Feds fight to deport Chamroeun Phan even after judge orders relief

An immigration judge felt that Chamroeun Phan had been successfully rehabilitated, and his family needed him.

An immigration judge felt that Chamroeun Phan had been successfully rehabilitated, and his family needed him. Montha Chum

Chamroeun Phan has been locked up in immigration jail for nearly a year, awaiting deportation. His elderly parents were refugees of the Cambodian genocide, following the Vietnam War. Phan himself was born in a Thai refugee camp, and has never actually set foot in Cambodia, where the U.S. government now wants to ship him.

In 2009, Phan broke three windows of a bar after closing time, causing about $1,400 worth of damage. An aggravated felony, it jeopardized his permanent resident status.

Immigration tried to deport Phan in 2013, but diplomatic conditions with Cambodia weren't right at the time. Because he wasn't considered a danger to society or a flight risk, he was allowed to go on with his life. He never left Minnesota, where he lived with his wife Jill Srisawat and their 5-year-old daughter Leala.

Last summer, Immigration decided to finally carry out Phan's deportation. As they waited for Cambodia to issue travel documents, Phan was arrested and imprisoned for a little over six months -- the maximum the government can detain a person to prepare for "imminent" deportation.

But just as the government received the travel documents, Phan's immigration judge put an emergency halt to the deportation. The judge reasoned that Phan's case deserved a second look because he hasn't gotten into any more trouble since the window incident six years ago, most of his relatives live in the United States, and his young daughter would suffer in his absence.

A week later, the judge reestablished Phan's permanent resident status and issued a waiver for his freedom.

Not to be outdone, federal Immigration officials appealed that decision.

In doing so, prosecutors didn't dispute that Phan has remade his life, or that his daughter needed a father.

Rather, they argued that Phan wasn't eligible for a waiver because in 2013, when his deportation order was originally issued, the Board of Immigration Appeals withheld relief from those convicted of an aggravated felony, even if they had permanent resident status.

That law was later reversed in 2015 by a number of federal courts. However, the last word from the Eighth Circuit, which includes Minnesota, was to defer to the Board of Immigration Appeals.

And for that, Phan will remain in immigration jail until the end of feds' exhaustive efforts to complete his deportation.