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7 pills, a 20-year fight: A teen’s mistake ends in deportation threats

Lundy Khoy pleaded to Trump for leniency in 2016. An old Virginia law and a sympathetic prosecutor helped end her ordeal.

Lundy Khoy, her husband, A.J. Acosta, and son Gabriel at home in 2019 before her birthday brunch. (Lundy Khoy)
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For nearly two decades, Lundy Khoy lived with the fear of deportation.

Born in a Thai refugee camp after her parents fled genocide in Cambodia, Khoy came to the United States as a toddler, never thinking much about the difference between herself and her two American-born younger siblings.

But a teenage mistake thrust her into the crosshairs of federal laws passed amid an immigration crackdown, leading her to spend half her life looking over her shoulder, striving to prove her worth in the only country she’d ever known.

Her fight began quietly — kept secret even from extended family. Ultimately, it led her to testify in Congress and write a widely shared letter to then-President Donald Trump before ending in recent months where it had begun: in an Arlington County courtroom.

By then, more than 20 years had passed since she was caught with seven ecstasy pills in her purse, and it was more than 16 years since a resultant conviction triggered a final order of deportation. She was 41, with a 5-year-old son and a husband facing serious medical challenges depending on her. She knew that relative to many in similar situations, she was lucky to have been able to stay in the United States for so long — and that her lawyers had come up with a solution they believed would end her nightmare for good.

Immigration experts say hundreds of thousands of immigrants — many of them longtime legal residents charged with minor, nonviolent offenses — have been deported since 1996, when Congress enacted immigration laws that limited judicial discretion and broadened the range of offenses for which a person could be deported. For many, deportations are so quick that families can’t say goodbye.

Khoy’s lawyers ultimately relied on an ancient writ in Virginia law and a sympathetic prosecutor’s office, providing a path for her in a system that immigration reform advocates say is broken.

“Her only memories are of the United States,” her attorney Sterling Marchand said in court, making an argument he initially feared was a long shot.

In a brief ruling from the bench that surprised both sides with its speed, Circuit Court Judge William T. Newman Jr. in December declared Khoy’s plea vacated.

Khoy reached for her lawyer’s arm in disbelief. Was the nightmare really over?

After run-in with law, Cambodian immigrant’s permanent residency is at risk

Misled

While growing up, Khoy was an interpreter for her parents and a second mother to her two younger siblings. Her parents, who had fled government-sanctioned genocide in Cambodia, were strict and protective.

Freshman year at George Mason University brought a taste of freedom. She met her first boyfriend and started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. They were together after a night out in May 2000 when a police officer asked whether Khoy had any drugs and if they belonged to her. Not wanting to lie or get her friends in trouble, she said yes, and that she planned to sell the pills to pay her mother back for money she had taken to purchase the drugs.

Her lawyer advised her to plead guilty to possession with intent to distribute. When she asked him if it would affect her immigration status — explaining she was a green-card holder hoping to apply for citizenship — he replied that there was no correlation between the two.

That was part of a wave of bad legal advice given to immigrants in the years following the 1996 laws, said Alison Parker, the managing director of Human Rights Watch’s United States Program. The measures, which gained bipartisan support in Congress in the aftermath of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and were signed by President Bill Clinton, were a response to fears about crime and terrorism committed by noncitizens.

Parker said many defense attorneys were unaware of the changes to immigration laws, including the vast expansion of the list of crimes that allowed for deportation.

Between 2007 and 2012, more than 260,000 noncitizens whose most serious conviction was for drug offenses were deported, according to Human Rights Watch, many of them longtime residents with strong family ties to the United States.

“Every day since 1996, we deport people who are like Lundy,” said Bill Ong Hing, a professor of law and migration studies at the University of San Francisco who has represented dozens of immigrants facing deportation. “Some stupid five-minute thing in their life resulted in an aggravated felony that leads to deportation, with no consideration of remorse or rehabilitation.”

Among the Cambodians who have been deported are a 34-year-old construction worker caught urinating in public in Texas and a 22-year-old Marine charged with manslaughter after driving drunk in a crash that killed his sister, Hing said.

A Maryland immigrant hoped to delay his deportation until Biden took office. It didn’t work.

Despite a bipartisan commitment in recent years to reforming harsh drug sentencing laws, Parker said little political will has been concentrated on reforming immigration laws.

“There’s a widespread recognition that the whole war on drugs needs to stop,” she said. “But what is the one group that is left out of all of those reforms? Immigrants.”

Speaking out

After her conviction, Khoy moved back in with her mother. She went to work every day at 5 a.m. at a teleconferencing company and then attended community college classes. Her probation officer became friendly with the family.

Khoy, then 23, took her college report card to a meeting in April 2004, excited to show her probation officer the straight A’s she was making. When she got to the meeting, though, she was surrounded by immigration agents. She remembers them asking her to stand spread-eagle against a wall, then placing her in a cell in a van headed to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Hampton, Va. On the drive, she prayed and meditated.

“This cannot be happening,” she remembered thinking, again and again. It was the first time she learned that she might face deportation because of her conviction.

Her younger sister Linda Khoy was at work when she got a call from the probation officer.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said.

In detention, Khoy realized how common her situation was, having become friendly with a Bosnian woman in her 20s and an Israeli mother convicted of drug-related crimes. Both were deported.

At home, her mother and sister worried constantly — for the nine months she was detained. “Every day,” Linda Khoy said, “it was like, okay, are they going to deport her?”

The years that followed were filled with fear and disbelief. Khoy attended ICE check-ins, quietly sought legal advice and grappled with imagining how she would live in Cambodia, where she had no close family members and did not speak the language fluently.

In 2012, Khoy was abruptly placed in what she was told was an “intensive monitoring program.” Meetings with ICE were stepped up. She was fitted with an ankle bracelet. Deportation felt imminent.

She decided her best shot at avoiding it might be speaking out — which meant for the first time telling their extended family what had happened, revealing a long-held secret.

Khoy was featured in a documentary. With her sister, she testified on Capitol Hill. She secured a pardon in 2016 from then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).

The election of Trump — who launched his campaign vowing to crack down on immigration, claiming that Mexico was sending drugs, criminals and rapists across the border — was another turning point. Khoy, at the time a new mom, decided to share her story in a New York Times op-ed. The widely circulated story led to a fresh round of media attention, surprising Khoy with how much her story was now resonating across the nation with those who feared what Trump’s presidency would mean for immigrants.

“I’m not a gang member. I’m not a drug dealer,” she wrote. “But I have a criminal record, and I’m afraid.”

‘Our moon shot’

By the time Marchand and Andrew George, both lawyers at Baker Botts in Washington, reviewed Khoy’s case, she had been living in fear of deportation for more than 16 years.

The white-collar litigators, who do pro bono wrongful conviction work, were the most recent in a succession of lawyers trying to help. They decided that a narrow, rarely granted measure with a Latin name — a petition for coram vobis — was their only shot. Another member of the legal team, Whitney R. O’Byrne, realized that Khoy’s first lawyer had given nearly identical incorrect legal advice to another client. Newman — the judge in both cases — had overturned that client’s conviction in 2006, also in response to a petition for coram vobis.

They planned to use the ancient writ, which allows Virginia courts to correct clerical or factual errors not known at the time of conviction, to argue that because Khoy was given bad legal advice, she could not have “knowingly and voluntarily” understood what it meant to plead guilty.

“It was our moon shot,” Marchand said. “It was our only shot.”

They were skeptical it would work, until they had conversations with Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, the commonwealth’s attorney for Arlington County, and assistant commonwealth’s attorney Paul Wiley.

On a personal level, Khoy’s story resonated with Dehghani-Tafti, who had immigrated from Iran with her parents when she was a child and said she could not imagine the “sheer terror” of being sent to a country where you cannot read or write the language.

Had Khoy’s case come across her office’s desk today, it would have been handled differently, said Dehghani-Tafti, whose office supported the judgment reversal sought by Khoy’s lawyers. The idea that Khoy could be ripped out of her life in the United States and sent to a place to which she had no connections was “wildly disproportionate” with the facts of her case, Dehghani-Tafti said.

Still, on the December day they gathered in court in Arlington, Khoy was so nervous that her legs felt weak.

When the judge issued his ruling, she looked to Marchand, and he confirmed that it meant what she hoped. She said she felt such relief that she had to restrain herself from jumping up and down.

In the months since then, Khoy has felt gratitude and relief — the weight of nearly two decades of judgment and fear lifted.

But she said she has also repeatedly found herself thinking about all the families that did not have the same resources, whose loved ones were deported before they got a chance to fight.

“This,” she said, “is so much bigger than me.”

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