SEATAC - For the past 10 months, a 32-year-old Vietnamese refugee named Chan Hoang has been locked up in the Federal Detention Center for no other reason than this: No one knows what to do with him.
He is not being held on criminal charges, not undergoing treatment nor awaiting trial or sentencing. Under 1996 laws requiring criminal aliens be deported, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) last year tried to deport him, but Vietnam refused to take him back.
Hoang, a legal permanent resident who served time in the United States for assault and drug-selling, pleaded for a second chance to live in the U.S. But under the new immigration laws, the INS could not release him.
So for most of the past year, Hoang has sat behind bars, a man with no country and no foreseeable release date, his life suspended in a profound limbo.
More than 20 INS detainees in his wing alone have been held longer than one year. In Washington and Northern Idaho, there are 120 such detainees whom the INS has categorized "unremovable" - legal aliens who committed crimes in the U.S., have been refused by their countries of birth, and who are being detained indefinitely, in some cases for two years and counting.
The U.S. government estimates that 3,500 detainees sit in INS custody across the nation under similar circumstances, most of them legal permanent residents who are refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Cuba - countries with no formal diplomatic ties with the U.S.
Technically, these detainees are awaiting deportation. In reality, they may have to wait for years or forever, and the INS has no systematic way of dealing with them. These detainees call themselves "lifers."
"When you've already served your time," Hoang said, "and they lock you up and keep you locked up, and you have no rights, and you have no knowledge of what's going to happen to you, and no knowledge if you'll ever get out - that's a life sentence."
Refugee advocates decry the situation as unconstitutional and a violation of basic human rights. But the problem has generated little public attention, even though the INS has been overwhelmed by a flood of new detainees since passage of the 1996 immigration reforms.
The INS and supporters of a tough approach to criminal aliens say the agency is simply following a popular legal directive - identifying criminal immigrants, detaining those who pose a threat to society, and deporting them.
"If you're not a United States citizen, you don't have the rights and privileges of a citizen," said Allen Kay, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who authored the reform.
Smith has said the laws' intent is to rid the country of dangerous noncitizens to make room for law-abiding ones. He and his supporters say the open-ended sentences appear unfair, but they think it's better to keep former criminals locked up than free them.
The reforms call for deporting any noncitizen with at least one "aggravated felony," regardless of when the crime was committed, whether the sentence already has been served or any other mitigating circumstances.
For immigration-law purposes, the definition of "aggravated felony" has been expanded to include crimes ranging from illegal gambling to murder. The laws also dropped from five years to one year the length of a sentence needed to qualify a crime as an aggravated felony.
The wide range of the laws has netted an equally wide range of criminals. Hoang shares space with other lifers such as Many Chout Uch, 21, a Cambodian refugee from White Center who served time for a convenience-store robbery, and Kim Ma, 21, a Cambodian refugee from Seattle who served an 18-month sentence for taking part in a drive-by shooting.
The "lifers" share facilities with asylum seekers, undocumented workers, and others going through deportation proceedings. An estimated 16,000 detainees nationwide are held in INS custody on any given day - up from 6,300 in 1994. Because of limited space, more than 60 percent of them are kept in local jails.
A report by Human Rights Watch, a watchdog group, said that the INS, by handing over their detainees to local sheriffs and other jail officials, has resorted to treating these people like criminals even though their status is noncriminal.
Officially, INS detention serves an administrative and not a punitive function. But in many cases, refugee advocates and Human Rights Watch charge that detainees are treated worse than citizen criminals: They are not told how long they will be detained, are not guaranteed access to legal counsel and parole, and are often denied access to prison education facilities and religious services.
Because a large number, perhaps the majority, of those detainees are poor and do not read, write or speak English fluently, they can spend months or years not understanding their circumstances nor knowing how to seek relief.
"The United States holds itself as a nation of immigrants, a nation that is constantly pointing out human-rights violations in other countries," said Jessica Levy of the Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice. "For this to be happening here is ironic and hypocritical."
400 held in Seattle district
In the Seattle district, half of the approximately 400 detainees are being held at the INS detention center near the Kingdome; the others are dispersed in places like King County and Yakima County jails, the Regional Justice Center in Kent, and the Federal Detention Center in SeaTac
The situation has prompted two state legislators, Rep. Barbara Lisk, R-Yakima, and Rep. Phyllis Kenney, D-Seattle, to sponsor a resolution requesting that Congress immediately reassess the immigration laws.
At U.S. District Court in Seattle, the Public Defender's Office is working to represent more than 60 local detainees who have petitioned to be freed on grounds that their indefinite detention violates basic constitutional rights. Their central argument is a claim of double-jeopardy, that is, being punished twice for the same crime.
"All of these people have finished their prison terms. They haven't committed any new crimes but they're still being punished," said Jay Stansell, assistant federal public defender. "INS is running around being the supercop saying, `Nobody knows better than us, and we're locking up these people for life.' It's pretty amazing."
Local INS officials, however, seem to agree that something must change. George Morones, assistant district director in charge of detention and deportation, said INS detention was meant to be short-term - 90 days or less.
"We weren't set up to be a prison, or to hold people indefinitely, but the new laws are making us do that," Morones said. "It isn't anything we asked for or wanted. We're just following what Congress wanted us to do, and Congress was elected by you and everybody else.
"We're doing the will of the people."
The laws behind the current situation are the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 and the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which constituted the first major overhaul of immigration laws in three decades. The laws have been phased in over the last three years.
Explanation of the laws
What the laws did:
-- Greatly expanded the crimes, called "aggravated felonies," for which immigrants could be deported. The definition of aggravated felony grew to include more than 30 crimes, some as minor as illegal gambling, possession of marijuana, receiving stolen property or lying to the INS.
-- Greatly reduced the ability of criminal aliens to get deportation waivers. In the past such waivers were granted to those who had been rehabilitated, lived in the U.S. for a long time, or could show that deportation would hurt family members who were U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
-- Netted many more immigrants by making the laws retroactive, meaning that the INS could deport someone who had committed a burglary a decade ago, served his time and lived cleanly since.
Kay, spokesman for Congressman Smith, said if the former criminals remain jailed until deportation, they won't commit more crimes. But if they are set free, they will likely never come back. The INS estimates that only 10 percent of people ordered deported turn themselves in. The general rule is: Once free, most will flee.
No release date
Chan Hoang, the 32-year-old lifer from Vietnam, however, said he has nowhere to flee but to his family.
He came to the U.S. from a refugee camp in Hong Kong in 1980 with his mother, father, two sisters and a brother. They settled in Honolulu as permanent residents.
At age 18, he got into a fight with a friend who sold him a broken stereo, and got 30 days in jail and five years probation. Later, he sold 2 ounces of cocaine to an undercover cop and served five years out of a maximum of 20. He was released on good behavior but was immediately turned over to the INS.
He has been in INS custody at SeaTac ever since, with no idea when he will be released. He spends most of his time in an 8-by-8-foot cell that he shares with another detainee.
"Every time the INS officer comes, we ask him what's going to happen," Hoang said. "The only reply we get is Congress passed this law and they're just following the rules. They don't know what's going to happen to us. Nobody knows what's going to happen to us.
"I've lived in two communist countries, China and Vietnam, and I've never seen anything worse than this. I never knew a law like this could exist in America."
And Hoang said he's one of the fortunate ones because he can read and write in three languages - Chinese, Vietnamese and English. He can write letters, file petitions and try to understand the process. But many of his fellow detainees speak or write little English, have little or no contact with family, and are completely without resources.
"A lot of the people in here, they're like zombies," Hoang said. "They get up in the mornings and walk around, and that's all they do all day, walk around. A lot of them have given up their lives already. They've lost all hope. It's like they're dead already."
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