TACOMA, Wash. — Chong Kim looks like a soldier. The Portland man has a solid build, a freshly shaved face and the expected buzz haircut.
But instead of U.S. Army fatigues, this Iraq War veteran finds himself in a different kind of uniform. He wears orange scrubs and a plastic ID band on his wrist. Kim, 42, is a detainee at a federal immigration detention center in Tacoma, Wash.
The United States military veteran is facing possible deportation to his native South Korea because of two criminal convictions in recent years.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty. It’s kind of overwhelming when you think about it,” said Kim during a recent interview with KGW inside the detention center.
Kim admits he made mistakes, including a struggle with drug abuse after his deployment, but he has turned his life around.
His fellow soldiers say that his dedication to this country should be unquestioned and worth stopping his deportation. Kim put his life on the line in order to protect and serve.
“Is this a way to treat a veteran?” asked veteran Josh Ausman, who served with Kim in Iraq. “It’s not right to have a veteran deploy, then come back and be like, ‘You’re not good enough.’”
Coming to America
Chong Hwan Kim was legally admitted to the United States on April 11, 1981, according to immigration records. He was five years old.
Kim, along with his parents, traveled from South Korea to join other family members already living in the U.S.
Kim grew up in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood and had an average American childhood. Family photos show him in a wrestling uniform. He played for the youth football team. Kim attended Shaver Elementary, Parkrose Middle School and Parkrose High School.
Growing up, Kim said his immigration status was never an issue as he had a Green Card.
“I never really felt like I was a second-class citizen,” said Kim. “I had all the same rights and privileges available to American citizens, except for maybe the fact I couldn’t vote, but I was never politically active anyway.”
Although he didn’t graduate from high school, Kim did get his General Equivalency Diploma. He worked for UPS before enlisting in the Oregon Army National Guard in July 2005.
“Growing up, I always wanted to join the military,” said Kim, who was encouraged to enlist after speaking with a neighbor who was a recruiter.
“It’s one of the better things that I’ve done in my life,” he explained. “I felt, as an able bodied man living in America during a time of war, that it was kind of my duty.”
In 2009, Kim was deployed to Iraq. He spent 10 months in the war-torn country. As an E4 specialist, Kim served as a driver of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle, or M-Rap. He and his team conducted dozens of missions throughout the southern region of Iraq.
During one mission, Kim reportedly stopped the entire squad in order to help an Iraqi National whose vehicle was on fire. Kim’s team leader in Iraq recounted the rescue in a sworn letter submitted to an immigration judge.
“Without Mr. Kim, that man could have lost his livelihood or even his life,” wrote Staff Sergeant Ryan Kell. “Kim gave selflessly of himself in order to protect and serve this nation.”
In 2010, Kim received a general discharge from the military -- one step below honorable discharge.
Typically, to receive a general discharge there has to be some form of non-judicial punishment to correct unacceptable military behavior. The Oregon Army National Guard did not provide details.
Kim’s departure from the military caused him to lose direction. Kim said that he no longer had structure in his life or a daily routine. He had difficulty holding down a job. Then, he turned to drugs and became addicted to methamphetamine.
Kim hits rock bottom
On July 30, 2013, a Multnomah County judge convicted Kim of first-degree burglary. He was sentenced to probation, but no jail time. Court records indicate Kim admitted to breaking into a house in Southeast Portland and stealing an iPad with another suspect. Kim told the officer he acted as a lookout.
After his conviction, Kim was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and threatened with deportation, but then released.
Three years later, Kim found himself in trouble again. On the afternoon of February 11, 2016, a Portland fire investigator was called to the Ace Hardware on Southeast 122nd Avenue. A witness said Kim threw a Molotov cocktail against an outside, back wall of the building.
Police say Kim lit a beer bottle filled with gasoline, then threw it against the cinder block wall. Kim admitted to police that he’d been using methamphetamine. He described the incident as a stupid prank.
No one was hurt and property damage was minimal.
Portland Fire Lieutenant Jason Andersen reported finding damage to the back of the building consisting of “discoloration, soot deposition, and melting and deformation of a plastic pipe,” according to court papers.
“It was pretty insignificant. I don’t know that anyone actually saw any flames,” recalled Erik Cuhlmann, manager of the hardware store. “I think there’s more damage done by graffiti.”
On July 1, 2016, Kim pleaded guilty to a felony charge for attempted arson. It was a conviction that would change his life.
Instead of jail time, Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Eric Bergstrom ordered Kim to get treatment for his drug addiction.
“Because of that case I was able to get the help I needed,” said Kim, who entered a residential substance abuse program run by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
After completion of the four-month program, Kim got a job at the VA through the Compensated Work Therapy program. He worked as a housekeeper in an acute care unit.
Most importantly, Kim was clean and sober.
“If you look at my past, I’ve had some hiccups, some problems,” said Kim. “The thing I would like to focus on is the fact I have turned things around.”
The call that changed everything
On April 5, Kim got an unexpected phone call at his home in Northeast Portland. An immigration officer requested that Kim come into the ICE office in Southwest Portland.
“Apparently, my file had come across his desk and he had some questions,” said Kim.
He voluntarily met with ICE. After several hours, it became clear that this was no routine check-in.
Kim was immediately transported to the ICE detention center in Tacoma, where he’s been held since April.
“I feel like I’ve turned my life around, made some changes and was looking forward to living a better life, but now I’m here facing deportation,” said Kim, wearing his orange jail uniform in a small visiting room.
A court document titled “Notice to Appear” outlines the immigration case against Kim and why the U.S. government thinks he should be deported back to his native South Korea.
“You have been convicted of two crimes involving moral turpitude,” reads the U.S. Department of Homeland Security document.
Another government form specifically identifies the 2013 conviction for burglary and the 2016 conviction for attempted arson as reasons for Kim’s deportation.
It’s not clear why ICE suddenly moved to have this military veteran removed from the U.S. ICE declined to provide specifics about the case, including questions about timing.
“When someone served and then has turned their life around, what then is the motivation to try and deport someone?” asked Kim’s attorney, Tim Warden-Hertz of the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project.
Warden-Hertz is currently appealing Kim’s deportation based on the 2016 conviction for attempted arson.
“Our argument is that conviction doesn’t qualify as the type of crime that would lead to deportation,” said Warden-Hertz.
Military veterans are deported
The deportation of military veterans is nothing new. In a report last year titled, “Discharged, Then Discarded,” the American Civil Liberties Union said there were at least 239 deported veterans in 34 countries.
“I don’t ever remember hearing that we leave people behind,” said Ausman, who served with Kim. “If you sign the dotted line, you deploy, you wear the uniform and you said, ‘I will die for my country’ -- I think that makes you a citizen in my opinion.”
Veteran Perry Gastineau also served with Kim.
“This isn’t an appropriate repayment for what he has done,” Gastineau said.
Lori Haley, an ICE spokeswoman, said immigration officials view service in the U.S. military as a positive factor that should be considered in deciding whether someone should be deported.
“ICE respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service, and is very deliberate in its review of cases involving U.S. military veterans,” said Haley. “ICE exercises prosecutorial discretion, when appropriate, on a case-by-case basis for members of the armed forces who have honorably served our country.”
There is no timeline for Kim’s appeal. In October, an immigration judge declined to release Kim from custody while he fights the government efforts to deport him.
According to his lawyer, the immigration judge determined the government met its burden to show that Kim posed a danger to the public or a flight risk- although she didn’t explain her rationale in court.
Kim’s attorney, Warden-Hertz, is also appealing the judge’s decision on bond.
If he’s forced to leave, Kim will be sent to a country he left at age five. He doesn’t speak the language, he has no job and no place to live.
“He’s never known any other country. This is his country,” said veteran Cory Baird, who served with Kim in the Oregon Army National Guard.
Deported veterans can return, once they are dead
Ironically, deported military veterans can come back to the United States once they are dead. As veterans, they are entitled to burial in a national cemetery and a military funeral.
In other words, they’re honored as Americans in death, despite being kicked out of the country in life.
Kim isn’t one for excuses. He admits he made mistakes.
“I understand that I’m here for a reason,” said Kim. “I’ve made some decisions that weren’t the best.”
His fellow soldiers said that’s the army specialist they knew in Iraq.
“He never argued,” said Ausman. “He is like, ‘Yeah, I screwed up. I’ll own it.”
“I honestly think with him in particular being an American meant something. It wasn’t just an entitlement,” explained veteran Leonard Leveque.
“I don’t know how you can doubt somebody who raises his right hand and swears to uphold the constitution and defend this country against all foes,” said Leveque. “It could have cost him his life.”
Published Nov. 2, 2017