Waiting to Exile

In December, when the U.S. launched air strikes against Iraq, Loi Nguyen heard a rumor spreading through the Wackenhut center for Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees in Aurora. The rumor was that if the conflict escalated into a full-fledged world war, the U.S. government was going to come in and execute all the non-deportable inmates like him.

Since the summer of 1997, Nguyen has been held at Wackenhut awaiting "travel documents" that will send him back to Vietnam, where he was born. He has no idea when, or if, those documents will ever arrive. Nguyen once held permanent alien status in the U.S., but that was before he led Jeffco police on a high-speed chase while driving the getaway car after a restaurant robbery. He was fifteen years old at the time but was charged as an adult.

Under two laws passed by Congress in 1996, green-card holders who commit a crime categorized as an aggravated felony--money laundering, DUI, prostitution, gambling-related offenses, murder and robbery are just a few of the crimes that fit the two-page INS definition of such an offense--will have their resident status immediately revoked. After they've served their time in state or federal correctional systems, they must be deported.

But convicted felons like Nguyen, who come from Vietnam--or a host of other countries like Cambodia, Sudan or China--can't go back to their native lands. The governments of those countries flat-out refuse to take back criminals. At first Nguyen was relieved that the INS couldn't follow through on its order to deport him. After all, he's been in the U.S. since he was four years old. His entire family lives in the States, and he doesn't know much more about Vietnam than any other 23-year-old American kid.

Following his conviction for aggravated robbery and vehicular eluding, Nguyen did his time, serving out his sentence with an exemplary record. But a year and a half later he's still in jail, because the INS won't turn him loose.

Twenty-nine other inmates at Wackenhut share Nguyen's predicament. They call themselves "lifers," since for all they know, they'll never get out. Nguyen says he heard about one guy from Cuba who's been locked up for thirty years.

"I never knew what a citizen was until this thing came up," says Nguyen in an accent that has traces of both California and Texas. "I thought I was a U.S. citizen and that after I served my time in the [Department of Corrections], I'd be set free. But the day I was supposed to be released early for good behavior, the INS showed up, brought me here and told me that as soon as Vietnam allowed people to go back, I'd be on the first plane over there. A year and half later, I'm still waiting."

Even though a federal judge ruled on December 14 that INS detainees awaiting deportation can post bond and get out of places like Wackenhut, any fight they get into or infraction they commit counts against them when it comes time for their bond hearing. Nguyen didn't get into any trouble during the five years he was in the DOC system. "That young lad was a good prisoner," says his former warden, Al Bennett. "He did what he was told, earned his GED and smiled a lot." The problem, according to Nguyen, is that lifers can't avoid problems in the INS detention center.

Nguyen and his fellow detainees are locked down 23 hours a day. There are no windows in the minimum-security, warehouse-like facility. Large dorm rooms with bunks are each packed with 25 inmates. They play cards, watch TV and sleep as much as possible. Since the Wackenhut facility was designed as a temporary detention center--Mexicans, for example, are in there for only a couple of weeks before they're sent home--it offers no educational or rehabilitative programs. Because of the close quarters, fights break out, usually between the "short-timers" and the lifers who are thrown together in the large cells.

"You got people coming and going," says the slightly built Nguyen, "and those guys who are in here for a short time know it and don't care about starting problems. Only us lifers have anything to lose. And you can't walk away from trouble when you're locked in this dorm all day. My first fight was a racial thing. Mexicans against non-Mexicans."

His other violation was for having a tattoo kit, which he used to inscribe "lifer" on his arm. Because of these violations, Nguyen was denied bond.

"I'm frustrated," says Nguyen. "It ain't easy going through DOC clean like I did. As far as Colorado is concerned, I did my time. But now I'm doing the INS's time. All of us lifers are fighting a no-win war. This is worse than hell on earth. Here we've got no chance. I'd almost rather die, because all they're doing in here is killing me slowly. I wouldn't call this living."