SOTHY KUM’S DAUGHTER, EMMA, is 29 months old. But Sothy has been able to spend only about two of those months living with her in their suburban Wisconsin home. For a majority of her life, he has been separated from her, mostly locked up—first in prison, then in and out of various Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities after he was ordered deported. The next time Kum will be able to see his daughter, both of them will be halfway around the world.
At 44, Kum’s youthful energy contradicts his graying hair, which he shaves bald. He stands just shy of 6 feet tall and exudes a take-life-as-it-comes positivity that accentuates his Midwestern affability. He was close to his daughter’s current age when he left Cambodia. It was the mid-1970s, and, after eight years of carpet bombing by the United States and five years of civil war, the Khmer Rouge had come to power under the ruthless leadership of Pol Pot. Between 1974 and 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed anyone it perceived to be in opposition to its program of serfdom-style communism—between 1 and a half and 3 million people, around a quarter of Cambodia’s population.
Hundreds of thousands fled, including young Kum, his parents, two of his older brothers, and his younger sister. They spent about two years in a refugee camp in Thailand, then a couple more in a camp in the Philippines. Eventually, the family was selected for refugee resettlement to the US, and in September 1981, they arrived in Wisconsin.
There Kum became a US legal permanent resident. He graduated from high school and earned a degree in social work from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He married, had a son, and divorced. In 2009, he met Lisa Ebert while they were both working at her family’s business—a computer and printer-parts company in Madison. They began dating, moved in together, and, in late 2013, they started their own company refurbishing and selling printer parts.
The business took off and provided Kum and Lisa with enough income to support themselves and three employees. But the first few months were tough, and they needed extra money to get the company off the ground. Shortly after the business opened, an acquaintance of Kum’s offered him what looked like a temporary solution to their financial straits—a gig receiving packages of cannabis through the US Postal Service and delivering them to their intended recipients, which he accepted to help pay the bills.
In February 2014, the police followed one of the packages to Kum and Lisa’s home. Kum was charged with felony possession of more than eight pounds of marijuana with intent to deliver and sentenced to community service and three years’ probation. At this time, cannabis legalization for medical and recreational use was already spreading across the country, but Wisconsin hadn’t—and still hasn’t—passed laws to allow its sale for either use.
Almost two years later, police raided Kum and Lisa’s business, and again found marijuana. Although Kum and Lisa say that two of their employees claimed the cannabis as theirs, it put Kum in violation of his probation. Beginning in December 2015, he was to spend about two months in a county jail, then another ten in prison.
Lisa discovered that she was pregnant while Kum was still in county jail, and he missed the birth of their daughter, Emma, in August 2016. And in May, while Kum was incarcerated, Immigration and Customs Enforcement issued him a “Notice to Appear.” Citing his original cannabis conviction, the agency said it was revoking his green card and placing him in deportation proceedings. The following December, at the end of Kum’s sentence, ICE picked him up from prison and immediately transferred him to Kenosha County Detention Center in Wisconsin. He spent another eight months in immigration detention.
While Kum was in detention, ICE was unable to obtain travel documents for him from the Cambodian government, which has a history of refusing to take back its nationals whom the US wants to deport. So, in August 2017, the agency released him under orders of supervision.
A few weeks later, on the weekend of their daughter’s first birthday, Kum and Lisa hosted a cookout at Devil’s Lake State Park with family and friends to celebrate and welcome Kum home—and to finally get married.