After deportation, the long way home

For two men from Philadelphia the distance back is measured in more than miles

Sabrina Vourvoulias
Mar 15, 2017 · 26 min read
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“You are from where you were raised, where you have your roots, where you have your memories.”

I am sitting in a tiny front room of a house on the borderline between the West Kensington and Fairhill sections of Philadelphia. A laptop is on the table in front of me, and on its screen, the image of a Latino man in his late twenties or early thirties freezes and unfreezes according to Skype’s whim.

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The Kensington neighborhood where César lived in Philadelphia, and at which our Skyped interviews took place. (Photo: Sabrina Vourvoulias)

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Mout Iv at his barbershop in Philadelphia. (Courtesy photo)

Good immigrant, bad immigrant, no immigrant

It is much too early in President Donald Trump’s administration to have hard numbers on his aggressive immigration priorities (though during the week Feb. 6 alone, some 600 people were arrested for deportation), but his administration’s efforts will build on an already escalated deportation machine.

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Department of Homeland Security police at Philadelphia’s Suburban Station, 2014. (Photo: Sabrina Vourvoulias)

“These systems work together to remove people from our communities and break families apart.” — Mia-lia Kiernan

While unauthorized immigrants are almost always characterized by politicians as “border crossing” Mexicans, and deportation is popularly seen as a primarily Latinx concern, the reality is far more complex.


Mout’s story: Profiling, community support and resilience

Mout had no memory of Cambodia (which he left to go to a refugee camp in Thailand when he was 1 year old) when he was deported to that country in 2011.

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Mout Iv at his barbershop in Philadelphia before deportation. (Courtesy photo)

“The police just needed three Cambodians, so they took us in and charged us with Aggravated Assault, Criminal Conspiracy, and Reckless Endangerment.” — Mout Iv

Mout hired a lawyer, but because he didn’t have money, he believes the legal counsel he received was grudging and inadequate. He was found guilty the charges, but when the time came for him to show of up for sentencing, he didn’t. “I never went because I was afraid of being locked up for something I didn’t do.”


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Mout Iv with his infant daughter, at his barbershop in Olney, before deportation. (Courtesy photo)

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Kout Iv (center), Mout’s mother, giving testimony at a Philadelphia City Council hearing June 14, 2016 asking for passage of a resolution in support of rolling back the 1996 Immigration Laws. (Courtesy photo)

“They sent him [to Cambodia] with nothing.” — Kout Iv

“It’s not a day that goes by since they deported him that I don’t cry worrying about his welfare and if he can eat. I miss my son. I miss that every time I cook I would always call him to come eat and he would always look forward to it. I miss him eating my food. Every time I walk by his old barber shop, I cry.”

He believes that his deportation from Philadelphia was a crueler and more devastating punishment than the years of incarceration were.

“When I was incarcerated, I knew there was an end date, I knew I was coming home,” he says. “With deportation, there’s no end to this, we’re permanently deported out here. It doesn’t end. For me, it’s definitely been worse being deported.”


César’s story: No maps, no recourse, only the siren call of family

César was even younger than Mout —3 years old — when his family came to the United States in the 1980s from a small village near Guerrero, in the Mexican state of Puebla. César says his father made the decision to emigrate for economic reasons — he wanted his children to have a chance at a better life.

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“I lost a lot of drive to make something of my life then, to be the professional person I dreamed of being.” — César

And then attacks of 9/11 happened.


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César, who was deported to Oaxaca, doesn’t want to show his face for fear that ICE agents in Philadelphia would use it to identify his family, or him — if he chooses to return. (Courtesy photo)


Backward and forward in time

“I think it’s important to consider that prior to the 1980s, the deportation system, which is civil, operated much more independently from the criminal legal system and deportation was usually not an instant consequence of a criminal conviction.” — Caitlin Barry

If we could jump back and forth in time, the outcomes for both men might have been drastically different.


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