Inside a sunlit conference room high within St. Louis' federal courthouse, Komdown "Dow" Boyer channels her nervousness into her hands, lacing her fingers in her lap. Around the room, arranged like students before a test, are fifteen soon-to-be citizens.
They have each waited months for this moment, passing interviews, citizenship tests and background checks. Today, they are here to take their final steps to naturalization. Dow is here to take back her life.
As they wait for the ceremony to begin, some candidates play absentmindedly with the small American flags they were given at the door, others glance through a printout of the Oath of Allegiance, scanning its formal herebys and heretofores, its vow to defend to the Constitution, its renunciation of "any foreign prince or potentate."
Dow has never known a prince, but she knows what it's like to be foreign. As a child in 1977, she said goodbye to her grandfather in Thailand to move to California with her recently married mother and her U.S. airman stepfather. From her birth country, Dow took with her memories of her grandfather but little else. She grew up believing she was American.
A black-robed federal judge enters the room. Dow thinks of her last experience with a judge, in 2013, which nearly led to her deportation and separation from her family. For a moment, she can't help but worry that something could still go wrong.
But this time, the judge is here to make things right.
The ceremony begins with the judge's introduction: "Welcome to our candidates for citizenship, family, friends and invited guests. This is a very exciting day."
The remarks betray, perhaps, a lack of recent updating: Normally, there would be pomp to accompany the patriotic ceremony; instead, the ongoing circumstance of pandemic has shrunk the warm celebration into a bare-bones, 20-minute sprint. There are no family, friends or invited guests, no vocalists belting "America the Beautiful" or speeches delivered by the new citizens themselves.
The closest thing Dow has to guests are the three people — her husband, her attorney and a reporter — waiting to greet her on the courthouse steps. Each played a role in the drama that overtook Dow's life more than seven years ago, when an arrest and theft charges brought her to the brink of deportation, launched her into the national news and culminated in an eleventh-hour legal intervention at the moment when all seemed lost.
Dow survived and, with help, rebuilt her American life. But until this moment, in this room in a federal courthouse, she could never be sure that it was truly, finally, over.
At the podium, the judge finishes her introductions. The candidates stand and recite the Oath, and, one by one, they are called forward to receive their certificate of citizenship.
Dow listens for her name.
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Dow, near the window, stands and recites the Oath of Allegiance on April 9.
Dow was nine years old when she arrived in America, landing first in military bases in Hawaii before settling for a time in California, where she experienced "my American moment of food."
"It was Church's fried chicken," she says. "Oh my God, I loved it."
Dow has had many American moments, not all of them good. In a wide-ranging interview — the first she's given since the drama of her near-deportation in 2014 — she retold the story of her journey to the U.S., starting with a painful separation from her grandfather in Thailand, a devout Buddhist who raised her after her mother married a U.S. airman stationed in the Philippines.
"It was poverty," Dow recalls of her early life in a village. "We lived with our cousins in the jungle, with no electricity. My mom couldn't raise me by herself because my father passed away, so she went off to the city to get a job. My grandpa was the one that raised me."
One day, Dow recalls, her mother returned to the village on a motorcycle — and informed the little girl that she was coming with her and her new husband.
"I didn't want to leave," she says. "I wanted my grandpa to come with me, but he told my mom to take me, and that this is where my life would begin with her."
In California, Dow says it took several years to acclimate to English and the social challenges of school. The transition was difficult at home, too. She had an entirely new family, including new siblings.
"I was a year behind everybody in school, and it was really hard for me because of not understanding, you know, that I was a foreigner in the U.S.," she says.
Her family would eventually settle in Virginia, and there Dow would later marry her first husband, another military man, and move with him to his hometown of Bonne Terre, Missouri, with their two sons.
After a divorce, Dow started working at the Cicis pizza buffet in Farmington, and it was at her new job in 2002 that she caught the eye of Justin Boyer.
"One thing that stood out was that she was always happy," Justin says now. "No matter what, she always had a smile on her face."
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Komdown “Dow” Boyer poses for a portrait moments before the start of her citizenship ceremony — bringing seven years of tension to an end.
Dow worked her way up to manager at Cicis, while Justin took a job at an auto mechanic's shop a couple blocks away in Farmington. The small family grew to include a daughter — but in September 2010, Justin would nearly lose his leg when a truck he was working beneath slipped from a lift and crushed his lower body under thousands of pounds of metal. Justin was transported to St. Louis via helicopter, and there he was put in a medical coma as doctors worked to save his limbs, at one point, he says, slicing open his calve "like a hotdog in a microwave" to relieve the pressure. Multiple surgeries later, Justin was allowed to return home to begin his long recovery.
"When I come out of the coma," he recalls, "they came in my room and asked me, 'How is all this going to be paid for?'"
In Justin and Dow's telling, the answer destroyed their finances. The family moved from a five-bedroom house into a trailer. Justin says his employer effectively abandoned him, denying workman's compensation claims and even transferring the business and assets to relatives to avoid legal responsibility. Even with Justin's insurance, the surgeries and ongoing care meant the family now owed nearly $100,000 in medical bills. Justin was in no condition to work and wouldn't be for nearly a decade.
Overnight, Dow became the sole provider for a disabled husband, two teen boys and a toddler. Her paychecks grew lighter as garnishments for the medical bills took effect. It took a lawyer and two years for Justin to start receiving disability payments.
By then, Justin was just starting to walk again.
On a day in January 2012, Dow came home from work utterly distraught. Justin was still in recovery, and he had watched as his wife had taken the helm of the family's finances and his medical care. She worked long shifts. When his wheelchair wouldn't fit in their trailer's tiny bathroom, she bought a kiddie pool so she could hand wash his limbs. Her resourcefulness held the family together.
But Justin could see something was terribly wrong.
"Out of all the years we were together, I'd never seen her cry other than two times, when we had two miscarriages," Justin recalls. "She didn't show her emotions to people."
That day, though, Dow had come home in tears.
Dow's move to America had given her a new life, a new language and new family — but the formative lessons she learned about America, and her legal status in it, were filtered through her stepfather, who she describes as an emotional abuser who "would treat me and my mom like we were his slaves."
"Needless to say," she adds, "he would always tell me, 'You're a citizen, you're a citizen, you've been living here your whole life.'"
Although her stepfather's treatment motivated her to begin supporting herself at sixteen, it was his failure to tell her the truth about her citizenship status that would later threaten to destroy her life. In reality, she was living a delayed catastrophe that needed just one mistake, one opening, to drag her away from what she thought was her home.
With Justin's injury, that catastrophe arrived.
"I've never asked for help, I've always been independent, and I didn't want to let Justin know about the garnishments taken out for the hospital bills," Dow admits. "I was working so much, and I'm not proud of what I did by any means."
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Dow's husband, Justin Boyer, waits at the bottom of the courthouse steps in St. Louis. "We’re at the future we could never plan ahead for," he says.
On that day in January 2012, a tearful Dow confessed to her husband that she had taken the family's financial problems into her own hands — and at some point, she had crossed a line. Over years, she had been skimming money from the Cicis vending machines and deposits to keep their family afloat. And her secret had been revealed.
That day, she said, Cicis managers were called into a meeting to learn that the owners had discovered evidence of missing money. Dow returned home to Justin in a panic.
"We sat down and talked," Justin recalls. "We decided she just needed to go to work and tell them."
That's what they did. On January 13, 2012, Dow confessed the thefts to the Farmington police. She was booked, photographed and released. Two weeks later, her mugshot was published by the local Park Hills newspaper, the Daily Journal, which cited the department's probable cause documents and the fact that Dow had worked as a manager at Cicis for years.
Dow was charged with a class B felony, a crime which at the time carried a maximum prison sentence of fifteen years in prison. But she was a mother of three and had no criminal record, and so about a year later, in December 2013, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. She was ordered to repay the owners of Cicis restitution of about $50,000.
"We thought it was over," Justin says. Dow thought so too. She found a new job as a line manager in a produce warehouse, and the family tried to move on from the shame as the news coverage of her arrest spread across the close-knit community.
"I took responsibility for it, but my heart hurts," she says. "My kids and husband had to go through that. It wasn't fair to them because of what I did."
But her guilty plea wasn't the end of the story — it had set her deportation in motion.
On March 13, 2014, Justin dropped Dow off at the local probation office. It was her third visit since her guilty plea, a part of the routine required by her probation. Dow remembers being told that she was to meet a new parole officer who would be handling her case.
"We were just sitting down and talking," she recalls of the meeting that day in the parole office, "and all of a sudden there were two officers behind me. One of them asked me my name, and I said, 'Who are you?' Of course, he says he's with ICE, and I started crying."
Dow was told she was being deported, and moments later she was handcuffed and led out back to a waiting car. She begged them to let her say goodbye to her husband, who was waiting in the parking lot on the other side of the probation office.
Instead, Justin says that two agents approached his car, "guns out and saying they got my wife and wanted her IDs and stuff."
Justin was stunned. "I said, 'What do you mean you got my wife?'"
The agents identified themselves as members of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. As they took Dow's materials, Justin remembers one of the agents remarking, "Her mom is not a citizen neither, she's just never been in trouble."
Justin left the parole office alone, his head spinning. Like Dow, he'd taken her citizenship for granted — and so what he'd just experienced made no sense. Dow had lived under her stepfather's last name, had a social security number, paid taxes and hadn't traveled out of the country for more than 30 years. She and Justin had a young daughter together. Her eldest son from her previous marriage was in the military, and a second was in the process of enlisting.
Justin was still recovering from the mechanic's shop accident. He relied on Dow for support as his body healed, and now he was returning to the family's trailer, a little girl waiting for him inside, and he was alone.
"At the time my daughter was four, and we had sheltered her from this, we didn't want her to have to deal with adult situations," he says now. "I had been telling her that I had to take mama to the doctor or something, but then I come home without mama, and I had to figure out ..."
Justin's voice cracks.
"... what to tell her, that mama might never come home again."
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- Dow's encounter with the criminal justice system entangled U.S. immigration law.
As Justin and Dow came to learn, her guilty plea to the theft charge had alerted immigration authorities — and triggered the visit from the ICE agents.
Although her stepfather had brought her to the U.S. as a "lawful permanent resident," complete with green card and social security number, it appeared that he never formally adopted her (or, at least, there is no documented proof to show that he did). Meanwhile, Dow's mother was in the same situation as she hadn't applied for citizenship after arriving in the states.
Until her conviction in 2013, Dow says, she had no idea she wasn't a full citizen — and even though her attorney tried to inform her about her citizenship status before her guilty plea, she says she "didn't understand" that taking the plea would be grounds for automatic deportation.
Dow's immigration status may have been exposed in a drastic situation, but her position isn't unique. Jim Hacking, a St. Louis immigration lawyer who was not involved in Dow's case, notes that decades of U.S. military presence in southeast Asia made service members marrying locals and returning home with stepchildren commonplace.
Generally, he says, "you've got a GI that falls in love with mom, brings her and kid back, but they never do the formal adoption to make her a true stepchild so as to receive U.S. citizenships."
It's not clear what Dow should, or could have, done — she'd trusted the man who had brought her to America, and having never applied for a passport or attempted international travel, she had never confronted evidence of anything else.
"It's not uncommon for parents not to do everything that they're supposed to do," Hacking says. "In the old days, things were really fast and loose when it came to adoption, but citizenship and documentation have to happen in order to perfect someone's legal status."
Hacking says he deals with a similar case every few months. Dow's parents would be far from the first to believe that being officially recognized as U.S residents made their foreign-born daughter a citizen, too. Whether that conclusion was sparked by ignorance, bad advice or negligence, the result was the same for Dow.
Hacking says he struggles with "how mad to be" at parents in these situations, but he notes that the discovery of an adult's lack of citizenship is often tied to childhood events that were out of their control, like parental deaths, decades-old adoptions and various family separations.
"To me, there has to be some responsibility, because they're your kid," Hacking says. "They should know they're not a citizen, because it means they're deportable."
It was Dow's criminal defense attorney who discovered her true citizenship status and disclosed it to the court during her 2013 guilty plea. Whether Dow truly understood what that meant — and the deportation consequences — would become a key issue in a legal battle to come. But in the spring of 2014, with Dow in jail, Justin was left to gather himself and his family for what came next. Every Sunday, he visited her in a county jail two hours away from their home. He started bringing his daughter, still young enough not to fully grasp the situation at first. Every visit, Justin wondered if it would be their last moments together for a long time.
Two months passed, and on May 6, 2014, a federal immigration judge ordered Dow's deportation.
For Justin and his family, the deportation order forced a reckoning. They created a Facebook page, "FREE DOW BOYER" — and although Justin had never felt comfortable with the exposure of social media, he started posting updates and information about his wife's case. He was way out of his comfort zone — and, looking back on it now, he admits to having doubts about whether a rural and overwhelmingly white part of Missouri would recognize the injustice, or cheer it on.
Would they see Dow as he saw her, or just some kind of stereotype?
"To put it quite bluntly," he says, "we live down here in a racist country. We did not know how it would go; we didn't know if people would care, or if they would help. We never thought it would come out the way it did."
The Facebook page began growing, but the burgeoning movement was already more than virtual. Cicis owner Debbie Peterson — the very same employer from whom Dow had stolen thousands, and whose police report indirectly sparked the process that ended with the visit from ICE agents — had been horrified to learn of the pending deportation. (While the RFT was not able to interview Peterson directly for this story, Justin and others credit her for key actions "behind the scenes" in efforts to keep Dow in Missouri.)
Around the same time, a news tip landed on the desk of Park Hills Daily Journal rookie reporter Renee Bronaugh. It led to an interview she would never forget.
"He was probably the most devastated-looking man that I had ever seen," she says, recalling the first time she met Justin. "He was hugging a portrait of her to his chest, and he told me the whole story of what had happened. He was at a complete loss. He didn't know how he was going to raise his daughter without her, or even just make it through everyday life because they had such a bond together and worked as a team."
Bronaugh took the story, but no one knew how much time Dow had left; all they knew was the immigration authorities were preparing travel documents for the return trip to Thailand, leaving the mother of three to languish in a holding facility where she could do little more than visit the commissary and wait for calls from Justin.
Three days after the judge's deportation order, Bronaugh pulled into the parking lot of the Lincoln County jail. She had already interviewed Dow over a collect call, but this time she was working at a distance and equipped with a camera.
Inside a visiting room, Justin, Dow's two sons and the couple's now-five-year-old daughter were gathered for what they worried was the last time. Justin had alerted Bronaugh about the visit, and so, that Saturday, the reporter had made the two-hour journey to the jail.
It was May 9, 2014. Mother's Day. Bronaugh would spend most of it behind the wheel of her van, sitting in the jail parking lot with an eye on the facility entrance and her camera at the ready.
"As a mother myself, I could understand what she was going through, the not knowing — the fact that she was scared for her young daughter," Bronaugh says. "I probably waited there for three or four hours."
When Justin and the family emerged from the jail, Bronaugh quietly slipped out of her van and focused her camera on the scene that unfolded: There was Dow's oldest son lifting a sobbing girl to her father, a just-taken jail portrait of the family clasped in her small hand. There was Justin, his face ashen, sitting on a curb with his daughter in his lap and her head cradled to his shoulder, both in tears.
- RENEE BRONAUGH/PARK HILLS DAILY JOURNAL
- Days after an immigration judge ordered Dow's deportation in 2014, Justin Boyer comforts the couple's young daughter outside a Troy, Missouri jail.
"I had told Justin that I'll be there, but that he wouldn't see me," Bronaugh recalls. "I captured those photos from between vehicles; I didn't want to interrupt in any way."
Less than a week later, the photo of the family's tearful Mother's Day jail visit ran with Bronough's May 15 story, under the headline, "One woman's mistake; lives torn apart." It was the first report detailing the twisting events in which "a productive member of society" with two children in the military and a young daughter could still be swept up in a deportation.
Crucially, the story featured comments from Debbie Peterson herself, advocating for her former worker despite the theft and calling Dow "a great employee" who had admitted to the theft "immediately after it was discovered."
"I didn't know she wasn't a citizen," Peterson said, as quoted in the story. "She is a good mother and we don't want her away from her children. They are just taking her over there in an airplane and dropping her off with no money and no place to live or anything."
Suddenly, online and in real life, people were getting behind the movement to free Dow Boyer.
"Newspapers were calling me," Justin recalls. "I just couldn't believe it. We were just some country folk, and all of a sudden there's 2,000 people on the Facebook group, then 3,000, and then 9,000. I had petitions going to the Missouri capitol, petitions going to the White House. It was overwhelming."
Justin credits Bronaugh's reporting for bursting the story into national coverage. Beyond the morally complicated tale of an injured husband, theft charges and old immigration questions, the report confronted readers with the details that told the simple story of sheer human misery. A mother being torn from family. A father breaking down while trying to comfort a child who can't possibly understand. There was nothing abstract about it.
"It was so bad that day," Justin says now, recalling the Mother's Day visit. "When we were leaving the jail, my daughter asked, 'Why can't mama leave with us?'"
The question had almost knocked him off his feet.
"She'd never asked that before," he says. "Those pictures are of me sitting down and explaining to her why."
Less than two months later, Dow tried to make a purchase at the jail commissary with her inmate ID. It was rejected. That was a bad sign.
"I knew this," she explains now, "because there was a fellow inmate who did the same thing, hers wouldn't work, and the next day she was gone. I called Justin, and I told him, 'Babe, something's wrong.'"
Hours later, in the middle of the night, Dow was jolted awake. She'd been right: The deportation was finally happening. There would be no more jail visits from her husband and children. There was no time to say goodbye.
"I remember hearing the lock open up real loud," she says. "They called my name, told me to pack my stuff. I asked to call my husband and lawyer, and they said, 'No.'"
Instead, they took her straight to the airport and put her on a plane to Chicago, and there she was handed off to another ICE agent as they waited for her direct flight to Thailand to board. However, this federal agent seemed to have a heart: He let her make a phone call.
Two phone calls.
Justin was in the shower, so the first call went to voicemail ("I was so mad!" she recalls), but the second was picked up by his mother. Justin proceeded to call their new immigration attorney, Javad Khazaeli, "about a hundred times" — finally reaching him as he was in the act of moving out of his Chicago condo.
Khazaeli was no small-town lawyer. Like Dow, his parents had brought him to America as a child in the late 1970s. As a dual citizen of Iran and the U.S., he became an immigration attorney and joined the federal government's counterterrorism efforts under the George W. Bush administration, eventually spending more than a decade as a prosecutor with the Department of Homeland Security and ICE.
In 2014, Khazaeli left the government and went private. He'd been stunned reading coverage of Dow's pending deportation in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He reached out to Debbie Peterson and, with her backing, won Justin's trust to take the case pro bono.
Khazaeli had worked out an agreement with ICE that he would be notified when Dow's travel documents were finalized, but he says the agreed-upon warning never came. On the day of Dow's deportation, Khazaeli was caught unprepared. He had all the resources of a phone, his neighbor's stolen Wi-Fi and a 1996 Chevy Blazer stuffed with furniture and other items destined for his new home in St. Louis.
He had less than two hours to stop Dow's flight. Which left three options.
"I could go to the airport and try to fuck stuff up there," he recalls thinking, "but I didn't even have a suit, and they're not going to let some Iranian guy just fly through security."
There wasn't time to file a motion with the federal court. That left one option.
"I was like, 'OK, I've got to go nuclear.'"
Khazaeli called ICE, reaching a former colleague in the agency's "enforcement and removal operations" division, texting him repeatedly to get out of whatever meeting he was in. "I'd never pulled a card like this before," Khazaeli says. "He gets out of the meeting, I tell him what the deal is, and he basically says, 'You're not going to screw me on this, you're not hiding something from me?'"
Sitting in his condo's hallway with his laptop pressed to a neighbor's door (the only place he could get a signal), Khazaeli logged into his email and hammered out a message to his ICE contact summarizing the details of the case, covering Dow's immigration history, her lack of resources in Thailand, the advocacy of Debbie Peterson and the progress he'd made toward getting Dow's 2013 felony conviction set aside.
"He calls me back and tells me two things," Khazaeli says. "'We're going to stop the deportation now, and instead of sending her back to St. Louis and putting her in jail, we're going to send her back to St. Louis and release her back to her family.'"
As Khazaeli understood it, ICE's logic tilted on the judgment that if Dow wasn't worth deporting, "then we're just going to send her home."
Khazaeli hung up the phone and immediately dialed Justin to tell him the news. In Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the ICE agent told Dow that her travel plans had changed — and she nearly tackled him with a hug when she learned her final destination.
In the Daily Journal's Park Hills office, Renee Bronaugh hit publish on a dramatic update to her earlier deportation story and got on the road, joining a rush of local and national reporters scrambling to get to St. Louis Lambert International Airport before Dow's arrival.
Justin was already on his way.
For Dow, it was the end of a day that began with the doomed sound of her cell clanging open and a command to pack. That same evening, she walked out of the Lambert terminal in a loose white shirt and sweatpants, carrying the same red mesh bag into which she'd stuffed the meager jailhouse possessions — a few shirts, a single pair of underwear, letters from Justin — which she'd expected to use in her new life in Thailand.
Instead, she was returning to what she'd been ripped from. The moment she emerged from the terminal, reporters crowded, cameras in hand, as Justin and Dow collapsed into each other.
- RENEE BRONAUGH/PARK HILLS DAILY JOURNAL
- Separated for more than five months, Dow and Justin embrace in Lambert airport, reunited thanks to a last-minute reversal of her deportation.
It is April 9, 2021, and Justin ascends the courthouse stairs to sweep America's newest citizen into his arms. Dow holds a small American flag and a grab bag of items, including the printout of the Oath of Allegiance, information on voter registration and one truly precious possession: a spotless white folder stamped with the seal of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
At the bottom of the stairs, Javad Khazaeli and Renee Bronaugh applaud. For all of them, this is a reunion combined with epilogue. The years had passed, and none of them felt like the story was truly over.
After the near-deportation, Khazaeli had stayed on the case, eventually filing a joint motion with the St. Francois County prosecutor to set aside the 2013 guilty plea on the basis that Dow's former attorney had failed to advise her of the deportation consequences of a felony conviction.
It took six months, but in December 2014, the judge agreed to the motion. With the blessing of Debbie Peterson, prosecutor Jerrod Mahurin dismissed the criminal case entirely. A year later, the deportation order against Dow was officially dropped. Once again, she was made a "lawful permanent resident" in a country where she had spent most of her life.
But after everything, Dow wasn't satisfied with a green card. Unlacing her arms from Justin's, she approaches Khazaeli and hands him the white folder from her bag. Tenderly, he withdraws her certificate of citizenship.
"We had to hit so many half-courters to make this," he muses. "We needed a former government lawyer, someone at ICE willing to answer their phone, a prosecutor willing to set aside a conviction, a judge willing to accept the plea and a husband relentlessly fighting for his wife.
"If any one of those people weren't there," he concludes, "this couldn't have happened."
Despite everything, it did. In the end, all it took was a federal judge, a twenty-minute ceremony and a piece of fancy paper. For Dow, "It felt like someone giving me a second chance, like my rebirth."
"How can I express it?" she says, shaking her head. "It was like someone telling me that it's going to be OK, for me and my family. It feels like we're one now, instead of me just being ..."
Justin picks up where Dow trailed off. "It's like a big 'What now?' moment."
It's the uncertainty of it all. Dow is 53. She'd spent some 35 years incorrectly believing she was a citizen, and it had nearly cost her everything. And even as she and Justin rebuilt their lives in the aftermath of near deportation, there was no illusion about the thread holding up her freedom, and how easily, how quickly, it could be snapped. ICE could show up any day and take Dow back to jail, put her on a plane and send her away.
"We could never really plan ahead," Justin says, "and this has always been the goal, just 'get her citizenship, get her citizenship' — and now we're here, we've got her citizenship. Now what? Now we're at the future we could never plan ahead for."
For Justin, the past ten years tested his body and resolve. His lower legs are covered in skin grafts and scar tissue. Earlier this year, after nearly a decade of recovery from a car crushing his legs, he went back to work — fixing cars as a mechanic.
In 2014, with his wife in jail and his family in crisis, Justin got Dow's name tattooed around his left ring finger. It now appears faded on the skin, the ink roughed away by time and engine parts.
But the feeling is deeper than skin, more real even than citizenship. It's love.
"It's just a relief that no one can take her," he says. "She's as American as you can get."
- DANNY WICENTOWSKI
- From left: Renee Bronaugh, Justin Boyer, Dow Boyer and Javad Khazaeli.