One of the three Ithaca residents arrested by immigration agents in January was released from a detention center on Tuesday, a local immigrant rights coalition said.
Somkiat Wandee, who goes by Art and is the head chef of Taste of Thai on the Ithaca Commons, was released on $7,500 bond after nearly a month in custody at the Buffalo Federal Detention Center in Batavia, the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition said in a statement. Wandee is no longer listed as “in custody” on the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement website.
“I was so lost when I got into the detention center, I didn’t know what to do,” the coalition quoted Wandee as saying. “Now I am rejoiced to be released, with the support I have received.”
The coalition quoted Wandee as saying that he was thankful to the coalition and as saying, “I feel warm now to know that there is a group of people caring for immigrants like me.”
ICE agents arrested Wandee and Patithan Maiyodklang, both Thai nationals and Taste of Thai employees, on Jan. 9 in Ithaca, a sanctuary city. Maiyodklang remained in custody as of Tuesday night.
On Jan. 23, special agents from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigation unit arrested another man in Ithaca who an ICE spokesman, Khaalid Walls, said was an “unlawfully present foreign national” but refused to identify.
The immigrant rights coalition, which runs the Rapid Response Network, said Navjot Kaur, who the coalition said is a Taste of Thai employee and Cornell alumna who has known Wandee for years, described Wandee as “incredibly hard working, reliable and humble.”
“He is the person that everyone relied upon,” the coalition quoted Kaur as saying. “[He] would treat the kitchen staff and servers like family. … We miss him and we hope to see him again soon.”
Thanomsinn Lislevatn, who the coalition said has been a chef at Taste of Thai for 12 years, said Wandee helped him with chores around his house, like helping to plant his garden and fixing the garden hose, the coalition said.
“He has a big heart, … he is like family,” the coalition quoted Lislevatn as saying.
Ithaca College Prof. Patricia Rodriguez, a member of the coalition’s steering committee, said in the release that “it has been powerful to see Somkiat’s friends and co-workers rally behind him,” including at Tuesday’s hearing in Batavia.
The coalition claimed, citing a witness, that ICE agents arrested Wandee after posing as members of the Ithaca Police Department.
Rodriguez said in an email to The Sun that “a person present at the restaurant” when ICE arrived on Jan. 9 said that one of the three agents had a blue uniform but the others did not.
Rodriguez said the unidentified witness told the coalition that the ICE agents identified themselves as Ithaca Police officers, but said the unidentified witness is not willing to speak to The Sun.
Walls, the ICE spokesman, declined to address the specific operation in Ithaca, but, in response to the coalition’s claim, said “all enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day.”
“Additionally, as a standard practice, ICE agents and officers may initially identify themselves as ‘police’ during an encounter because it is the universally recognized term for law enforcement and our personnel routinely interact with individuals from around the world,” Walls said in an email on Wednesday. “In the often dangerous law enforcement arena, being able to immediately identify yourself as law enforcement may be a life-or-death issue.”
Rodriguez said that as the coalition learns more about the case, “we realize that the arrest follows a pattern nationally where immigration officials allegedly disguise themselves as local law enforcement and uproot hardworking immigrants’ lives in unimaginable ways.”
“This is not acceptable, and the criminalization of people of color should be questioned and resisted at every step of the way,” she said.