MARSHFIELD - Kong Xin Chen said he missed his wife, two small children, parents, and his Mandarin Tokyo restaurant, in that order, while he sat in a federal detention center in Alabama the past three months on a 1990s deportation order. And he missed Chinese food so much that one of the first things he did when he got home to Massachusetts yesterday was TO go out for Chinese brunch.
“Sometimes we had Mexican food and lots of sandwiches, but not Chinese,’’ he said as he took in mouthfuls of Cantonese dim sum at the Grand Chinatown restaurant in Quincy.
“I am the happiest man,’’ he said, gazing at his wife, Ping, and 3-year-old daughter Grace. “It’s like I’m reborn.’’
Things looked far grimmer for Chen and his family in December when two US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested the 38-year-old as he opened the restaurant in Green Harbor that he has owned since 2005. He was sent to the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, Ala., his family and life left behind as he awaited the outcome of the deportation order he said he did not know existed.
An outpouring of support from friends and customers led to a flurry of publicity recently about the plight of the well-liked restaurateur, who left China 19 years ago to escape poverty and pursue a better life in the United States.
His wife, daughter, and son Jason, who turns 8 on Sunday, are American citizens.
US Senator Scott Brown, in particular, helped make sure that the case received careful review, said Chen’s lawyer, Joshua Goldstein. US Senator John F. Kerry and US Representative William R. Keating also wrote a joint letter supporting Chen.
“People at all levels of immigration were way more responsive than they would have been,’’ Goldstein said.
A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, said that news media and political attention had nothing to do with the decision to release Chen under an order of supervision, which allowed him to return home. As part of standard procedure, a hearing officer reviewed Chen’s case after 90 days and decided that releasing him from detention was “the proper course of action,’’ spokesman Vincent Picard said.
“He had no criminal history, he was not a flight risk, and it didn’t appear likely we’d be able to get travel documents [to return him to] China in the near future,’’ Picard said.
Goldstein said Chen still faces considerable hurdles getting his immigration status legalized. Until then, he must check in with ICE regularly, Picard said.
But after weeks of worrying about whether he would be sent to a country where he has no family or friends - and worrying about what would happen to his family on the South Shore - Chen said he is just enjoying his freedom for now.
He said at the Alabama jail he lived in a two-person cell and spent his time exercising and sleeping. He lost about 10 pounds and also his interest in television, he said, although he watched the New England Patriots lose the Super Bowl. His only personal property that was returned to him when he left the jail Wednesday was his Patriots hat.
Chen then took a bus to the Atlanta airport, where he spent the night talking to another passenger, and grabbed an early flight to Boston, arriving at 10:30 a.m., and missing the welcoming party that thought he would be at Logan Airport later.
For a nerve-racking interval, Chen’s family and friends weren’t sure where he was. He finally called to say he had stopped at the Registry of Motor Vehicles to get a new license so he would have legal identification.
And then shortly after noon, he rang the bell at the Quincy house where his parents live and stepped into his wife’s waiting arms. He hugged his parents and daughter - his son was in school in Marshfield - changed into clean clothes, and announced he was hungry for dim sum.
By 3 p.m., he was back at work at the Mandarin Tokyo.
“Three months’ vacation is enough,’’ he said with a grin. “I believe we are going to have a happy ending. It’s a very good beginning right now.’’
Johanna Seltz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.