President Obama's Promised Immigration Reform Hasn't Stopped the Months-Long Detention of a Laotian Mom From Seattle

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Dara Kommavongsa, who's been in the U.S. legally since she was 8, is being held at the Northwest Detention Center.
On Monday, President Obama's point person on illegal immigration gave new details of a planned overhaul of the nation's detention system. In a speech at the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C.-based think tank, Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security John Morton said the government would start providing much more oversight over the private facilities that currently hold detainees--the lack of which has given the government a black eye (See coverage in SW and the New York Times).

But he gave no indication that the government will be detaining fewer or different kinds of people. Under President Bush, immigration authorities ramped up detentions, putting hundreds of thousands of people in jail-like facilities, even if they had lived in the U.S. most of their lives or, in a few cases, obtained American citizenship.

That's still going on. Just ask Dara Kommavongsa, who has been held for the last four months at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

The 37-year-old Laotian immigrant has lived legally in the U.S. since she was 8, and her father, husband and two children are all American citizens, according to her attorney, Anthony Caso. Yet in October, immigration authorities picked her up at First Place, a Seattle school and service agency for homeless children where she works as an administrative assistant.

Although she holds a Green Card, she is deportable because of four crimes she committed in 2003 and before, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Those offenses included two thefts from her employers at the time, netting $1,500 in one instance.

Caso says Kommavongsa, with an infant she was struggling to support, was in desperate straits at the time. She became homeless and spent some time living with her young daughter under an I-5 overpass. He says she has since turned herself around, found a job, married and gotten her kids into good schools. Her four-year-old daughter attends non-profit First Place and her 11-year-old goes to private Billings Middle School.

Sometime last year, the government sent her a notice warning her that she could be deported and ordering her to appear before an immigration judge, but she didn't receive it, Caso says. Her failure to appear caused the case to be closed and an order for her detention to be issued.

Caso recently got the case reopened, and is awaiting a hearing. In the meantime, he's trying to get her out on bail and back to her family. He expects a hearing as soon as next week.

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