ITHACA, N.Y. — 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.