A Palm Beach Gardens man is being held in the Monroe County jail awaiting deportation back to his native Vietnam because of a 2006 conviction for conspiracy to deal ecstasy and marijuana, for which he completed his prison time in 2011, two years earlier than his original sentence.
It’s not clear why Thang T. Cao, 38, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in August 2017 because ICE won’t discuss the case.
“That is something I cannot release,” ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias said in an email last week.
There are no federal charges listed in his file and he faces no local charges in Monroe County, said Deputy Becky Herrin, media relations officer for the Sheriff’s Office.
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Herrin acknowledged the Monroe Sheriff’s Office is holding Cao “for Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” but had no other information on him. The Sheriff’s Office’s Stock Island Detention Center houses several ICE inmates.
Cao has been a lawful permanent resident of the United States, or Green Card holder, since September 1999.
He is petitioning the federal government to allow him to stay in the country, where he’s lived since he was 19 years old. He lives with his wife, Thao Hieu Luu Ta, and their 10-month-old son in Palm Beach Gardens. He’s not been to Vietnam since his parents fled the country when he was 10. The family spent some of the nine years in between leaving Vietnam and arriving in the United States in the Galang Refugee Camp in Indonesia, according to court documents.
In a Feb. 16 petition for release, Cao writes that his family and attorney informed him that ICE told them his travel documents to Vietnam have arrived and “that my deportation will be pending a travel date.”
“I am completely in panic to know I will have to leave my entire family. Parents, wife, 10-month-old son, sister and grandparents here in the U.S,” Cao wrote in the petition. “I am devastated by this recent event. I beg the immigration court to please consider the extreme harm this will cause me and my family. I won't be able to come to the United States again. This will be the end of me.”
Cao, his parents and his younger sister came to the United States in 1999 through a program aimed at helping Vietnamese suffering persecution from the government because of their association with the United States during the Vietnam War, according to court documents.
Ta submitted a letter last year to the Department of Homeland Security urging them to not deport Cao and to release him from detention. Without her husband’s income as a nail salon technician, the family is having difficulties making ends meet, she wrote. Cao also helps support his sister, who has Down syndrome, as well as his elderly parents in San Diego, Calif., and the couple helps support Ta’s mother.
Ta, who could not be reached for comment, wrote in the letter that sending Cao back to Vietnam would be like a prison sentence in itself, especially if she goes with him, since neither husband nor wife have been there since they were children.
“We stand no chance of survival if we had to restart our lives together in Vietnam because both my husband and I have departed that country at a very young age,” Ta wrote in her letter, which was submitted Feb. 20 with her husband’s petition for release. “We are not at all familiar with how the communist government operates and how they would silently persecute us because we will be considered as foreigners with roots that betrayed the current government regime by fleeing the country when communist took over; and also the civilians would take advantage of us because we are naive and not familiar with the environmental surroundings in the communist Vietnam.”
Ta came to the United States with her mother in 1989 when she was 3 years old.
Cao was arrested in 2005 in southwestern North Carolina along with 19 other men charged with selling MDMA and marijuana. He pleaded guilty to possession with intent to sell the drugs in 2006 and was sentenced to seven years in federal prison. He was released early in 2011, and Ta said her husband has kept out of trouble ever since.
“He is already very sorry and regrets what he did. He already paid and did time in federal prison,” Ta wrote. “My husband was released earlier than this total amount of convicted sentence due to his good behavior and good conduct.”
Immigration attorney Juan Carlos Gómez, director of the Carlos A. Costa Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at Florida International University, said Cao was likely ordered removed from the country when he was released from prison in 2011 and sent to ICE’s Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia. Inmates are sent to the prison, privately run under an ICE contract by Corrections Corporation of America, where nationals facing deportation can apply for release.
Like many people in Cao’s situation, “he didn’t apply for anything,” Gómez said, because there’s little chance he’d be granted release. Gómez calls it “ a system of hopelessness.”
“What’s the point of fighting because you’re not going to win,” he said.
Cao was probably let out of Lumpkin under an order of supervision, where he has to periodically check in under oath to an immigration official. Cao, like others in his shoes, faced arrest each time he checked in. He was likely detained by ICE agents when he reported last August, Gómez said.
Chhaya Chhoum, executive director of Mekong NYC, a nonprofit advocacy group for the Southeast Asian community living in the New York City area, said stories like Cao’s are becoming more common, and her organization is trying to help a growing number of Vietnamese and Cambodian people who have been living in the United States for decades but are now facing deportation.
One of the reasons this is happening is due to a 2008 repatriation memorandum in which the Vietnamese government agreed to accept more nationals ordered deported by the United States. Specifically, the Vietnamese government agreed to accept deportees who arrived in the United States after July 12, 1995, the date the two countries reestablished diplomatic relations 20 years after the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam.
“They came here as children, born in refugee camps and are being returned to a country they have no connection to,” Chhoum said.
David Goodhue: 305-440-3204