SEATTLE (AP) — An immigrant rights group is asking the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to release an Iraq War veteran who has been detained for more than three months while waiting to learn whether he'll be deported.
Chong Kim, a South Korean immigrant and green card holder from Portland, Oregon, joined the National Guard in 2005 and served in Iraq in 2009 and 2010. He came to the U.S. more than 35 years ago, at age 5, and he became a legal permanent resident in 1981.
The Seattle-based Northwest Immigrant Rights Project said Friday that after Kim was honorably discharged, he struggled with homelessness, addiction and post-traumatic stress, leading to convictions for burglary and other charges in 2013 and for attempted arson last year. He's been doing well since completing a 4½-month inpatient treatment program run by the Department of Veterans Affairs in January, the group said.
Immigration agents arrested him April 5 and brought him to a detention center in Tacoma, Washington. They plan to deport him because of his convictions. But his attorney, the immigration group's Tim Warden-Hertz, is fighting it, saying the attempted arson conviction is not one that should prompt his deportation.
"You commit a crime, go to jail, but there's no reason we should ever deport a combat veteran," former Staff Sgt. Ryan Kell, who was Kim's team leader in Iraq, said Friday. "What's he going to do in Korea? He doesn't speak Korean. He hasn't been there since he was 3."
Warden-Hertz said that "while Mr. Kim has taken responsibility for his mistakes, the government refuses to see him as anything other than a list of criminal convictions."
In an emailed statement Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement did not comment beyond confirming that Kim was detained "after it was determined he has a prior felony conviction in Multnomah County for" attempted arson and other charges.
The attempted arson conviction came in a special veterans court after he filled an empty beer bottle with gasoline, lit it on fire and threw it at a concrete outer wall at the back of a hardware store, Warden-Hertz said. Kim only wanted to see the bottle blow up and never intended to burn the building, he said.
"It was a dumb idea, but it didn't lead to anyone being hurt or endangered," he said. "The damage was discoloration of paint."
Kell said that Kim drove him in a mine-resistant vehicle for their entire Iraq deployment and that he was a stellar soldier.
"Some guys tend to do better on deployment than they do in the real world," Kell said. "When we came back it seemed his life unraveled a little bit. He had some drug problems, and then he started having some legal problems."
In 2013, when Kim faced the threat of deportation for the first time following a shoplifting incident that escalated into a fight with a security guard, Kell said, Kell drove to Tacoma to testify on his behalf before an immigration judge. The judge agreed to let Kim go — but warned him not to get in trouble again, Kell said.
"I'm in the same position I was with him four or five years ago," he said. "Do I feel he has been a great member of society? No, he probably hasn't. Do I believe he should be deported? No, I don't."
Warden-Hertz sent ICE a letter Thursday asking for Kim's release pending the outcome of the deportation proceedings. The petition included 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."
The attorney also submitted a letter Kell wrote to the immigration court in 2013. Kell described how on one mission Kim "stopped our entire squad in order to help an Iraqi national whose vehicle was on fire. Without Mr. Kim that man could have lost his livelihood or even his life."
"War can change a person, but Mr. Kim gave selflessly of himself in order to protect and serve this nation," Kell wrote. "I ask that you give Mr. Kim another chance and let him stay in this country that I know he loves."
Follow Gene Johnson at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle