Out at Home

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

Meanwhile, Nguyen, who has lived the last eight years crime-free (except for a dust-up with Mexican prisoners in the Wackenhut facility and an illegal tattoo branding "lifer" on his arm), gets to stay in this country, perhaps forever. But he'll be staying locked up in a facility where you see the sunlight an hour a day -- if you're lucky. "When I first got out and stood outside, my head was spinning so fast, I almost passed out," he says. "Sometimes I'd go months without seeing the sun or getting fresh air."

His release last April not only brought a breath of fresh air, it gave him hope -- hope that he might get to live, and live free, in the only country he has ever really known. But now that the Tenth District judges have rendered their verdict, the INS could be knocking on his door any day.

On March 1, the day that decision made the local papers, Nguyen had his monthly meeting with the INS. "I was shaking, oh, man," he says. "Then they didn't mention anything about it."

But Nguyen can't stop thinking about it. He's had almost a year to taste freedom, and he doesn't want to lose it. "At fifteen, you don't really know much," he says. "I learned a lot more in a year out here than I did in seven years inside. I've learned more about relationships. When you're locked up, it's like you're by yourself, or with people who don't care. In this year, I've learned about caring."

He's been living with his grandmother and his aunt Linda, who fought hard to win his freedom (and covered both his legal bills and posted his $30,000 bond), and Linda's kids, who weren't even born when he was first locked up. "It's like growing up again," he says. He sees his state parole officer on a regular basis (DOC officials testified on Nguyen's behalf, urging the INS to let him go), keeps a job, and pays his taxes as well as $275 a month restitution. He wants to go to college to learn computers (while in the DOC, he earned his GED and some college credits -- but technology changed a great deal over those seven years). Still, it's difficult to go to school if you don't have a green card, and even harder when you could be locked up at any moment simply because your native land doesn't want you -- and your adoptive land wants you even less.

The ACLU will appeal the judges' decision and ask for a hearing before the entire Tenth Circuit. If that fails, Rabinovitz says, they're willing to go to the Supreme Court. Nguyen isn't the only one affected by the February 29 ruling; more than 4,000 non-deportables are waiting in INS facilities.

Unlike most of them, however, Nguyen has paid his debt to American society -- with interest.

"I'm still glad I live here," he says. "You have so many chances, so much opportunity. They always talk about discrimination in America. But now I'm being discriminated against because I'm not a citizen. They say they're locking us up not for punishment, but for pending deportation. But being in jail is being in jail."

He'd rather be free -- no matter where he has to go to gain that freedom.

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