Sophal Chuk’s life hasn’t taken a straight path. But over the past years living in Madison, he and his family have taken on a routine. Chuk volunteers at the Buddhist temple in Oregon most days, and then comes home to play with his grandkids.
But on Friday, everything changed when ICE detained him while he was shopping ahead of the family’s Khmer New Year celebration.
His daughter, Molly Bennett says it’s been devastating for her family — as well as the community — to have him gone.
“It’s just like a missing puzzle in our life and its still really empty,” Bennett says.
Chuk came to the U.S. in 1985 legally as a refugee from Cambodia. He was convicted in 1989 of sexually assaulting a minor in Illinois and served 10 years in prison. After that, he lost his legal status.
ICE spokesperson Shawn Neudauer said in an email to WORT that Chuk was notified in 2004 that he had final deportation orders. Chuck was under an order of supervision, and regularly checking in with ICE authorities with Milwaukee.
Amanda Gennerman is an immigration lawyer in Dane County. She says folks under ICE Supervision, like Chuk, are increasingly at risk of deportation. She says his criminal conviction likely contributed to ICE’s decision to detain him.
But Bennett says his detention came as a total surprise. Chuk and the family spend the Khmer new year together every year.
“He was just going to the store, and all of a sudden these ICE officers just came to the door asking for my father,” Bennett says.
Now, he’s being held at a Dodge County detention center. His family hasn’t been able to see or talk to him him since he was arrested, and Bennett worries about his well being. Chuk is 67 and has health issues, including a knee injury.
Bennett says her father doesn’t know anyone in Cambodia — everyone he left behind in the ‘80s died in the war. Without a base of support there, she says he’s basically homeless. She says deporting him would be a life sentence.
“Cambodia is just the country where he’s from,” Bennett says. “But this is what he calls home.”
Chuk is a member of Freedom Inc., a nonprofit that helps low income communities of color in Dane County. Kazbuag Vaj is a co-director of the organization and has worked with Chuk. She said his detention has had a ripple effect throughout the entire community.
“Though we kind knew he had final orders, but we didn’t think he would be a priority because he is an elderly man, he has many health issues,” Vaj says. “This is devastating for the community.”
The whole experience has left Bennett feeling helpless.
“It’s just so hard knowing he’s not here and I can’t help him,” Bennett says. “I can’t assist him, I can’t talk to him, I can’t see him, I can’t tell him everything going to be OK and I’ll do anything I can to help him. I can’t even do any of that.”
The family is working with lawyers through Freedom Inc and hoping to get Chuk’s case reopened.