Out at Home

For some immigrants convicted of a crime, deportation is not an option.

And you thought Pedro Astacio had problems with the INS.

Even as the justice system debates whether the confessed wife-beater -- confessed, at least, until Astacio's lawyers realized that their plea bargain could result in the Rockies pitcher (and now hitter) being kicked out of the country -- can withdraw his confession, the same federal law has also grounded 23-year-old Loi Nguyen. But while Astacio has many places to go -- the Dominican Republic would welcome him back, and other baseball-happy countries would kill for his arm -- Nguyen has no options.

He's officially non-deportable. His native Vietnam doesn't want him -- doesn't want anyone convicted of a crime in America.

Nguyen, who left Vietnam at four when his family fled the communist regime, considers himself an American ("Waiting to Exile," January 21, 1999). He doesn't remember anything about his homeland and doesn't want to live there. "But if they could send me to Vietnam, I would go," he says. "That's the result of a choice I made, a mistake I made. If that's my only freedom, I would go. I don't think you can live without freedom. For them to lock me up forever, that's not fair."

And right now, he's facing a life sentence of limbo with the INS. Even though he's done his time and then some. Even though state corrections officials say he's a model prisoner who poses no threat to society. "I don't blame nobody for my crime. I'm not angry with anybody," Nguyen says. "But I paid for it, and I'm trying to move on and do better."

Still, he can't move on. Nguyen's life ground to a halt the day he led Jefferson County cops on a high-speed chase while he drove a restaurant-robbery getaway car. He was fifteen -- too young to be driving, much less driving a getaway car -- but was charged as an adult and found guilty of aggravated robbery. Sentenced to thirteen years, he did half that. "I turned sixteen in the Jeffco county jail," he remembers. "I turned eighteen in the DOC, twenty-one in the DOC." And then, in August 1997, the state decided he'd served enough of his sentence and granted him parole.

But Nguyen didn't get out. While he was in prison, President Bill Clinton had pushed through the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which requires deportation of immigrants convicted of crimes ranging from manslaughter to domestic violence to aggravated robbery. And if there's nowhere for those immigrants to be deported to, they can be held by the INS indefinitely.

"The day I was supposed to be released early for good behavior," Nyugen remembers, "the INS showed up." They took him to their Wackenhut facility in Aurora and told him that as soon as Vietnam allowed people to go back, he'd be on the first plane. But Vietnam wasn't allowing anyone to go back, and so Nyugen celebrated his next birthday in the INS detention center.

His lawyer, Jim Salvator, filed suit, arguing that such incarceration was unconstitutional. And finally last April, after he'd spent seven years -- a third of his life -- behind bars, Nguyen was released on bond pending a decision by the Tenth District Court. "I hadn't been out since I was fifteen," Nguyen says. "I got in the car. My aunt handed me a phone; I didn't even know how to use it. Everything was so surprising. My knees were shaking. When you're like an animal in a cage for so long and suddenly you're free, you don't know what to do."

But Nguyen wasn't truly free. His case, like that of Duy Dac Ho, another non-deportable client of Salvator's, was just on appeal. And last July, Salvator and Judy Rabinovitz, senior staff counsel with the ACLU's Immigration Rights Project, argued their cause in front of three federal judges.

On February 29, those judges issued their decision. In effect, they determined that Nguyen, Ho and others like them could be locked up for an indeterminate time. "This court will not substitute its judgment for that of Congress by reading into the statute a time limit that is not included in the plain language," wrote Judge Michael Murphy.

Judge Wade Brorby used much plainer language in his dissent: "Governmental conduct that so reduces an individual to a 'non-person' to permit such imprisonment...most assuredly shocks my conscience."

The decision shocked other consciences across the country, and legal authorities offered their services to Nguyen's cause. "That in the year 2000, a court will actually strip human beings of their personhood," marvels Salvator. "That hasn't happened since Dred Scott, in 1857."

But in Denver, this INS shocker was eclipsed two days later by the news flash that Astacio, who's scheduled to pitch the Rockies' first game, could be deported under the same law. (The mainstream media has made some progress, though: Back in the '80s, when a Denver daily learned that Vance Johnson had a history of domestic violence, it held the story until after the Broncos completely humiliated themselves -- and us -- in the Super Bowl. Astacio's crime -- or alleged crime, depending on whether the Arapahoe County courts let him change his plea -- made the front pages almost immediately. So, too, did the revelation that his late-January plea could get him booted out of the country.)

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