His kidney, part of a rare and intricate six-way transplant that saved three American lives, can stay in the United States.
The rest of his body may have to go.
Touch Hak, 40, a Cambodian refugee who lost his permanent resident status and became undocumented when he was caught dealing Ecstasy in 2005, has been told to prepare to be deported in November, despite a recommendation from UC San Diego Medical Center doctors that he needs two years of medical follow-up care after he donated his kidney in June.
During the Obama administration, Touch had been granted permission to complete his postoperative recovery protocol which ends in June 2019. Now, as the Trump administration takes a more aggressive position in deportation cases, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement has asked Touch to prepare to cut his recovery short and return to a country his family fled when he was 2 years old.
Touch’s attorneys said he was not given an explanation for his potentially expedited exit, which, by law, is left to the discretion of ICE. He has to report to the ICE office in Santa Ana on Nov. 1, when he could be granted another extension or could be deported immediately. He fears the latter.
“I am stunned,” Hak said as he exited the ICE office last week. “Why so soon?”
ICE Public Affairs Officer Lori K. Haley would not comment about Touch Hak’s case specifically. She released this statement:
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes custody and removal decisions in accordance with federal law and agency policy based on the totality of each individual’s circumstances. While ICE evaluates cases on their specific merits and routinely exercises discretion as appropriate, including granting temporary stays of removal when situations warrant, individuals who have been ordered removed by a federal immigration judge and have not been granted legal relief are subject to removal at ICE’s discretion.”
“Immigration law is draconian,” said Martha Ruch, Touch’s attorney and a representative of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles. “He’s in a funny limbo.”
Funny strange. Not funny ha-ha.
Touch’s case is a Rorschach test for how you feel about the deportation of undocumented immigrants. You could say, because he was convicted of dealing drugs in 2005, Touch deserves no leniency from ICE. Or, because he volunteered to enter a paired kidney exchange program that turned a life-saving swap, he deserves, at least, time to complete his recovery.
In the mind of his brother, Puthy, who is a U.S. citizen with a new kidney, Touch is a hero.
“He gave me life,” said Puthy, 48.
“I don’t want to say goodbye,” Touch said.
Far from home
Touch Hak was born in the middle of a genocide.
His family left its home city of Battambang, Cambodia, fleeing the communist Khmer Rouge regime that came to power during the Vietnam War. As many as two million Cambodians were killed by the Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979.
Touch was born in 1977.
His parents and five brothers and sisters escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand where they lived in “almost like a hut” for six years, Touch said. Sponsored by an uncle, they came to the United States in 1985 and settled in Stockton. The Hak family members were granted permanent resident status, meaning they could live the rest of their lives in the United States without the fear of being deported – as long as they didn’t commit a felony.
“The United States was a safe haven,” Touch said. “The war had been haunting us for a long time. My parents wanted to see us raised in peace.”
Peace is not what they found.
Their neighborhood was filled with poor people – many of them refugees – gangs and drugs.
On Jan. 17, 1989, Touch Hak was in fifth grade at Cleveland Elementary School, which had attracted many refugee students. Touch asked to go to the bathroom, and he was walking outside his class when he heard gunshots. A mentally ill drifter named Patrick Purdy had opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle, firing 106 rounds in three minutes at children on the playground.
Five children were killed, and 32 others were injured. Touch’s teacher grabbed him by the neck and pulled him back into the classroom. He said he never saw the gunman but that he saw the smoke from the gunshots.
“It’s something I still have nightmares about,” Touch said.
His brother said Touch was never the same after the shooting. Touch dropped out of school in the 11th grade.
“We had tried to get away from the war,” Puthy said.
Habit leads to crime
Puthy’s parents arranged his marriage to a girl who had once lived in the same refugee camp. Puthy and his wife, who are still married, moved to Santa Ana.
Touch went a different direction. He moved 3,000 miles to get away from the tough streets of Stockton. He settled in St. Petersburg, Florida, got married, worked in a warehouse and bought a house.
“It was an escape route,” Touch said. “I lived a simple life.”
It’s difficult for him to tell his story when it gets to this part. He was so stable, such a good husband and father, and then suddenly, he wasn’t.
Touch went out gambling with his buddies and lost $2,500 – money the young couple didn’t have. He said he was so embarrassed and scared to tell his wife that he didn’t go home. He stayed up for a couple of days straight, aided by his introduction to methamphetamine.
Eventually, he went home. He took his yearning for meth with him.
As his habit increased, he needed money for more drugs. He said he knew a guy distributing Ecstasy and asked if he could have part of the action. He started selling bags full of 1,000 Ecstasy pills. He made $500 per bag.
Touch Hak was picked up in a drug raid. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years in federal prison.
“The judge had mercy on me,” Touch said. “He could have given me 15.”
When he went to prison in Edgefield, South Carolina, Touch lost his house, his wife left him and he lost contact with his baby daughter, Priscilla. He lost something else that caught him by surprise.
By pleading guilty to a felony, he lost his permanent resident status. Today, he claims his public defender never made him aware of that rule.
Chance to help
While Touch was in prison, his brother was dying.
Puthy didn’t tell Touch about his kidney problems for nine years.
By 2010, Puthy was getting dialysis treatment and he was told he would have to wait five to 10 years for a kidney transplant.
It wasn’t until April of 2013 that he confessed to his brother. Touch was getting ready to leave prison and be deported. Puthy was worried he would die before he saw his brother again. During a phone call, Puthy explained his dilemma and that his time was running out.
“I was in shock,” Touch said. “I broke down in tears.”
The next day, Touch got an idea. He would donate a kidney and save his brother. As you might expect, for a man scheduled to be deported at the end of his prison stay, saving his brother wouldn’t be easy.
He contacted the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center, and lawyers went to work on Touch’s behalf.
In 2014, Touch was released from prison after serving his full nine-year term. And he was granted a one-year stay from deportation for “humanitarian relief.”
His quest to save his brother was only beginning.
Hurdles to clear
Touch, released as an undocumented immigrant, moved into his brother’s house in Santa Ana in 2014. He didn’t have a green card or resident status, but he had hope.
He called UCLA, where Puthy was a patient, to declare he was ready to donate.
And UCLA denied him.
“It was my immigration status,” Touch said.
The brothers heard about another transplant program. This one was operated by UC San Diego Health’s Center for Transplantation. Touch asked the question quickly: “Are you OK accepting an ex-con?” During orientation, Touch said he was told at UCSD they didn’t care about the donor’s criminal history or documentation.
UC San Diego Health would not comment on the specifics of this surgical case due to federal privacy laws, said spokeswoman Jacqueline Carr.
Transplant centers are in desperate need of kidneys.
There are 96,000 patients nationally (including 18,200 in California) awaiting a kidney transplant. Thirteen people die every day in America waiting for a kidney donation, Carr said.
Only 30 percent of transplanted kidneys come from living donors.
“Living donation allows patients to get a transplant without waiting years on the kidney transplant wait list, which improves their quality of life and lifespan by 10 years or more,” Carr said. “Kidneys from living donors also work right away, last years longer than kidneys from deceased donors, and have a decreased risk of complications from the surgery.”
Still, before any life-saving measures could take place, the Hak brothers had one more problem.
The brothers found their blood types were different (Puthy’s is O-positive and Touch’s is B-positive), making them incompatible for a transplant.
“It’s over,” Puthy thought.
There was only one more option: the Paired Kidney Exchange.
In this program, pairs of unmatched donors and recipients hope to be matched with other unmatched donors and recipients. For example, Touch could donate to an anonymous person in need of his B-positive kidney, if he had the promise that an O-positive kidney could be transplanted in his brother at the same time.
That program sounded perfect, but it still didn’t solve their problem.
Touch’s time in the United States was just about up.
In 2015, Touch was told that he needed to commit to two years of post-operative care, or he couldn’t be in the program.
After some legal wrangling and an interview in front of a panel of politicians, ICE granted Touch another stay.
The process of matching kidneys isn’t quick. It took two years to put together the six-way swap. In June of 2017, Touch and Puthy finally were matched with two other pairs of donors and recipients. To Touch’s lawyers, that meant his deportation date would be in June of 2019.
On June 8, Touch’s kidney was taken away.
Carr called a donation like the one Touch Hak made “altruistic.”
“Basically, they give their organ to save the life of a stranger,” Carr said. “Altruistic donors who trigger a chain of giving help save many lives.”
On June 9, an anonymous kidney was donated to Puthy.
“I’m so happy to be alive,” Puthy said. “My brother helped me.”
Puthy is healthy and returned to work at a print shop in Costa Mesa. Touch, a machine operator, has had complications from the surgery (“A lot of pain,” he said) that landed him back in the hospital. He hasn’t been back to work in recent weeks.
The United Network of Organ Sharing requires donors to get checkups at six weeks, six months, one year and two years. At those checkups, donors need to have their blood drawn to check their kidney function.
Carr said follow-up care does not have to take place at UCSD. It could, she said, take place outside the United States as long as the doctors who do the lab work contact UCSD by phone.
Three weeks after the surgery, Touch got a letter from ICE ordering him to come to the office as soon as possible. The letter suggested he bring his passport and any travel documents he has.
On Sept. 1, with his brother and two lawyers by his side, Touch went into the ICE office in Santa Ana. He brought a sweater in case they deported him immediately.
“I heard it’s cold in deportation,” Touch said.
He was granted 60 days. But he was told to make arrangements to be deported on Nov. 1.
“I don’t deserve to go,” Touch said. “I paid my debt. Everyone makes a bad choice in their life.”
Touch is holding out hope for a reprieve.
Touch’s daughter, Priscilla, is 17 and is scheduled to graduate from high school in Stockton next June.