held in indefinite detention because his country, Cambodia, did not yet accept deportees from the United States.
While in detention, he researched and taught himself immigration law with a goal to find a way to free himself and others. He also helped organize a hunger strike to raise awareness of those detained indefinitely in immigration custody.
In 2001, he became a plaintiff in the landmark case, Zadvydas v. Davis, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against indefinite detention of those awaiting deportation to countries that would not accept them. The ruling helped lead to his release from immigration detention in 2001.
Though free, the threat of deportation hung over him, but that did not stop him from continuing to advocate for refugees like himself.
In the late 2000s, he helped found Khmer In Action (K.I.A.), one of the first organizations to start Southeast Asian anti-deportation work in the Seattle-Tacoma area.
“One memory I have of him was when he gave me and youth from the Southeast Asian Youth Group a tour of the old INS building where he was detained indefinitely,” said Savannah Son, an organizer for Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together (FIGHT), which Uch co-founded.
“It was definitely a heavy day,” she said. “But it was also powerful because I don’t think we often get to hear those kinds of stories directly from the people who experienced it, and it’s such a huge part of not only Seattle history but also Khmer American history.”
In 2010, Uch was pardoned by former Washington State Gov. Christine Gregoire. However, because his conviction involved a firearm, the pardon didn’t provide relief from his order of removal to Cambodia.
In 2015, he organized and co-founded FIGHT, an organization that works with incarcerated community members and their reentry from prison. Their work includes supporting organizations inside DOC facilities including the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (APICAG).
These incarcerated community-led organizations are, in turn, able to organize resources for themselves such as deportation town halls, political education classes, and cultural events. For many incarcerated community members, a U.S. Immgration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainer awaits them upon the completion of their prison sentence where they are transferred directly to ICE custody and detention and, eventually, deportation.
“I’ve met so many other folks in the Southeast Asian community across the country who are fighting their deportation or helping people who are, who have straight up told me that Many has been a huge influence on them,” said Son.
In 2017, recognizing the intersection of prison and deportation, Uch helped found KhAAG, Khmer Anti-Deportation Advocacy Group, as the Trump administration was enacting harsh anti-refugee and immigrant policies.
From 2017 to 2018, the number of deportations to Cambodia from the United States increased by almost 300%.
Through Uch’s leadership, KhAAG was able to help free several people in the Seattle-Tacoma area. One impacted community member was days away from a flight to Cambodia. At the last minute, they received an emergency pardon by Gov. Jay Inslee, and they were flown back to the Pacific Northwest.
“Many’s memory is impeccable,” said JM Wong, an organizer with FIGHT, “and he’s always our go-to for folks coming out of DOC and facing deportation. He remembers all the details of folks’ cases and he shares the knowledge willingly.”
Amidst all the organizing and still living with an order of removal to Cambodia, Uch continued to think of new ways to free people, including himself. He began to explore the possibility of getting his citizenship.
Because Uch wasn’t informed that he would be facing deportation for pleading guilty in 1994, the prosecuting office agreed to a new sentence for Uch which didn’t carry mandatory deportation. That removed the last obstacle for Uch to apply for citizenship.
After submitting his application, Uch was able to check the status of his application online. It became a daily wake-up ritual.
“Then one morning, things changed, I checked my USCIS account and it didn’t say anything,” said Uch. “Three or four hours later, my lawyer emailed me and said that I had gotten approved.”
Asked what he’d like to do as a citizen, Uch replied, “I look forward to meeting my dad for the first time in Cambodia.”
Bunthay Cheam was born in the Khao I Dang refugee camp. He is a storyteller, activist, and lifelong resident of South Park.
Featured Image: Many Uch poses with co-organizers from KhAAG following the successful recommendation of pardon by the Washington State Clemency and Pardon Board of two community members facing deportation in 2019. Gov. Inslee went on to accept the recommendations which removed their order of removal. From L to R: Savong Lam, Sina Sam, Bunthay Cheam, Many Uch. (Photo: Bunthay Cheam)
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