Waiting to Exile

Once permanent U.S. residents, these "non-deportables" are now locked up in what should be no man's land.

"Look," says Greene. "Someone who's done hard time isn't going to be someone I'll look at as being a good risk. They're different from someone who did their crime ten years ago and has been out and part of the community. Unfortunately, since the laws passed in '96 don't give them that chance, the only evidence I can look at when deciding whether to release them or not is the disciplinary records at Wackenhut. If you've been in Wackenhut for a year and were a troublemaker, what does that say?

"I realize jail isn't fun, but if you don't have self-control of your violent or argumentative behavior in a controlled environment like Wackenhut, why should I think you'll be okay on the outside? I don't want to make a mistake with a guy and have Westword coming back to me asking why I let a guy loose who went out and killed somebody."

Greene also points out that the INS's mission isn't to rehabilitate criminal aliens. His job is to send them home. Although the INS has been considering bringing in volunteers to help lifers demonstrate rehabilitation, that's still a ways down the line. The idea is that INS detainees who are non-deportable could have access to the same educational programs they had while locked up in the state correctional system, so the INS would have hard evidence of a lifer's attempt at rehabilitation when it came time for a bond review hearing.

But Greene says that in the battle between due process and safe streets, Congress has ordered the INS to err on the side of public safety. Of the 29 lifers held in the Wackenhut detention facility since 1996, only two have been released.

"I think Joe Greene is a good man," says Salvator, "but he needs to start using his discretion as regional director to get some of these guys out of the detention centers. But maybe the INS, as an agency, has decided to dig in its heels and fight this. I don't think Joe Greene is being frank when he says this is what Congress wants. Congress doesn't want constitutional violations like these."

The Saigon Restaurant is sandwiched between a closed-down Mexican dance club and a storefront that simply reads "Medical Center." A couple of skate rats use the strip mall's sidewalk to practice their kick flips. The owner of the restaurant, 29-year-old Linda Nguyen, is Loi's aunt. As the lunch crowd drifts out of the restaurant, she talks about how her nephew got into trouble seven years ago and how, $12,000 in lawyers' fees later, he's still being held with no release date in sight. At this point, she says, the Nguyen family would just as soon see Loi sent back to Vietnam--anywhere but where he's locked up now.

"He was just a little kid when he got arrested," says Nguyen, "but now he knows better. The family, especially his grandmother, can't understand why Loi did his time in jail but they decided to keep him anyway. Loi is the oldest boy in the family, and because of that, the family has been upside down since he got arrested. It's like our house is burning. Worrying about Loi gives me a headache. So all I do is work and try not to think about it. But even when everything is happy, the little kids are playing and laughing, Loi will call, and it brings us all back to reality, which is that there's nothing we can do. It's gotten to the point where I get scared every time the phone rings."

The fact that Nguyen's family lives in Denver and is prepared to take custody of him to ensure that he doesn't get into trouble while awaiting deportation didn't convince the INS to grant him bond. When rejecting his plea for bail, INS deputy director Michael Comfort wrote: "It must be remembered that the 1992 decision to commit the crime he committed was during a time when he was under the authority of his aunt. As to the flight risk, Mr. Nguyen is now aware of the sobering fact that he will be returned to Vietnam as soon as a travel document can be secured from that country. No one in the family wants to see that happen. I am not convinced that once a travel document can be obtained, Mr. Nguyen will present himself for deportation."

Linda Nguyen says Loi has spent enough of his life locked up and deserves a chance to prove he belongs out in the world.

"The worst part about it is that Loi's missed so much of life," she says. "He's a man now, but he doesn't understand how the world has changed. The other day he called and asked me to send a letter to his lawyer, and I said I'd fax it over. Loi had no idea what a fax was.

"You know how some people say the world is going to end in the year 2000? Well, I talked to Loi about that, and he said, 'Auntie, I wish I could just be out one day and then the world can end.'"

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help