Return to Sender

Hyung Soo Pak's rage earned him a one-way ticket to the other side of the world.

The 22-year-old sleeps away most of his days at a detention center in Aurora. Incarceration bores the hell out of Pak, who's classified as a criminal alien. An expedited deportation is his only hope of escaping the monotony -- even if it means going back to South Korea, the country he emigrated from, along with the rest of his family, when he was six.

"I never really considered myself an alien," Pak says. "If you meet me on the streets, what do you think: I am an immigrant, or I'm from the States?"

Pak's one of the 3,623 "criminal and other illegal aliens" who've passed through the detention center this year. Most of the people crashing on the 368 beds within these concrete walls are Mexicans. They call Pak, the dorm's lone Asian, chino, or Chinese. Each of his shoulders is tattooed with a Chinese character -- one for angel, the other for devil. Pak is lost somewhere in between.

Pak grew up hard. In elementary school, where he was the only Asian, he kept to himself because, he says, most kids "discriminated" against him. After a day of English-as-a-second-language classes, he'd come home to a whiskey-drunk father who often turned violent. When he wrote down his life story for the immigration judge, Pak said that he never "thought too much" of his father's behavior. It was how Koreans traditionally disciplined their wives and children.

"Besides that, my middle school days was pretty much normal," he wrote.

Things started getting really rough for Pak when he turned fifteen. After his "Asian clique" confronted another group, he was charged with disorderly conduct. Pak also got popped for shoplifting, careless driving, underage drinking, driving without a license, shooting fireworks, breaking curfew and assault -- twice. At one point, police labeled him a gang member, although he denies any gang affiliation.

The summer before his freshman year, Pak got stoned for the first time and "fell in love" with marijuana. He ditched school to get high. He'd be drunk by noon, sick a few hours later, take an afternoon nap and then enjoy smoke sessions late into the night. He partied with a crew of older Asian kids who beat on him -- but they also bought him booze. Pak later dropped out of school.

In 2001, with his father in prison for a crime that Pak would rather not discuss, he and his cousin decided to take a road trip to Los Angeles to meet some girls. It would be Pak's first trip out of Colorado since he'd immigrated here. They cruised through the night into Utah, and the police pulled them over for speeding the next morning. When officers searched the car, they found marijuana and a foil pipe the two cousins had used to get stoned earlier. They also found the .380 pistol that Pak's cousin had packed, just in case.

Pak, who was driving, says he claimed responsibility for the gun in order in to protect his younger cousin. He spent almost two months in jail.

About a year after he got out, Pak was in trouble again. While on a lunch break at a Denver McDonald's, he cut off a car driven by James Fernandez. The two exchanged words, and Pak approached Fernandez's car, holding a double blade. (He says he never swung it.) After Fernandez threw a bottle of cologne at him, Pak kicked the car. Fernandez took off when the light turned green, then doubled back to get Pak's plates and call the cops. Pak was charged with felony menacing.

He was still on probation when his girlfriend called one day. Pak listened on the phone as a fight broke out between the girl and her father, who is also Korean.

Pak got another knife and headed to their house. At the door, he called out for the father. "I'm going to fuck you up," Pak yelled. He kicked at a window, breaking it as he tried to draw the man away from his daughter.

Although no one was hurt, Pak was again charged with felony menacing.

"Pak's got a good heart; he's got good intentions," says his former girlfriend, a twenty-year-old Colorado State University biology student who asked not to be identified. "I know he had good intentions, but he just made things worse."

After that run-in, Pak finally began putting his life together. He was making it through probation, complying with curfew and community-service requirements and taking anger-management courses. He got a job to help pay for court costs and restitution, and only missed two random drug screens, which his probation officer said were minimal violations. He'd gotten his GED and was even taking classes at Metropolitan State College with hopes of getting into the real-estate business.

Then in August, a letter came in the mail.

Pak was ordered to report to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for a green-card interview. His two knife incidents had resulted in felony-menacing charges, which constitute "crimes of moral turpitude." Two such crimes render someone deportable, even if he is in this country legally. Pak expected trouble, even though his family and friends told him not to worry. "You've been here so long," they said. "They're not going to deport you."

They were wrong. Pak was detained and ordered deported.

He hired an attorney, Jim Salvator, who argued for cancellation of Pak's removal order. A threat-assessment professional evaluated Pak and assured the judge that he would not be a risk to society if his deportation order was withdrawn. But the judge said he wasn't convinced that Pak wouldn't again act impulsively. "Accordingly, for these reasons, the application is denied, and he will be removed to South Korea," the judge ruled. As he read the order, tears streamed down Pak's mother's face and his sister cried hysterically.

Salvator, a former investigator for the district attorney's office, thinks he might be able to get Pak's guilty plea withdrawn in the case involving his girlfriend. If that ploy is successful, Pak would become non-deportable, because there would be only one crime of moral turpitude on his record. But Pak's not sure he wants to wait three months to find out. He has lost hope and is growing anxious to get free -- even if he'll be freed in South Korea, a place he has few memories of besides eating corn dogs and catching dragonflies in the countryside. Still, he thinks he'd enjoy meeting big-city women there.

"It's like, where's the suffering? The suffering's with my other clients," Salvator says. "It's his life if he wants to go back to Korea. What do I know? I'm not the one sitting in jail."

The three months Pak has spent in the detention center have been much easier than the nearly six months he spent in county jails, he says, but he still hates the monotony of life without freedom. Inside, guards call him 2788, and he feels like he's nothing more than a number in this country.

"I've seen grown men cry a lot," he says.

Many of the illegal immigrants detained alongside him are short-timers, Mexicans who within days will be sent away from their jobs and families. In the fiscal year that ended October 1, the United States removed more than 157,000 "criminal and illegal aliens." It was a record year for the government, which had deported only 1,978 people in 1986, when Congress mandated that aliens who were deemed illegal and criminal now be considered the greatest threat to society. When the Aurora facility opened a year later, it had beds for 150 people. Officials hope to double its current capacity, to 750, within the next three years.

"These motherfuckers," Pak says. "I don't have no respect for them because, yeah, it's their job, but what is their job? To hold people like fucking animals? I don't have no respect for that, never have. If this country doesn't want me here, screw it."

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Luke Turf

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