The Last Stand of Eddy Zheng 

Eddy Zheng has hundreds of supporters, an army of lawyers, the governor's okay, and a new wife. So why does homeland security want to deport him?

Page 7 of 8

If Reisman's bid to vacate Zheng's convictions fails, Nightingale is ready to use every possible defense to keep his client on US soil, starting by arguing that Zheng's involvement in Catholic services and his blog's criticisms of the Chinese government could put him in danger in China. "A lot of times when people have criminal records here, the Chinese government feels that they are criminals who have not been sufficiently punished because their justice system is much harsher than ours, so they will sometimes reincarcerate," Nightingale says. Or at least, he says, the government will be on the lookout for a reason to lock him up again: "If they arrest him, I think it's very likely he'll be tortured." Zheng's sister, who frequently travels to China for business, says she cannot access his Web site from there, indicating that it has already been discovered and blocked.

It's just as hard for Zheng to envision what his life might be like in China. After nineteen years in custody, he has been shaped more by California correctional institutions than by his native Canton. His sister says his Chinese isn't as good as it used to be, and she doubts he could get a decent job. The family's only remaining relative in China is the aunt who once babysat him, but she is now eighty years old.

If Zheng were ever to get out and remain in the United States, he already has a handful of job offers, mostly to counsel at-risk youth. "He's already touched more lives here in the Bay Area than most of us ever will in a lifetime," Wattley says. Zheng says his dream is to take a nonprofit job and learn how such agencies work so that he could launch his own a few years down the road. He'd also like to go on a speaking tour warning immigrant teenagers about the double price they'll have to pay if they go astray -- first incarceration, then deportation. Zheng and Smith are reluctant to dwell too much on their future plans since so much is uncertain, but they still dream a little. Zheng longs to get to know his parents as adults, and Smith would love to take her husband to the beach for an unbarred glimpse of the sea.

Of course, they also were once reluctant to broach the subject of marriage, but everything changed after Zheng was taken into immigration custody. Even people who have committed a crime of violence can apply for US residency based on an American spouse.

So, two days before Zheng's most recent hearing this July, the bride and groom said their vows through a Plexiglas wall and a set of prison phones. With the help of a guard, Zheng presented Smith with a box a fellow inmate had made from a potato chip bag; it contained a ring Zheng had folded from green and white origami paper. She carried yellow roses, he recited haiku. The musical part of the program was nixed after a friend who brought bagpipes was made to check them at the door.

Two days later, the immigration judge slumped over his desk and surveyed his packed courtroom: a drawn-looking Smith, Zheng's parents and sister Lili, Catholic priests in collars and robes, and a motley assortment of students, peace activists, and friends. Zheng, who had entered the room smiling broadly and flashing the peace symbol despite the hampering effects of his handcuffs, now sat as if frozen.

The nervous crowd was prepared for nearly anything: the judge could order Zheng's immediate removal, or he could throw out the deportation case entirely. Nightingale thought it was possible the judge would go through with a rigorous merit hearing, in which Zheng's supporters would attest to his radical personal transformation. Nightingale was ready to invoke the Geneva Convention Against Torture, and he and Smith were prepared to testify that Zheng's marriage, although conveniently timed, was the result of a long and earnest courtship, and not a legal fabrication. Nightingale carried with him an inch-thick stack of the couple's photocopied love letters. Cautiously, he suggested that Zheng's hearing be pushed back to allow Smith to petition for his residency.

The federal prosecutors were having none of it. They wanted a decision that day. After all, they argued, spousal petitions are notoriously lengthy processes, taking on average eighteen months for approval. American taxpayers will shell out $100 for every day that Zheng remains in custody, they said -- why keep him in jail for another year or two when he could be released to China right now?

The judge looked pained and thoughtfully shuffled some papers. Then he did something no one in the legal system had done in a long time: He gave Eddy Zheng a break. Instead of questioning the hasty marriage, he agreed to postpone Zheng's hearing for a few months so that the couple could pursue Zheng's residency. It was a temporary reprieve -- after all, there's no telling what immigration officials will make of Zheng's nuptials, or how far along the residency process will be before his next hearing in October. But for the first time in years, it looked to Zheng's supporters like he might find a way out.

Back in his jail cell, Zheng savored his small victory. "Before it was like, no, no, no," he says. "I couldn't help but wonder why are they so determined to stop me from staying in this country when all I want to do is go out there and help people." But nearly twenty years in custody will teach you patience, and Zheng knows not to take anything for granted. While he waits for October to roll around, he has some books to read and some poems to write: "I embrace whatever is going to happen."

For Blake's Sake

If marriage does not save him from deportation, Zheng will challenge a crucial court ruling.


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