End of story, for most people. But for Khoy, now 31, it was the beginning of a 12-year saga of incarcerations, deportation proceedings and the specter of being sent to live in a country she has never even visited.
The difference between Khoy and others whose youthful indiscretions led to criminal charges is that she was not born in America. The consequences can be catastrophic.
“There is a misconception among some immigrants that once they have a green card they can no longer be deported, and that’s simply not true,” said Ben Winograd, staff attorney at the American Immigration Council, an immigrant advocacy organization in the District. “All it takes is one criminal conviction. Regardless of whether it results in jail time, it can be the basis for deportation.”
In 1996, Congress passed laws that limited judicial discretion for immigration judges and broadened the scope of what is considered an aggravated felony for the purposes of federal immigration law. The category includes a wide range of crimes, from murder to nonviolent offenses such as theft or fraud.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration controls, acknowledged that the law can unfairly target less serious offenders but added that it was necessary because otherwise the government would allow more serious criminals to evade deportation.
“The abuse of discretion makes it impossible to give the executive this kind of wiggle room, because they can’t be trusted,” he said.
Last year, the government deported nearly 400,000 people, the largest number ever. It’s unclear how many among that number had been green-card holders.
Unlike illegal immigrants, many of whom try to keep a low profile in order to evade detention, legal permanent residents who commit a crime are often cavalier, unaware that the stakes are starkly different for them than for their citizen peers.
This presumption that they cannot be deported appears to be especially true of young green-card holders such as Khoy, who grew up here.
Khoy’s story is not unusual in Southeast Asian communities. Her Cambodian mother gave birth to her in a Thai refugee camp a year before they moved here. She and her parents received green cards; her siblings, born after they arrived, are U.S. citizens.
Often, Southeast Asians who came in the 1970s and 1980s escaped war or genocide, and worked long hours in low-paying jobs.
“They are traumatized, shell-shocked, and can’t understand how to effectively raise adolescents in impoverished America,” said Jay Stansell, an assistant federal public defender in Seattle who has defended many Cambodians in this situation.