This holiday season, I am finally free, but America still isn’t

By Lundy Khoy

Blog author Lundy Khoy celebrates her citizenship, which has eliminated the threat of deportation. Photo courtesy Lundy Khoy.

For nearly 20 Christmases, I could not celebrate freedom. 

Because of a mistake I made as a teenager — a lapse in judgment that many teenagers make, and one that I paid for with time in prison — I had spent every winter of the last two decades in fear of being torn apart from my family, exiled from the “Land of the ‘Free’” to Cambodia, a land that was never my home.

That is, until this year.

This holiday season, I finally know what it feels like to step foot outside my home, breathe in the crisp, fresh air, and not worry about whether I will make it back. 

I can buy hot chocolate and gingerbread cookies at the grocery store without looking over my shoulder to see whether an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent has followed me in. 

I can drive through my neighborhood and look at the holiday lights without checking the rearview mirror to see whether I am being tailed.

I can take my 7-year-old son to the outdoor market without dreading the possibility of getting detained in front of him.

I do all these things because the stars finally aligned — after I lived nearly half of my life with the kind of inner resilience that comes from being incarcerated and wanting a brighter future for myself, after meeting the love of my life and wanting to spend my forever with him, after becoming a mom to the most beautiful boy and knowing I’d do everything I could to keep my family together.

For me, that meant finding a supportive legal team — attorneys Sterling Marchand, Jay Stansell, Whitney O’Byrne, and Andrew George of DC-based Baker Botts — who believed in me, despite receiving hundreds of “No”s from lawyers who didn’t think my case had a shot. 

It was countless visits to members of Congress with civil rights advocates from Southeast Asia Resource Action Center and Detention Watch Network, telling my story of how I pleaded guilty for a drug offense after bad legal advice, was released after three months due to good behavior, was subsequently detained by ICE for nine months, received a gubernatorial pardon, and still had been living under threat of deportation. 

It was writing weekly emails to everyone and anyone who might see the injustice of my circumstance and be moved enough to join my fight.

It was a canceled interview between myself, the Cambodian government, and ICE — an early check-in that signaled my imminent removal — due to the start of the COVID pandemic.

It was a district attorney, Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who was committed to policy change for immigrant families like mine.

It was being presented in front of the right judge, whose hasty signature was all it took for the dark cloud looming above me for the last almost 20 years to lift. Just like that. 

This past spring, a year after Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. vacated my plea, I walked into yet another courtroom, again surrounded by my loved ones. This time, I walked out a US citizen. With my US citizenship comes full protection against deportation and freedom from the fear that, for decades, had permeated all aspects of my life.

It should never have been this hard. That’s why I am sharing my story, with the hope that our elected representatives do the right thing and support legislation like the newly re-introduced Southeast Asian Deportation Relief Act. Sponsored by Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus Chair US Rep. Judy Chu, CA-28, the landmark federal law seeks to release SEAA refugee and immigrant families like mine from the ongoing dread and anguish of being forcibly separated from our loved ones and communities. 

With my entire heart and soul, I believe this country needs to provide true justice and support to all marginalized communities.

Specifically, this bill:

  • Prevents the Department of Homeland Security from detaining and deporting nationals of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam who arrived in the United States on or prior to January 1, 2008;
  • Grants those individuals permanent work eligibility and employment authorization documents with five-year renewal timelines;
  • Ends in-person check-ins with ICE and establishes a five-year minimum time frame between virtual check-ins; 
  • Requires DHS to provide notice of this bill’s provisions to eligible individuals, including information regarding how they can file a motion to reopen; and
  • Outlines a process to return home to the United States. for individuals who have already been unjustly deported.

As this year ends, I want my fellow Americans to know that tens of thousands of immigrants are deported each year due to convictions for which they’ve already served time, some to countries they may have fled due to threat of violence. They are not free.

Many immigrant women are holding their children tight and their households together, wondering if today is the day that ICE comes knocking on their door because of their entanglement with this country’s unjust and harsh criminal legal system. They are not free.

Over 15,000 Southeast Asian Americans have orders of removal to Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam, many of them due to decades-old convictions, even from their youth. These orders don’t just impact these 15,000 individuals, but their spouses, children, and elders who don’t know if one day their families will be torn apart. They are not free.

The truth is that America has never been free.

Today I am fighting for a real, authentic, and inclusive Land of the Free. With my entire heart and soul, I believe this country needs to provide true justice and support to all marginalized communities. Our laws and policies must reflect our values as a country. 

I call on our legislators to take action in support of our refugee and immigrant communities and rise up in pursuit of the words I recited during my naturalization ceremony: liberty and justice for all.

Lundy Khoy is a mother and wife, as well as a daughter of Cambodian immigrants who escaped the Khmer Rouge genocide. In her 20s, she was convicted of drug possession, launching her decades-long fight against her deportation. Last year, a judge ruled to have her plea vacated, and this year, she became a US citizen, lifting the threat of being torn from her family and home. Read more about Lundy in this Washington Post article.