It wasn’t until Sam Nak was in handcuffs and leg irons, 35,000 feet over the Pacific Ocean, that reality finally sunk in: He might never get to go home.
Nak grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, where his family had been resettled as refugees when he was 6 months old. His parents had fled Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s. Nak, now 41, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand. While he was eligible after five years in the country, he never became a U.S. citizen: His family didn’t understand the process. Nak never gave the distinction much thought until he started having run-ins with the law. In 1999, after pleading guilty to selling marijuana to avoid prison time, Nak was given a deportation order. (U.S. immigration law states that noncitizens convicted of a wide range of crimes can be sent back to their native countries.) But Nak had no documents proving Cambodian citizenship, so he stayed in the United States for another 19 years.