Linking their demonstration to the human-rights theme of Martin Luther King's Birthday, about 200 members of pro-immigrant groups marched Monday from Center City to the regional offices of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to protest the pending deportation of four Cambodian men.
Outside the office at 1600 Callowhill St., they festooned a fence with placards - "Stop Tearing Families Apart" - and hundreds of yellow ribbons.
"Education, not deportation," they chanted.
Rallying the crowd through a bullhorn, Desi Burnette of Media Mobilizing Project, a co-organizer of the march, said the men facing deportation were "heroes" to her because they made serious mistakes and learned from them.
The four were born in Cambodia or Southeast Asian refugee camps after their families fled the Khmer Rouge and the Pol Pot regime. They and their parents were admitted legally to the United States as refugees about 25 years ago.
As youths and young adults, they committed aggravated assaults and other crimes. They were convicted, served time in prison, and now face expulsion. ICE agents arrested them last September.
Authorities say they are "criminal aliens" and by law must be removed. Their defenders say they are rehabilitated and deserve another chance to remain in America.
Demonstrator Steve Scaffone, pastor of Living Water Church in the city's Logan section, said his congregation of about 50 people is mostly Cambodian. He said he found it "ironic" that he learned about the four men on the same day that Eagles coach Andy Reid announced that convicted dog-fighter Michael Vick would be his starting quarterback - saying in effect "that our country is all about second chances."
After the four Cambodians were detained, their supporters formed the One Love Movement to Keep Families Together.
One Love cofounder Joe Hanzsum said he hoped that when ICE officials returned to work Tuesday they would see the ribbons and "take another look at these cases."
"Are they really a threat to society? If they are, I'm with you: Deport them," he said. "But if they are not, give them a second chance."
The protest included the Asian Student Association of Philadelphia; Central High School's Students Against Unjust Deportation; the United Taxi Workers Alliance; and other groups.
Citing King's famous 1963 "Letter From Birmingham Jail" - in which he wrote about the difference between just and unjust laws - the demonstrators released a Dec. 4 letter from York County Prison written by 30-year-old Chally Dang, one of the men facing deportation.
"I entered the United States as an infant, made my mistakes as a juvenile and was punished for those mistakes as a young adult," he wrote. "And as I now embrace life as a reformed, tax-paying civilian, the actions of my past still haunt me with what my fate might be. I can only implore mercy from a system in which I trust forgiveness and second chances still exist."