BURLINGTON — Tammie Christopulos felt so anxious about her husband Thursday morning, she said she became physically ill and had to go to a hospital emergency room.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement had ordered Saray Im, 44, and nine other local Cambodian nationals to come to its detention center in Burlington that morning for check-ins.
Im was a half-hour late for his appointment because of the trip to the hospital.
“My body was just breaking down. . . . My heart was fluttering off and on,” said Christopulos, 40, who grew up in Revere and now lives with her family in Lynn.
About 80 Massachusetts immigration advocates and supporters gathered outside the Burlington center at 8:30 a.m. to demand an end to ICE raids targeting Southeast Asians. Supporters included students from UMass Lowell and Tufts universities and residents from nearby communities. A few signs called out individuals. One read: “Keep Saray Home.”
Abby Buhle of Billerica said she had come to condemn the way families with immigrants are being split up.
“I feel like it’s really important for the Cambodians with deportation [orders] to feel that they are supported and that our government doesn’t speak for us,” she said.
In a 2002 repatriation agreement with the United States, Cambodia agreed to accept its nationals and the US then began deporting ones with criminal convictions. According to ICE data, the number has increased recently. Last year, 110 Cambodians were deported nationally, compared with 29 in 2017, 74 in 2016, 16 in 2015, and 75 in 2014.
Massachusetts has the country’s second largest Cambodian population, according to US 2010 Census Bureau data, with the majority living in Lowell.
Most Cambodians facing deportation orders have criminal convictions, according to Bethany Li, the director for the Asian Outreach Unit of Greater Boston Legal Services.
Im said he has a criminal conviction going back two decades and spent some time behind bars.
In 1996, when he was 21, he said, he was arrested for a crime involving a firearms exchange. He served three years in jail and was in ICE detention for two years.
“I haven’t even had a speeding ticket since,” Im said. “When I got out I just worked.”
Im, who came to this country as a 9-year-old when his family fled the Khmer Rouge’s brutal rule, said he’s grown since the conviction. He started a new life, got married, and had children. He said he’s involved in the community and coaches flag football in Lynn. He works at a technology company in Beverly, he said.
A conviction is “not going to stop me from being with my kids and making a better home for my family,” he said.
The September day Im’s daughter, Jassyran Kim, learned that her father had been called for the check-in was her 22nd birthday. She flew home from her college in North Carolina as soon as she could.
Kim has spoken out publicly on behalf of her father, tearfully telling crowds gathered for a rally last Monday at the JFK Federal building and again at the Burlington detention center on Thursday that her father’s crime shouldn’t define him and he exerts a positive impact on his family and on his community. Without him, she said, her family’s lives would be uprooted.
“He’s not a man that deserves to be deported,” said Kim, flanked by her brothers Jaythean Im, 15, and Jayvin Im, 10.
ICE spokesman John Mohan did not comment on the deportations of Southeast Asians when asked but said in an e-mail that the agency focuses on the arrest and removal of “unlawfully present aliens” with criminal convictions, pending criminal charges, or those “determined to be a national security or public safety threat.”
The statement also said that since January 2017, ICE no longer “exempts classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement. All of those in violation of the immigration laws may be subject to arrest, detention and removal from the United States.”
Kevin Lam, one of the rally organizers and the organizing director of the Asian American Resource Workshop, said it’s unjust that the pro-immigration advocates often fall silent about support for immigrants with criminal convictions.
“There’s the good immigrant who is a productive member of society, but the person who’s labeled as a felon or a criminal doesn’t get to be uplifted.” he said.
Sovanna Pouv, the director of Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association of Greater Lowell, Inc. said he appreciated the support from those who attended the rally.
“In order for our community to work together as a whole, each individual needs to be taken care of,” Pouv said. “This isn’t just a Cambodian issue or a Southeast Asian issue, it’s a community issue.”
At around 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Im and Christopulos arrived at the Burlington detention center a half-hour late for Im’s appointment because of their trip to the emergency room. Their children and their immigration attorney joined them and all six walked through the doors.
Outside, protesters waited silently for word about Im and the other Cambodians.
When Christopulos pushed the doors open again about a half-hour later, the crowd cheered.
Im emerged with a calm, relieved expression, while his wife and daughter cried.
He told the crowd that the ICE agent said he didn’t need to return to the facility for a year. He said he would use the time to work with his criminal attorneys in order to try to vacate his record.
“I thought today was my last day with my family,” Im said. “I can’t say — I’m just so happy right now.”
His wife said she felt like they had their life back, although she acknowledged the family’s road ahead.
“Until we know it’s over over, it will always be in the back of our minds,” she said. “But it’s nice to have this win.”