April 2, 2012
MARSHFIELD, Mass. — Kong Xin Chen walked up to a table in his tiny Marshfield restaurant.
“How are you?” asked a customer.
“Good. Good. So happy,” replied Chen.
He’s happy to be back at work four months after Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, better known as ICE, came knocking on the morning of Dec. 6, 2011.
“They told me, 'You have a deportation order and this is the final. You need to go with me,’” said Chen, 38. “First of all I think about my family, my future.”
How it came to this
The arrest came as a shock to Chen, not because he’s here legally — he’s not — but because he’s spent the past two decades living life as if he were.
“I file taxes every year — never stop. And I never tried to hide my address,” he said.
Chen emigrated, illegally, from his native China 19 years ago. He said he was seeking political asylum in the U.S. but that a miscommunication with his immigration lawyer caused him to miss a citizenship hearing. A deportation notice quickly followed. Except ….
“I didn’t get any notice. And at the time, we didn’t have cell phone. And I believe the agent tried to contact me a couple of times, but there’s no way to contact me,” said Chen.
Oblivious to the deportation mandate, Chen went on with life. He got married, had two kids and opened the Mandarin Tokyo Restaurant in Marshfield, which brings us back to December. The agents allowed Chen to call his wife, he said, "and they took me off in the next 10 minutes."
Chen in detention
First he went to a Plymouth jail. Then he was transferred to an Alabama jail. In total, Chen was detained for 86 days. His wife Ping said the arrest wreaked havoc on the entire family.
“When my son got back from school, he asked 'Where’s my father?' I tell him a little bit,” said Ping. “He cry, because every day, usually, my husband take care of my son. He’s a really good father. And he’s crying, crying.”
A representative from Homeland Security confirmed that Chen was arrested in December and gave this statement when asked about Chen’s case:
“This Administration has implemented a smart and effective approach to immigration enforcement. This approach includes comprehensive reform of the detention system and the establishment of clear enforcement priorities, targeting criminal aliens and those who put public safety at risk, as well as those who threaten border security and the integrity of the immigration system.”
Patrons rise up in support
As news spread of Chen’s arrest and pending deportation, long-time patrons of Mandarin Tokyo rallied to the defense of the popular restaurateur.
“Anyone who walks through the door, he will donate a gift certificate for a raffle or something going on in the community. He’s donated down to the local elementary school. He’s shared his food,” said five-year patron Lynne Ann Habel-Murphy.
She’s spearheading the “Free Kong Now” campaign. Members have written letters, petitioned politicians and raised more than $17,000 to help with Chen’s legal fees.
“He started with less than nothing and has created an incredible life — taking jobs from no one. He’s providing jobs for people in this community,” said Habel-Murphy. "We look at Kong and think, he’s just the American Dream.”
But that American dream is now on hold as Kong tries to get his case reopened. His lawyer Joshua Goldstein said it won’t be easy and even under the best circumstances Kong will have to go back to China and apply for a visa.
"It could take years. His wife is a U.S. citizen. She filed a visa petition form. In order for him to get a green card, he’s going to have to do something extraordinary. He’s going to have to go outside the U.S. and seek a waiver to overcome the obstacles that stand in the way," Goldstein said.
And even then, there’s no guarantee that Kong will be allowed back into the U.S. However, Goldstein said, the Obama administration is trying to change that: "They’ve proposed to change the rules and allow people to apply for discretionary waivers while they’re inside the United States. And there’s lot of open questions about whether that is really going to be a fundamental change or whether it will be business as usual."
Kong said he’s scared to go back to China — not for his own safety, but for the stress it will cause his wife.
"My wife, she’s so worried. Too much pressure for her. She lost a lot of weight," he said.
But until that time comes, Chen said he’ll do what he’s been doing for the past 20 years: working hard to make a better life for his family.