SEATTLE – An immigration judgedeclined to release an Iraq War veteran from custody Wednesday while he fights the government’s efforts to deport him.
Chong Kim, a South Korean immigrant and green card holder from Portland, struggled with drug addition, homelessness and post-traumatic stress following his time in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, leading to convictions for burglary and other charges.
Kim’s lawyer and friends have said he has done well since completing a substance abuse treatment program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs early this year.
But immigration agents arrested him in April and brought him to a detention center in Tacoma. They plan to deport him because of his convictions.
“It’s just wrong to be deporting an Army veteran,” said Matt Luce, 41, of Troutdale, Oregon, who attended high school with Kim and traveled with three other former classmates to the hearing Wednesday. “Despite his convictions, he was on and continues to be on the right path. This is just a travesty of justice.”
Kim’s attorney, Tim Warden-Hertz of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, said that Immigration Judge Theresa Scala found that the government met its burden to show that Kim posed a danger to the public or a risk of flight, though he said she did not explain her rationale in court.
Warden-Hertz planned to appeal the decision, which he said illustrates the difficulty of obtaining bond in the immigration detention system.
U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Wednesday.
In an earlier statement, the agency said Kim had been arrested after “it was determined he has a prior felony conviction in Multnomah County for attempt to commit arson in the first degree, among other charges.”
Kim joined the National Guard in 2005 and served in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 before being honorably discharged. He came to the U.S. more than 35 years ago, at age 5, and he became a legal permanent resident in 1981. He does not speak Korean, his friends have said.
His immigration troubles stem primarily from two incidents – a burglary and another case, which his lawyer described as a “dumb prank,” in which he filled a beer bottle with gasoline, lit it on fire and threw it at a concrete outer wall at the back of a hardware store.
After the first matter, in 2013, he faced deportation. The judge let him go – but warned him not to get in trouble again, former Staff Sgt. Ryan Kell, who was Kim’s team leader in Iraq, told the Associated Press in July.
Last year, though, he was convicted of attempted arson in a special veterans court following the second incident. He participated in a 4 1/2-month, inpatient substance abuse treatment program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and had been doing well.
“He admits he had a drug problem and that he committed crimes when he was under the influence – he’s not proud of it,” Warden-Hertz said. “To find he’s a danger or a flight risk now doesn’t make any sense.”
In petitioning for Kim’s release pending deportation proceedings, Warden-Hertz submitted letters from a clinical psychologist who detailed Kim’s success in the substance abuse program as well as from a clinical nurse manager at the Portland VA Health Care System, where Kim began working in January as a housekeeper at a cardiology and oncology unit.
“Mr. Kim demonstrated exceptional team work,” the nurse manager, Cynthia Fahy, wrote. “It was regularly reported to this manager that he often went out of his way to assist other housekeepers and nurses.”
Jason Phebus, 31, of Gresham, Oregon, is an Air Force veteran who began drinking heavily – and later using harder drugs – as he had a difficult time transitioning into civilian life. He said Wednesday that he met Chong in the VA’s substance abuse program, and he credited Chong’s friendship and advice with helping him make it to where Phebus is today – in recovery with a steady job.
His response to the notion that Chong might be deported is “a string of explicits,” he said.
“He was man enough to stand up and serve this country, in combat no less,” Phebus said. “Now he’s not fit to be here?”
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter