Hov Ly Kol survived the "killing fields" of 1970s Cambodia and the crowded refugee camps of Thailand and the Philippines. In 1985, with his mother and a younger brother, he legally entered the United States as a refugee.
Barring a last-minute stay of removal, Kol, 35, will be headed back to Cambodia on Tuesday - deported for taking part in a robbery that ended in murder.
He is among about 50 Cambodian Americans across the nation awaiting imminent expulsion for crimes for which they have already served prison time, according to his supporters. Deportation, they say, is a second round of punishment that creates a "climate of fear and paranoia" in Cambodian American communities.
Authorities, however, say Kol and the others scheduled for imminent removal are precisely the "criminal aliens" that Congress targeted when it passed two laws in 1996 tightening immigration rules.
Kol served 12 years in Pennsylvania prisons for two house robberies in January 1995. In one, he acted as a lookout for another gang member who shot and killed a man. Kol pleaded guilty to third-degree murder and faced a maximum of 26 years behind bars. By law, he should have been deported immediately when he was paroled in 2007.
Although Cambodia has had an agreement since 2002 to accept deportees from the United States, it would not issue travel documents for Kol at the time of his release from prison, for reasons never fully explained. So federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities released him back to his South Philadelphia neighborhood under intensive monitoring and supervision.
The delay in his removal while he remained free opened the door for community sympathy and support. There, his supporters say, he demonstrated that he had turned his life around by cleaning up playgrounds in his South Sixth Street neighborhood, volunteering with children, and providing for his mother and siblings, including his sister, Jeannette, 20, a Temple University student.
He was "young and dumb" when he committed his crime, his sister said. "I understand he committed a felony. But he did his time. And he came out changed."
At a rally Monday on Independence Mall, Kol's supporters portrayed him as a model for penal rehabilitation. They want the federal courts to review his case rather than impose a mandatory penalty.
Kol attended Taggert School and dropped out of Furness High School when he was arrested. For a quarter-century, he has lived in America. He speaks some Khmer, the language of Cambodia, but he will find daily life there extremely hard, said family friend Sopha Nguy, 28.
"I speak a lot of Cambodian," she said, "but if you sent me to live over there, I couldn't survive."
Nguy sat with Kol's mother, Sokhoeurn Kol, 55, at the demonstration, billed as "A Day of Action Against Deportation." It included a performance by AZI, a Cambodian American hip-hop group, and drew about 80 supporters.
This month, Cambodia issued the necessary travel documents. Kol was arrested and was transferred last week from a prison in York, Pa., to one on the West Coast to await deportation.
Instead of mandatory deportation, "there should be a process for individualized consideration of these cases," said Mia-lia Kiernan of Deported Diaspora, one of the organizers of the rally. "They're not terrorists. They've served their time. They've learned."
Contact staff writer Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or email@example.com.