The bride wore white. The groom wore prison garb. Two days later, the immigration judge wore a put-upon expression.
The deportation hearing of Eddy Zheng had just taken a very weird turn.
Not that any part of his journey through the American legal system has been ordinary. After nearly twenty years, Zheng is approaching the endgame of an odyssey that began when he was a sixteen-year-old recent immigrant who barely spoke English and ran with the wrong crew in Oakland's Chinatown.
The skinny, money-obsessed kid was one of three teenagers who committed an intensely frightening robbery-kidnap as clumsy as it was horrific. All three young men were caught immediately. Zheng received the maximum sentence -- seven years to life -- and his attorneys expected him to serve eight or nine years.
By the late '90s, Zheng already had served twice that. He'd also made a stunning transformation from junior hoodlum to star pupil at San Quentin. He taught himself English, and earned a GED and an associate of arts degree. He developed a deep love of poetry, self-publishing his own zines and organizing the prison's first poetry slam. He worked with "scared straight" programs, urging teenagers to avoid his fate. He carried on a torrential correspondence with civic leaders and literary luminaries in the outside world, who were attracted by his intellectual voracity and his evident desire to atone for the past. He avoided drugs and eschewed gangs. He didn't just do time; he did it well.
At first, Zheng's good behavior was noticed, and in 1998, the parole board recommended his release. But Governor Gray Davis had the ultimate vote and he promptly returned Zheng's case to the board for reconsideration. That time, parole was denied, and for the next five years, the board continually turned Zheng down. Davis wasn't paroling anyone anyway: Of the 340 parole recommendations during his tenure, he overturned 332.
The harder Zheng worked to reinvent himself, the more outsiders sympathized with his plight. Here was a felon who actually had changed for the better inside the notoriously corruptive California penal system, yet it looked like he might never get out. "If they really are rehabilitated, you should give them a chance," says Victor Hwang, president of the Asian American Bar Association, who rallied legal support for Zheng. "He's developed into a community leader. He's been really able to outgrow the prison boundaries and make connections with the larger progressive and Asian-American communities."
Zheng's supporters are indeed a who's who of high-profile Bay Area lawyers, politicians, professors, and clergy who believe he is ready to contribute to society. Even the district attorney and judge who sent him away say he has been punished enough. Student activists took up his cause -- among the most dedicated was UC Berkeley student Anmol Chaddha, who met Zheng through an inmate tutoring program. He launched a Web site devoted to the case, as well as a blog into which another of Zheng's friends types his semiweekly dispatches from prison. "He's not just a nameless inmate who is doing time sitting on a bench in prison," Chaddha says. "He's actively engaging with his world. He has something to say and people want to hear it."
Finally, last November, the board again recommended Zheng for parole. If Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger didn't object, Zheng would finally be free, after nineteen years in prison. The March 10 deadline arrived with no word from the governor. But that's where Zheng's story took another twist.
Instead of seeing daylight, he now faced deportation. He'd have to wait in federal custody while the Department of Homeland Security decided whether he should be sent back to China. Federal agents picked him up from one jail cell and drove him to another.
Zheng had immigrated legally, but imprisonment prevented him from becoming a naturalized US citizen. He had always faced the possibility of deportation at the end of his sentence, but a federal rules change ten years into his prison term made deportation mandatory for noncitizens who have committed aggravated felonies. Until a few months ago, he could have applied for a waiver often given to inmates jailed before the 1996 rules change, but a recent government ruling removed that option.
His supporters are shocked that Zheng spent nearly two decades repaying his debt to American society and yet may be exiled to a country he hasn't seen since childhood. "The state and taxpayers of California have spent probably close to $1 million on incarcerating and encouraging his rehabilitation, and we finally have produced someone who actually is rehabilitated," Chaddha says. "Then you export him, and you've wasted him." Zheng has escaped the frying pan, only to be fed to the fire.