A Wisconsin man has been permanently separated from his wife and newborn child because he was caught transporting cannabis.
Sothy Kum lived in Wisconsin since he was two years old. In 2017, he called his wife, Lisa, to come pick him up from an immigration detention center in Chicago, where he was being held because of possession and intent to deliver charges from three years earlier.
As Lisa was driving from their home in Wisconsin to retrieve him in Illinois, she received a second call from Sothy. This time, her husband informed her that immigration officials made a mistake, and he would not be released. Instead, he was permanently deported back to Cambodia, a country he knew little about.
“I thought I was going to get him to bring him home, only to be told ‘Sorry I will never come home,’” Lisa Kum told the Chicago Tribune. “That was a hard drive to come back.”
Marijuana was recently legalized for recreational use in Illinois, but it’s still completely outlawed in Wisconsin. And regardless of state laws, marijuana remains illegal at the federal level. Any violation of federal laws, no matter how minor or inconsequential, can result in any immigrant — undocumented or otherwise — being deported from the US. Even working in a state-legal cannabis industry can result in citizenship denial or deportation.
In 2014, a postal employee discovered marijuana in a parcel box sent by Sothy. Sothy told the court he was shipping the weed for some extra cash to support his small printing business. He didn’t serve any prison time then, but he was placed on probation for three years.
At the end of 2015, police found marijuana at the site of his business. He said it wasn’t his, and that someone else left it there, but the authorities considered it a violation of his probation. A judge sentenced him to a year in prison. During his prison stint, his baby daughter was born.
Sothy was released from prison in December 2016, but then ICE got a hold of him. They sent him to a detention center for an additional seven months. After he was released (again), he returned home in August 2017, long enough to marry his wife at their daughter’s first birthday party, but not long enough to enjoy a happily-ever-after.
ICE grabbed him again in December 2017. It was the last time his daughter and his wife saw him.
“I have a hard time talking about this day, I try not to get emotional when I talk about it, but it was the last day he was ever home,” Lisa said. “That was Friday morning. We were ready for work, and there was a knock on the door. I saw the black SUVs out there, and I knew it.”
The Trump Administration has taken a hardline approach to immigration enforcement since the president took office. And they haven’t been afraid to exploit America’s long-failed War on Drugs to do so.
In 2017, then Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly parroted drug-warrior talking points for justifying mass deportations. “Let me be clear about marijuana,” Kelly said during a speech. “It is a potentially dangerous gateway drug that frequently leads to the use of harder drugs. Additionally, science tells us that it is not only psychologically addictive but can also have profound negative impact on the still developing brains of teens and up through the early twenties.”
Kelly continued: “ICE will continue to use marijuana possession, distribution and convictions as essential elements as they build their deportation / removal apprehension packages for targeted operations against illegal aliens. They have done this in the past, are doing it today, and will do it in the future.”
Just prior to this year’s 4/20 celebration, one US immigration agency tweeted that people who had any involvement with weed may be lacking “good moral character.”
For now, threatening to violently separate families and deporting otherwise law-abiding, tax-paying immigrants remains one of the feds’ favorite ways of enforcing unconstitutional and inhumane marijuana prohibition. Immigrants, especially those who are undocumented or awaiting their green cards, unfortunately, will need to play ball with their own oppressors until the federal laws change.
"Right now, if you're a noncitizen, do not mess with marijuana,” said Erin Barbato, director of the Immigrant Justice Clinic at the University of Wisconsin Law School, to the Chicago Tribune. “Stay away from it until it becomes legal federally."
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