Thisaphone Sothiphakhak snores away in bed on a cold March morning. A sharp rap at the door jerks him awake. He blinks, rubs his eyes.
The knocking comes again, urgent.
Teace, as Thisaphone is known, slogs to the door and throws it open in nothing but boxers, half expecting a delivery. Immigration agents block the hallway. They eye him up and down, this lanky Laotian man with long, disheveled hair.
Behind him is an apartment strewn with dirty clothes and stacks of records. He lives alone above the Midtown Global Market, where he works in a cheese deli by day while burning nights at Club Jager as DJ Teace.
"Are you Thisaphone Sothiphakhak?" an agent asks, butchering the pronunciation. The man holds out an application for citizenship Teace filed five years before. His photo is attached.
Teace nods. The agents step quickly into the apartment and handcuff Teace. He yells, demands to know what's going on. One agent holds him still while the other stuffs him into a pair of jeans.
"Do you remember back in 1997?"
Eighteen years before, Teace was convicted of a fifth-degree misdemeanor for marijuana possession. He served 20 days of probation and later got the charge expunged.
He wonders why he's being arrested again for something that has already been processed through the court system.
The agents don't explain. They round him down to the car and lock him in the back seat.
Teace is wide awake now, his blood turbulent. He's just been abducted from his home. His mind ranges from an upcoming gig he has to play to the pair of Electric Wizard tickets in his apartment that might now go to waste.
The agents try to make small talk. They want to know how long he's lived in his apartment, what he pays for it, what kind of records he listens to. Teace impulsively snaps back: Do you think your job is racist? Xenophobic? The car goes silent. One agent answers that they're just following their orders. This happens to be one of them.
At a Fort Snelling booking facility, Teace is served with a document calling for his deportation. He's been cited under the Immigration and Nationality Act, which says any non-citizen caught with drugs can be thrown out of the country. Even if America is the only home he's ever really known.
Teace's story commences in Laos, in the mid-1970s. It was the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War.
Neighboring countries like Laos and Cambodia were swept up in the fight. Teace's father, Khambo Sothiphakhak, was a Laotian citizen who worked for American intelligence against the communist forces of North Vietnam.
Khambo helped coordinate attacks on a key Viet Cong supply route known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, which cut through Laos. He and his best friend, Boua Houngsombath, plied the triple-canopy mountain jungle, which was spotted with constant bursts of guerrilla warfare.
Following America's retreat, Khambo and Boua went into business together driving motorcycle taxis. But post-war discontent rattled through Laos, brewing a communist insurgency. Those who'd collaborated with Americans began disappearing into "re-education" labor camps. Khambo escaped to a United Nations refugee camp in Thailand. Boua quickly followed. Khambo would later call for his wife, Keo, and their two young sons to join him.
Keo recalls fleeing by boat across the Mekong River to reunite their family when Teace was four. For three months they lived in makeshift tents with no money and few possessions, trapped in a routine that revolved around waiting in line for the daily food distribution.
The U.S. government would eventually grant their bid for refuge. The International Institute of Minnesota sponsored Boua. House of Hope Lutheran Church in New Hope took in the Sothiphakhak family.
Mae Lou Thompson, a House of Hope congregant, recalls the day she watched them walk through the airport gate. Keo was hugely pregnant with a baby girl. The boys tacked close to her side.
"These two little boys were so, so precious with wide, dark eyes, not knowing what was going on," Thompson recalls of their first steps on American soil.
She enrolled the children at Neill Elementary, where she once taught. She gave them clothes and invited the family over for holiday meals. Before Khambo and Keo could get their driver's licenses, the Thompsons drove them wherever they needed to go.
Khambo found a job almost immediately. As the children got older, Keo went to work as well. The Thompsons helped them settle into their first home in the basement of another church family. Within a year they were helping the Sothiphakhaks move again to their own apartment in Brooklyn Park. Before long, they upgraded to a house in Golden Valley.
"After that we weren't on a regular basis with them because they were so self-sufficient, I suppose," Thompson says. "As we understood it, they sent money back to family members, while supporting a family of three young children and the things you need to furnish a household. They were able to do all of it."
As Teace's parents worked a handful of factory jobs between them, rising early and returning late, a divide grew with their children.
Teace never learned much about the family history prior to Minnesota. The urgency of gaining a foothold in America meant that Khambo and Keo didn't have time to regale the kids with tales of the past. Teace picked up English quickly, and just as naturally forgot how to speak Lao and Thai. Mirrors still brought reminders of his Asian face, but he was beginning to feel just as American as his surroundings.
Teace's elementary school days were a disorienting time rife with embarrassment. The other kids in Brooklyn Park mocked his secondhand clothes, particularly the girls' jeans he wore to school, since he didn't know the difference. He was the lone Asian student for a time, leaving the teacher to believe he should naturally be placed in advanced math, where he got by cheating off the white kids.
When Teace was 12, Khambo fell to brain cancer. He moved into hospice care and passed away soon after. Though Teace felt he hardly knew his father, a man whose life was consumed with work, he feared the financial consequences of a fallen patriarch. Keo lost the house and moved the family back to an apartment. Later, she married Boua, who worked two jobs as a factory machinist to support the household. Teace withdrew to art and music.
His first taste of Slayer was life-changing, he says. Teace listened to the album South of Heaven on repeat for months, which eventually led to his firing from his first job bagging groceries. Drifting through shifts with his head full of guitar riffs, he didn't care whether the bread went on the top or the bottom.
"Art to me was always a great release," says Teace, whose galloping speech is speckled with a childlike earnestness. "It was a space where I had total autonomy to not be judged or to not have to think about my situation or my dad dying of cancer. It just evolved from there."
In 1998 he put out some tapes as DJ Slanty-Eyed Art Fuck. City Pages wrote a story about the musician critics saw as a rising star. He caught the eye of composer Chris Strouth, who ran the Twin/Tone record label at the time. Strouth listened to Teace's sample and found it violent, dark, and beautifully deranged, with a mix of goth metal and pop tunes in a sprawling, breakbeat mosaic. He recruited Teace to work with him making avant garde electronica.
"Everyone else was thoroughly appalled," Strouth says. "One of the shows, I remember Teace just pissed off everyone because he started with a New Kids on the Block and mixed it into Slayer. I gotta admit that wasn't one of my favorite moments, but it showed the pure audacity. People were kind of blown away because they hadn't seen anybody spin like he had."
When City Pages reporter Michaelangelo Matos met with Teace that year, the DJ had just been sentenced to 20 days in the Dakota County workhouse for weed possession. Matos described him as "benign, even sweet." It was just a low-rent possession charge, after all.
The year before, Teace's friend had arranged for UPS to pick up a package from his house. The driver couldn't make out the name on the box. He tried to open the package to find the correct addressee; he instead discovered small bundles of marijuana. Police were summoned.
Teace's friend called UPS looking for the package, then he asked Teace to drive him there as a favor. The two were arrested and charged with possessing about two pounds of pot. The friend never showed up for his court date, but Teace eventually pleaded to fifth-degree possession.
Teace's conviction was later expunged. The judge seemed to recognize that he had a strong case for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. His record stayed clean until 2007, when he was arrested for DWI. He'd been pulled over for texting while driving, his breath registering just above the legal limit.
Teace wouldn't realize the magnitude of his legal skirmishes until he applied for full citizenship in 2010. When he interviewed with immigration officials, he told them of how he arrived in Minnesota as a small child, how he'd never known any home but America. He believed his father had begun the naturalization process before he died, but never completed it.
His application was rejected. In the eyes of the U.S. government, Teace was a man of "moral turpitude." He'd made the mistake of filing within the five-year statutory limit when a DWI would likely kill his application.
Yet it would be four more years until real trouble arrived. Last November, Homeland Security directed agents to make deporting immigrants with drug offenses a top priority. The feds wanted to make clear there would be no leniency for controlled substances. But the agency failed to delineate between major dealers and recreational nobodies.
In March, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement launched a five-day sweep, resulting in 2,059 arrests across the nation. Teace was among them, largely because he was home the day ICE officers dropped by to see if he still lived at the address indicated in their records.
Looking back, he knows he should have been more careful. The immigrant ethos is to be constantly aware you are not truly American, at least on paper. You take extra care to drive under the speed limit. You work hard in a respectable profession. Above all, you avoid contact with the law.
Boua and Keo had always urged Teace to strive for a prim office job, but he struggled throughout school. He was not a model immigrant, mostly because he didn't think he had anything to prove. He'd grown up doing what Americans do.
Now, at 39, Teace had been flung into a bureaucratic netherworld. The feds wanted to deport him to a land he left as an infant — where he has no home, no community, and zero cultural understanding.
More baffling, the government couldn't send Teace back to Laos even it wanted to: The country doesn't have a repatriation treaty with the U.S.
Yet ICE is also caught in an Orwellian quagmire, says spokesman Shawn Neudauer. DWIs don't warrant expulsion for green card holders like Teace, but even pedestrian drug convictions are a different matter.
"It's just routine law enforcement," Neudauer says. "We do deport terrorists and gangbangers and traffickers, but just because ICE has said we're focusing our priorities on this group doesn't mean the other group gets off scot-free."
In the Sherburne County Jail, it became clear that Teace didn't fit in. Most of the prisoners were totally alone. Their loved ones are undocumented too, and can't visit for fear of arrest. Nor can they afford lawyers.
One inmate asked to be deported immediately. Back in Central America, he'll at least be able to work. Then there was the Somali whose case has been delayed for three years, with no end in sight. He sat in jail the entire time.
"I was the only metal-head in jail," Teace says. "My idea was there would be all these dirt-bags who are like, 'Hey, wanna talk about listening to Black Sabbath?' Everyone who hasn't been in jail has a weird romanticism about it."
That fantasy dissipated upon arrival. He launched a fast that ran 10 days, built from the indignity of being labeled an illegal alien — and from a petulant desperation to exert some control over his situation.
When guards asked why he wasn't eating, he invoked religious reasons, disingenuously claiming to be a Satanic Buddhist. Guards placed him in a dry cell, a room without running water where medical staff could monitor the food he rejected.
Teace describes a light shining 24 hours a day, colored by the screams of other inmates who wanted out. He had no toilet paper and only a drain for relieving himself. Guards checked on him now and then. By the 10th day, Teace realized his crusade was pointless. He asked for food.
The Effort on the Outside
When Teace started eating, the guards returned him to the general population, giving him letters he'd missed while away.
In the outside world, family and friends were rallying for his release. Neighbor Alison Criss enlisted lawyer Matthew Streff. Strouth called their mutual friends to arms. Childhood friends contacted Boua and Keo.
"This was a whirlwind of trying to connect with people and let his friends know what was going on," Criss says. "Everyone was just so concerned and worried and wanting to help. It was really hard to know what to do and what not to do, except inform and gather information."
Streff dropped by Criss's apartment for an emergency meeting with the ragtag group. They started piecing together what they knew about Teace, his family, and his immigration status.
Most people hope for a few good friends to back them up in their darkest hour, Criss says, but the scores who showed up for Teace are a credit to his nature. "With Teace, he's either a turn-on or a turn-off, because you either get it or you don't. He is serially honest and he doesn't put on a show. Do no harm, take no shit. That's him."
The Save Teace campaign was on. Criss raised funds to pay Teace's rent and attorney fees. Others informed his family. The rest gathered testimonials from employers to show that Teace was a productive citizen of Minneapolis.
When Teace first appeared before Judge William Nickerson Jr. on March 17, a dozen supporters lined the benches. Teace emerged from a holding cell in an orange jumpsuit, wrists cuffed at his waist, doing the Sherburne shuffle in prison-issue slippers. Boua and Keo wept silently.
Prosecutor Colin Johnson claimed that Teace was subject to mandatory jail due to his weed conviction and DWI. Nickerson found him somewhat less of an imminent danger. He would be granted bail the following day.
Teace returned to Sherburne County, gushing to other inmates about how sharp his lawyer was and how many friends had shown up to back him. "Then I realized that I was bragging," he says. "It was like having a kid at Christmas with all the Christmas gifts and there's a kid who doesn't have any. I felt like I was opening gifts right in front of them and I just shut up right there."
The others looked at him differently after that. Teace was ostracized, eating alone on his final day in jail.
The onus is now on him to prove what his family and friends already know: that he is a good son of America, that his life is here in Minneapolis.
In the meantime, he's back at work at the Midtown Global Market and playing Beatsploitation at Club Jager. He still thinks about his friends stuck in jail, the guys who can't afford attorneys or call lawyers willing to work for free.
"Immigration attorneys, there are a growing number of us, but it's a very specialized field," Streff says. He does some pro bono work, but there aren't enough hours in the day to help everyone. "We're scrambling as a community of attorneys to represent all the people who are going through the system right now."
Teace next heads to court on May 5. At his final hearing Streff will present witnesses in his defense. The lawyer will underscore how Teace arrived as a child refugee. He'll argue that Teace's only deportable crime was so long ago that the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act didn't go into effect until after he'd already served his time. His client has a good case, Streff believes, because ICE has chosen to prosecute him solely because of the category of his crime. Once they learn the quality of his character, the agency will change its mind. Or so goes the hope.
If Judge Nickerson agrees, Teace will move on, keep his head down, and apply for citizenship again down the road. If the prosecution perseveres, Teace will get stamped with an order for deportation that would be enforceable at any time.
Either way, he is guaranteed to stay in the U.S. for now because Laos won't take him, says Michele Garnett McKenzie of the Advocates for Human Rights. But depending which way the winds of foreign policy blow, Laos could negotiate a treaty with the U.S. at any time.
That's what happened with a large number of Cambodian immigrants in 2002. Since then more than 600 have been exiled to Phnom Penh, where they've formed a community based on their shared disorientation. Most were young men who entered the U.S. as infants fleeing the Khmer Rouge, but dabbled with gangs in their unsupervised teens and were never granted citizenship.
In the meantime, Teace has come to realize his situation is little more than a drop in the bucket.
"I'm very fortunate to have Matt, to have friends I can call and tell them exactly what was happening to me," he says. "There were so many people who had no one to talk to. They couldn't tell their relatives where they were at."
If the experience of officially being declared undesirable has taught him anything, it's that the system is deep and he is small.
"I should have had some sort of clue, but I didn't," Teace says. "That's the most frustrating feeling. I went through the court system, and literally something 18 years ago came back and made me feel like I was less than human."
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