In the spring of 2000, a bicycle cop in Arlington, Virginia stopped 19-year-old Lundy Khoy and asked her if she was carrying any drugs. "Having been taught to trust the police," Khoy writes of the experience, "I answered honestly." She told the cop that she had seven tabs of ecstasy, and that she planned to sell them to pay back some money she took from her mom.
In Virginia, possesion with intent to sell is an aggrevated felony.
"On the advice of my lawyer and feeling that a trial would increase my family's suffering and embarrassment," Khoy writes, "I pled guilty and was sentenced to five years in jail."
Khoy served three months and was released for good behavior. She moved back in with her parents, got a job, and enrolled in community college. "I began to accept, forgive, and believe in myself," writes Khoy, who is now 31. She also completed four years of supervised probation without missing appointments or failing drug tests.
If Lundy Khoy had been born in the United States–instead of in a refugee camp in Thailand for Cambodians fleeing Pol Pot's ethnic cleansing campaign–she would be free and clear. But Lundy Khoy didn't come here until she was 12 months old. She's not a citizen, only a "legal permanent resident."
Because of her immigration status and the mistake she made when she was 19, Lundy Khoy could soon be separated from her mother and father and her American-born brother and sister, and deported from the only country she's ever known.
Khoy was born in 1980 in a Thai refugee camp. She moved with her mother and father to California in 1981. Her parents were socially conservative and wanted Khoy to keep her Cambodian heritage. She didn't play sports, or participate in extracurricular activities. "Playtime was only on the weekends; me and my siblings [a brother and a sister, both born in the U.S.] were expected to come straight home after school to do our homework, help mom cook and then start on our chores."
The Khoys moved from California to Northern Virginia when Lundy Khoy was in high school. Upon graduation, Khoy got her first taste of independence. She started running with a party crowd and experimenting with drugs. It was near the end of her freshman year at George Mason University–the wildest year in the average American teenager's life–that she was busted with ecstasy.
In the spring of 2004, Lundy arrived at a regularly scheduled probation appointment to show off her college report card. When she stepped inside the office, she was greeted by her probation officer–and a slew of agents from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. They "instructed me to hand over my possessions and stand spread eagle against the wall," Khoy says. "As my probation officer silently apologized, they escorted me out of the office, handcuffed me and eventually took me to Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia."
What happened next would not have happened if Khoy had been born in the United States. But because Khoy is not an American citizen, she was held at Hampton Roads–without a trial–for nine months, while the United States attempted to deport her to Cambodia.
In a Kafkaesque twist, Cambodia refused to take Khoy, saying that because she was born in Thailand and has never visited Cambodia, she has no ties to the country. With nowhere to send her, ICE released Khoy. But the agency wasn't done just yet.
In April 2012, ICE enrolled Khoy in its "Intensive Supervision Appearance Program," a detention alternative for immigrants ICE eventually wants to deport. ISAP involves closely monitoring immigrants using ankle tracking bracelets and frequent home visits. To top it all off, Khoy's caseworker told her that if Cambodia won't take her, she should just pick another country to be deported to.
Why does Lundy Khoy have to be deported at all? That's the question the Khoy family has been trying to answer for the last seven years.
"Lundy's deportation order is a result specifically of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA)," Khoy's sister wrote in a Change.org petition.
"These laws dramatically increased the kinds of offenses for which non-citizens (including legal permanent residents like Lundy who arrived as refugees) can be detained and deported. The laws do not allow immigration judges to consider Lundy's individual circumstances (her ties to the U.S., her work history, or her community service) before ordering her to be deported."
While her deportation has felt imminent for years now, Khoy hasn't let that stop her from putting her life back together. After leaving Hampton Roads, she found another job, this time as an enrollment counselor with the University of Phoenix. She re-enrolled in college yet again, and is close to completing her bachelors degree. She resumed volunteering with groups like Habitat for Humanity and the Boys and Girls Club.
Khoy's also been proactive about bringing attention to the laws that make it easy for lifelong Americans to be deported for minor crimes. She's enlisted the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, documentary filmmaker Laurel Gwizdak, and immigration attorney Jim Tom Haynes of Washington, D.C., to make a documentary about her case.
"I have a 'Final Order of Removal' and currently do not know when I will be deported," Khoy wrote in an email. "My lawyer is going to file for a deferred action, if approve I can stay in the U.S. temporary for 6-12 months. It is a temporary fix but not the solution."
Khoy also wrote a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"I ate Cheerios for breakfast and took the bus to school. I played on the monkey bars and my mom always packed my lunch. We went to Disneyland every year and religiously watched the Fourth of July fireworks from the beach," Khoy's letter reads.
"I am not a U.S. citizen; but there is no way I am not an American. The United States of America has always been my home and is my Country."
Her country is now telling Lundy Khoy she has to leave.