LOS ANGELES - The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California filed a federal lawsuit today seeking the release of a non-citizen who is being held in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody indefinitely after having served his sentence.
When he was six years old, Sopheap Puth's family fled Cambodia and the dreaded Khmer Rouge regime. The family applied for and was granted status as political refugees in the United States. Mr. Puth later became a permanent resident of the United States, and he has a wife and three-year old son who are U.S. citizens. In September 2003, Mr. Puth was ordered removed from the U.S. by an immigration judge because of a criminal conviction for car theft. After Mr. Puth served his sentence and was released on parole, he was detained by ICE, formerly the INS.
He is being held in custody at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster, California, north of Los Angeles, where he has been held for over six months since he was ordered removed from the country.
"My husband has served his sentence," said Rebecca Puth, Sopheap Puth's wife. "All we want is a chance for our son to spend time with his father."
The ACLU-SC's lawsuit relies on a 2001 Supreme Court case, Zadvydas v. Davis, which held that immigration officials may not detain non-citizens for more than six months after they are ordered removed unless there is a significant likelihood of removing them in the reasonable foreseeable future. In Mr. Puth's case the government has been unable to remove him to Cambodia thus far, and it has not shown that it will remove him in the near future. The ACLU-SC's suit calls on the government to release Mr. Puth from detention under an order of supervision.
"We do not dispute that the government has the right to remove Mr. Puth," said Ranjana Natarajan, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "All we ask is that they follow established law and not detain him indefinitely. The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the government may not indefinitely detain non-citizens when it cannot remove them within the reasonable foreseeable future."
"He should have a chance to be with his three-year old son, even if it's just for a few months," she added.
Mr. Puth is one of hundreds of immigrant detainees from across the country who have been forced to sue the government in order to be released from indefinite detention. The government continues to insist on its right to detain such immigrants, even when removal is not imminent.