Taste of Thai Chef Arrested by ICE Released, Commons Rally Says “We Must Protect Us”

Categories Immigration, Ithaca, Politics, Protest


By Josh Brokaw

Ithacans rallied on the Commons on the afternoon of Tuesday, February 6, to tell the federal government to stop criminalizing community members.

The “STOP Criminalizing Our People Rally” gathered a group of people – ranging from about 70 to 120 over an hour and a half –  to hear a number of speakers talk about how to stop Immigrations and Custom Enforcement [ICE] from detaining Ithaca residents. Themes of solidarity and community self-reliance were woven throughout the short speeches, given that official “sanctuary” status for Tompkins County and the City of Ithaca has not stopped federal agents from making four arrests here in the past year.

At the rally, it was announced that one of the three people detained by ICE in the past month had been released from the Batavia federal detention center, where he was held since being arrested on January 9.

According to a press release sent out Tuesday evening by the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition, “Somkiat (Art) Wandee, the head chef of the popular Ithaca restaurant Taste of Thai, was released on bond ($7,500) today.”

Wandee and Patithan Maiyodklang were arrested on January 9; Nick Bogel-Burroughs reports that Maiyodklang is still in custody.

According to Patricia Rodriguez of the Immigrant Rights Coalition, an eyewitness of the January 9 arrests told Coalition members that she saw two plainclothes agents and one in a blue, police uniform, visit the restaurant, say they were police, and show a badge. They then asked to see financial documents.

Update, 12:30 a.m. February 7: Changed this paragraph to “two plainclothes agents and one in a blue, police uniform” from “three undercover agents and one in a blue, Ithaca Police Department, uniform;” made an assumption based on chatter we were hearing and are pulling back while awaiting further details. – Josh Brokaw

According to Rodriguez, neither the eyewitness of the January 9 incident nor Wandee are currently available to make statements directly to the media.

Below, some photos from today’s rally, the full press release from the TC IRC, and the opening statement from Multicultural Resource Center director Fabina Colon, which she kindly shared with this reporter. Watch TruthSayers for video from the rally, which we’ll post later in the week once our editing software wants to cooperate.

Cornell professor Russell Rickford.

Carolina Osorio Gil, one of the rally organizers.
Beth Harris of the Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition.

Rally organizer Ana Ortiz.

Rafael Aponte.
Gibrian Hagood.

Here’s Colon’s opening speech:

“We are coming together on Tuesday, February 6th from 3:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. at the Commons’ Bernie Milton Pavillion to stand in the face of federal and local government, and to stand in solidarity with those suffering and negatively impacted by government policies, processes, and practices. We stand up to end the mass criminalization of our people. This is not an opportunity to further your program or organizational goals or your personal agendas. This is not an opportunity to invite each other to sit on the 1,000,000 committees that exist in this community. This is not an opportunity to partner on another Band Aid project that feeds the system.

Rather, this is an opportunity to link our movements at the root, expand our knowledge, critically self-reflect, and clarify and shift our roles necessary to accelerate change.

Most recently, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained more of our community members and due to our sanctuary status we are being targeted! The Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) is being planned and implemented and gives more authority to police, but we demand community-based alternatives! The Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) is supposed to be advancing job opportunities, health, general prosperity and economic welfare, yet this money is padding the deep pockets of wealthy developers while trapping our people in a cycle of poverty and incarceration! Our families from Puerto Rico and Guam, territories of the U.S., are forgotten as they continue to face violence and injustices and are denied access and resources from the U.S. Government!

The history of immigration policies and criminal codes in the U.S. informs us that the best interests of our people and our communities is not the agenda of the government. For hundreds of years, we have been fighting for equity, justice, and freedom for all. While there have been some gains and moments of progress towards our goals, there is an ongoing cycle of disenfranchisement, incarceration, and labor exploitation of our communities. But this system of government definitely has served some, and it continues a mass campaign of confusion, war, criminalization, division, and fear, forcing many folks to become static bystanders and conformists while the 1% remain in power.

The devastating hurricanes, earthquakes and wildfires in 2017 and 2018; the mass deportation and tearing apart of families by ICE; the ongoing mass extractions of natural resources; the continual violence and brutalization of black and brown bodies by the police; white-supremacist terrorism that goes unaddressed or called for what it is; the endless cycle of poverty and imprisonment of black and brown and poor bodies and atrocious violation of their human rights in prisons; the cultural genocide and brutal displacement of indigenous peoples and theft of their communal lands through the intentional violation of “Native American” treaties; the enslavement and exploitation of farm and dairy workers; the violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, and refugees; the devastating child sexual exploitation; the murder, torture, and imprisonment of human, environmental, and economic rights protectors; the systemic racism that runs through the veins of institutions, corporations, industries, and governments;the ongoing unconstitutional executive orders coming from our very own White House Administration that deepens and widens the wounds of hundreds of years of trauma from colonization, capitalism, and imperialism.

This only scratches the surface, but it sure feels overwhelming! Which issue do you support first? Which one is most important or pressing? How can anyone fully grasp and understand the complexities and correlations of these issues? Wait, let’s just compartmentalize all this, so we can stay sane…or shall I say, so we can all live in confusion. But it will be a sane confusion…

This stops now. If we want a different outcome, we must think and practice differently.”

And here’s the full text of the Immigrant Rights Coalition press release.

Somkiat (Art) Wandee, the head chef of the popular Ithaca restaurant Taste of Thai, was released on bond ($7,500) today from the Batavia Federal Detention Center, where he has been held since his January 9, 2018 arrest by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on the charge of overstaying his visa.

Upon his release, Art stated, “I was so lost when I got into the detention center; I didn’t know what to do. Now I am rejoiced to be released, with the support I have received. I’m grateful for the support of TCIRC. I feel warm now to know that there is a group of people caring for immigrants like me. Thank you.”

The active community member and respected chef was one of three people in Ithaca to be arrested by ICE last month. An eyewitness to Art’s arrest stated that he was arrested at the restaurant where he has worked for many years by undercover agents posing as Ithaca police.

Wandee’s coworkers and friends attended his bond hearing to support the Ithaca man, describing him as an integral part of the restaurant, and as a generous friend and community member.

Navjot Kaur, who works at Taste of Thai, has known Wandee since she was 19, when Kaur was a student at TC3 and later at Cornell University. Kaur describes Wandee as “incredibly hardworking, reliable, and humble… he is the person that everyone relies upon…[he] would treat the kitchen staff and servers like family. Even though he was the chef who cooked the food, he asked the kitchen staff to go together to receive the praise…We miss him and we hope to see him again soon.”

Thanomsinn Lislevatn, a chef at Taste of Thai for twelve years, recalls getting to know Wandee over meals at home. Lislevatn and Wandee also cooked free meals for the Buddhist Temple in Binghamton, where Wandee often volunteered. “He is very respectful to elderly people like myself,” says Lislevatn. “He takes care of chores around my house, planting the garden, watering plants, fixing the garden hose…he has a big heart…he is like family.”

Kade Williams-Verona, another co-worker, added, “Art’s court date in Batavia was a triumphant day to witness, not only on a personal level, but on a community level. It was encouraging to see his reaction to our show of support.”

Tristan Kiel Ross, born and raised in Ithaca, praised the work ethic of immigrants he has known: “Workers such as Art (Somkiat Wandee) and the restaurants they operate help to keep money in the community. I speak as a local who has happily worked alongside him and many other hardworking and good-hearted immigrants and felt the real positive impacts of their presence.”

Patricia Rodriguez, associate professor of politics at Ithaca College and a member of the TCIRC steering committee, commented on the support that Somkiat has received from those who know him well: “It has been powerful to see Somkiat’s friends and co-workers rally behind him, and be at the hearing. The Tompkins County Immigrant Rights Coalition is working to support Somkiat and other members of the community who have been detained by ICE. As we learn more about his 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.”

Shortly after Wandee’s hearing on Tuesday, a rally was held at the Bernie Milton Pavilion on the Commons to protest ICE’s presence in the city, and to show solidarity for immigrant and racialized communities who are particularly vulnerable under immigration and customs enforcement.

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Josh Brokaw is an independent reporter based in Ithaca, N.Y.
Email josh.brokaw@truthsayers.org with tips, story suggestions, and gentle criticism.
Twitter: @jdbrokaw

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