Waiting to Exile

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

The Wackenhut detention center is ringed with barbed wire. Guards at the compound keep the lifers as separated from each other as possible. But during their daily hour in the exercise yard, they get to commiserate and talk about what one of them describes as "this hell of waiting."

Meseret Wassie, 23, has been in the INS center for a year and seven months waiting to get deported to Sudan. Duy Dac Ho, 29, from Vietnam, has been locked in Wackenhut for three years. "Tay" Saynourath, a lanky 23-year-old Laotian, has been held for twenty months; 29-year-old Chheath Pril, originally from Cambodia, has now spent three Christmases in Wackenhut. Their crimes ranged from burglary and menacing to possession of concealed weapons--but they all served out their sentences. Thien Van Vo, 23, never went to jail but was given probation for a sex assault; the INS picked him up one day while he was walking down the street.

Of the six, only Saynourath says he still has hopes of ever getting out.
Loi Nguyen and these five other lifers say they've written to every country in the world trying to find someplace, anyplace, that will take them. Only Denmark, Sweden and Belize have sent responses. All three countries said they couldn't offer any help unless the men had a sponsor or family in that country. "Like I know anybody in Sweden," Chheath Pril says with a slight smile.

"Shit, man, we'd all pay for our own tickets up outta here," says Duy Dac Ho. "After three years in here, I don't even want to be in this country anymore. When I first got here, they said I'd be here for two or three weeks. That was three years ago. Three years of their time. And then they won't give us bonds because we get into some scuffles. I'm telling you, people like us try to be quiet. The other guys, no disrespect intended, but the Mexicans mostly, they come and go in two weeks, and they act like this is some sort of field trip. They know they're on their way home. So if there's trouble, it comes down on us."

The lifers say the biggest problem with the "short-timers" is that they don't respect the fact that for the lifers, this isn't a temporary holding tank. This is their home. And when the short-timers don't help keep the place clean--refuse to flush the toilets, for instance--it makes things even worse for the lifers.

"And the guards ignore us," Ho says as the other lifers nod their agreement. "They act like we're caged monkeys. And we can't get any answers. I don't think any of us has even talked to an INS person since we've been in here. You send a kite [letter] out, and the only thing you hear back is that they received it or that they're trying to arrange a travel document. Man, we got nothing coming. Have you ever seen a herd of cows? That's us in our orange suits. We're orange cows. They feed us, exercise us once in a while and brand us."

Meseret Wassie says the worst part about their situation is the fact that all of them committed their crimes before the 1996 anti-terrorism and aggravated-felon legislation. "There are badder guys than us walking around outside right now," says Wassie. "Murderers, rapists. And what about this anti-terrorism stuff? We aren't terrorists. We just did common criminal stuff. The guy who blew up Oklahoma City was an American."

Which brings up the unkindest cut of all. Every day the lifers see people with no green cards and no connection to the United States come and go back to the countries where they were born, while they rot away in their holding cells. These lifers all spent most of their lives in the U.S. before they were arrested. They consider themselves citizens. They paid taxes. Tay Saynourath sums it up: "Everything we learned was from American society. But the INS considers us the problem of America. We're not perfect. But the INS can't keep us here forever because of that."

Chheath Pril says they've all learned their lessons and have spread the word back to their brothers and sisters: If you weren't born in the U.S., don't commit a crime.

"After this," says Pril, "none of us would even drive a car without a license. I wouldn't even go out to a club or party like I did before. I'd just work and stay home. This has scared all of us straight."

Pril pauses for a moment to hitch up his orange pants, which are so big that his lower body seems lost inside them.

"I feel like I don't even exist anymore," he says. "And I try to convince my brothers and sisters to tell that to my mom so it'll be easier for her.

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