In jail, Many Uch fought back, organizing two hunger strikes and a near riot to protest both the indefinite detention and conditions that included withholding classes and religious services allowed to other prisoners. Using materials from the prison library, he filed a habeas corpus petition, asserting his constitutional right to a trial or release. “I had no idea what I was doing,” he laughs. “I wrote in ‘double jeopardy,’ which it wasn’t, because I thought it would sound good.” Still, he persuaded about 40 other detainees, held in Kent, Tacoma, and Yakima, to file similar petitions. He hoped a blizzard of appeals, and the cost of defending each one singly, would make the INS release the detainees.

In a sense, that’s what happened, with a detour to the U.S. Supreme Court. A local court consolidated all the petitions into a single case, which the government lost. The INS then released all the Cambodian detainees save one, Kim Ho Ma, another ex-gang-banger from White Center whose initial petition Many Uch had drafted. Kim Ho Ma had been convicted of manslaughter in a group slaying when he was 17, though he claimed he didn’t actually shoot. The severity of his crime made him the government’s best test case. But in mid-2001, in a prelude to its more famous ruling on the Guantánamo detainees, the Supreme Court ruled his indefinite detention unconstitutional. Because Cambodia would not accept them, he and the other detainees were now free, for the time being.

It was a Pyrrhic victory. Soon afterward, the September 11 attacks prompted a new drive to seal America’s borders and purge dangerous aliens. In early 2002, as part of that effort, the Bush administration leaned on Cambodia, and it agreed to accept deportees. Just as their homeland had become collateral damage in America’s war in Vietnam, Many Uch and his peers were now swept up in the War on Terror. Suddenly 1,400 Cambodian-born permanent residents found themselves on a deportation list. Kim Ho Ma was one of the first packed off.

Many Uch and his peers now face deportation for crimes committed more than a decade ago.

Since then, the United States has added more than 100 Cambodians to the list each year and shipped back, on average, around 40. They’re a drop in the demographic bucket among nearly 100,000 so-called aggravated felons, most from Mexico and Central America, deported each year. But they present a particular moral, historical, and policy quandary, and they fall into their own special catch-22.

Ordinarily, criminal deportations are done after an offender is caught and convicted, often in lieu of a prison sentence and when he’s still presumed to be a threat. But because of the long delay in repatriations, Many Uch and his peers now face deportation for crimes committed more than a decade ago, often when the law saw them as children in other regards. Some copped pleas rather than contesting their charges, on the assurance that they would be free sooner that way.

While he awaits his own deportation order, Many Uch worries always about crossing some unseen line that will speed the day. “Every time the police pass, I….” He hunches and grimaces. When “some homeless guys” picked a fight, he didn’t defend himself, for fear of getting blamed. Recalling the high percentage of felons arrested for new crimes, he says earnestly, “I just want to prove the state wrong. I don’t want to become a statistic.”

In fact the statistics are on the side of refugee offenders like Uch, says Bill Ong Hing, a law professor at UC Santa Cruz. Before the 1996 crackdown, Hing recalls, “I represented probably a couple hundred aggravated felons seeking deportation waivers.” Every one got a waiver; none got busted again. “These aren’t hardened criminals other countries are sending to us. This is more a problem of failed refugee resettlement than an immigration problem.”