Tuesday, March 15, 2005


Eddy Zheng: To Be Deported for Not Being An American Citizen

I met Eddy Zheng in San Quentin Prison a few years ago. My friend Gary Chandler, along with other Poetry for the People alums, became creative writing instructors in the prison and invited me to attend and participate in a poetry reading. To date, it is the most memorable literary event I have ever attended, and not just because of its clever name: "The First Annual San Quentin Slam Slam."

When I first entered the prison's reading room, Eddy was draped in blue like all the other inmates. The prisoners -- most of whom were older people of color -- were friendly, craving to hear new poetry, and excited to meet new people. But Eddy stood out. From the minute I noticed him, he had a warm spirit, a ferocious passion, and an addictive generosity that filled the room. His poem blew me away. After the reading, we talked for quite a bit, until "curfew," at which point I was forced to leave. With each word he uttered, I questioned why Eddy wasn't on the "outside" or one of the "free people," both of which are terms I hadn't ever heard used to categorize attendees at a poetry reading.

Eddy was sentenced to seven years to life for a crime that he allegedly committed when he was a mere 16 years old. Today, at 35 years old, he has served the majority of his life in prison. But he has been steadfastly productive, working to rehabilitate himself in ways that would make any Republican congressman proud. During his sentence, he got a GED, an AA, studied religions, worked with at-risk youth, inspired inmates to pursue a creative writing program, joined a choir, and even wrote for the UC Berkeley Asian American publication Hardboiled. (You can read the prison's unconscionable reaction to his publication and his pursuit of an Ethnic Studies program within the jail here.)

Eddy eventually earned the support of the guards, his prison counselors, college professors, clergy, the prosecuting attorneys in his case (!!), and nearly everyone he met. (I'm a bit jealous that Eddy seems to have more friends than I do, and I don't have the excuse of being incarcerated.)

He was also recommended for parole a few years ago, but Governor Gray Davis rejected the recommendation, in keeping with his "tough on crime" stance.

Needless to say, Eddy, for me, has come to represent everything that is wrong with our country's criminal justice system.

Lately, I've reflected on how much Eddy and I have in common. We're both Asian American men in our 30s. We both had severe lapses of judgment when we were teenagers. Our parents are both immigrants. We both write poetry. We're deeply committed to learning about other cultures and pursuing lives dedicated to social justice.

There are two main differences between us, however: (1) Eddy was convicted for his juvenile indiscretions, while I was never caught. (2) Eddy's parents moved to America after he was born, whereas my parents moved to America before I was born.

Eddy's Parents

Those two differences -- Eddy's criminal conviction and his lack of American citizenship -- have led to two wildly different paths, with me teaching poetry at UC Berkeley and Eddy facing deportation after serving a 19-year sentence.

Thankfully, a few weeks ago, Governor Schwarzenegger finally approved Eddy for parole. He has now officially served and completed his sentence for all of his crimes.

But he hasn't been released from government custody and may never be a "free" man. Why? Because Eddy Zheng is not a US Citizen and, therefore, will likely be deported as required under xenophobic immigration laws passed in 1996.

Under current federal rules, any noncitizen -- even if he/she has a valid green card -- is subject to deportation if convicted of crimes as minor as DUI and shoplifting. These laws apply retroactively, meaning that Eddy had no way of knowing that he would face deportation at the time he pled guilty to the crimes. 9/11 has only made matters worse with even more hyper-draconian laws that conflate immigrants with terrorism.

Needless to say, Eddy is being punished twice. The first time, he served a 19-year-sentence for his juvenile crimes. But now, he's facing a second punishment -- this time, for simply not being an American citizen.

Eddy deserves to stay in this country. His family is here. His loved ones are here. The life he knows is here. He has several people, including myself, who are willing to hire him for employment. In my eyes, he represents the best this country has to offer.

Tomorrow morning, March 16, 2005, Eddy will face his first hearing in his deportation proceedings in San Francisco. It's largely procedural, but a packed crowd will make a huge difference because this is an issue in which community pressure will have a huge impact. Given the way the law is structured, a judge will need to be seriously persuaded before taking the risk of having him stay in the United States.

Otherwise, Eddy will be sent to China without any possibility of returning to the United States.

If you want to join me and show your support, Eddy's first hearing is tomorrow, Wednesday, March 16, at 9 am in San Francisco. It will be at 630 Sansome in Downtown SF on the 4th Floor. Print this hearing notice and bring it with you. Eddy will be listed on the docket under his Chinese name, Zheng Xiao Fei. His alien registration # is A38-049-471.

There will certainly be future hearings and I'll try to post more info here.

If you'd like more background on Eddy's story, click here.

You can also read his blog here.

Eddy's current mailing address is:

Zheng Xiao Fei Eddy, #111194
Yuba County Jail
PO Box 1031
Marysville, CA 95901