Jorge Vargas Perez spends all day buried in legal cases when he’s allowed to visit the law library in the Faribault prison.

From 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. sometimes three days a week, he sifts through a shelf of about 40 books that cover a range of legal topics like child support and Minnesota criminal procedures. He hopes to become a paralegal and tackle the complications in his own case as a non-U.S. citizen who doesn’t qualify for several prison programs. 

“Once you are faced with literally the possibility of losing all that you know, all that you love, and the place you call home, you get moving,” Vargas Perez wrote from prison in an email to Sahan Journal. “Either that, or you lose yourself to drugs and other trivial prison endeavors. I chose the former.” 

Vargas Perez, 35, of Woodbury, is a legal permanent resident of the United States, or green card holder. But because he’s not a citizen, the state of Minnesota denied him prison programming and benefits offered to other inmates. He was not eligible for work release, which is when inmates work for pay or participate in vocational programming in the community, he couldn’t enroll in a drug rehabilitation program, and he was not eligible for supervised release after serving two-thirds of his prison sentence.

It also qualifies him for deportation.

A probation violation landed Vargas Perez in prison in 2021. Within the first few weeks, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) served Vargas Perez with an immigration detainer, which asks local law enforcement to notify immigration agents before a non-citizen is released from their custody. An immigration detainer meant he couldn’t qualify for early release programs.

Advocates say immigration-related limitations placed on more than 200 Minnesota inmates who are legal residents but not U.S. citizens, or who are undocumented, harm their ability to improve themselves in prison through rehabilitation or work programming.

“They’re not eligible for any sort of work release programs. This is where it becomes more punitive,” said Linus Chan, an immigration attorney and director of the Detainee Rights Clinic at the University of Minnesota Law School. “Just because ICE has said they’re interested in that person, that person does not have the same opportunities for other programs that could reduce their time in prison.”

In Minnesota, inmates are eligible to spend the last third of their sentence on supervised release. Inmates with an immigration detainer are barred from the opportunity. Any sentence exceeding a year is considered an aggravated felony by ICE, and can make an inmate eligible for deportation.

The Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) declined requests for an interview, and instead submitted an email statement to Sahan Journal about its practices with inmates who are not U.S. citizens. The DOC collects information from inmates during intake about their country of birth, and contact ICE if they report any country other than the United States, according to the DOC.

“If ICE determines that probable cause exists that the inmate is a ‘removable alien,’ a hold may be placed, and the incarcerated person is notified,” the DOC statement said. “If ICE lodges a detainer, DOC staff update an incarcerated person’s record within DOC’s operations database.”

There are 254 inmates in Minnesota’s prison system with active immigration detainers as of July 24, according to the DOC. It’s unclear how many are green card holders and how many are undocumented, because the department does not track such data.

The DOC spokesperson said the state does not deny internal programming to inmates based on an immigration detainer alone. 

Minnesota law states that an inmate is not eligible for the Challenge Incarceration Program, which is also known as “bootcamp,” if they are the “subject of a current arrest warrant or detainer.” The program is a form of early release that includes an intensive substance use treatment, education, restorative justice, physical training, military bearing, and work programming.

Denied prison programming

Heidi Romanish, a legal assistant at the Puerta Grande Law Firm in Minneapolis, first met Vargas Perez in 2016 when both advocated for a proposed bill in the state Legislature that would allow undocumented people to obtain a driver’s license in the state. They became friends, as she watched him struggle with drug addiction and other mental health issues. 

Heidi Romanish is a longtime friend of Jorge Vargas Perez and helped him with his immigration case. Credit: Aaron Nesheim | Sahan Journal

Puerta Grande Law Firm represented Vargas Perez in his immigration case. Vargas Perez has been helping other inmates with their immigration cases, too. 

“They have no hope and they have no motivation,” Romanish said of the inmates Vargas Perez has been helping. “They’re just literally sitting out their time until they’re going to be deported.”

Vargas Perez was arrested in 2018 for drug possession in Rice County. His first phone call was to Romanish. She became an advocate for him from then on. He fought the case with a public defender, and was ultimately granted probation in 2020 on the condition that he complete an outpatient chemical dependency program, refrain from drug use, and set up mental health services within the first 30 days. 

According to court documents, Vargas Perez violated the outpatient program absence policy by missing appointments and not obtaining mental health services immediately. 

Romanish said she had been helping him access health insurance and had made phone calls to mental health providers. By September 2020, court documents said Vargas Perez completed a different program that included both chemical dependency and mental health treatment, but it was too late. Because he had violated his probation, Vargas Perez was sentenced to 65 months in prison.

At the time, Romanish recalled, Vargas Perez was optimistic he could enroll in prison programming. “It’s going to be okay,” he said, “I’m just going to go to bootcamp.” 

But Vargas Perez couldn’t get into the program with an immigration detainer.

“Have you ever experienced despair? That’s what I would boil it down to. You see people leaving to bootcamp or to all of these programs, and you know you can’t,” he said. “Then you see them come back and tell the story of how they couldn’t stay off the pipe, and not taking advantage of the opportunity they were given. There’s people here that would kill for an opportunity like that.”

‘I never thought my life was going to collapse’

Vargas Perez was a young teen when he immigrated to the United States from Mexico in 2002 with his mother. They were undocumented. When he turned 18, Vargas Perez obtained work authorization and eventually became a legal permanent resident. Legal residents can apply to become a citizen after five years.

“I was very busy with life. My youngest daughter was just born; my expenses at that time didn’t allow me to pay the fees” to apply for citizenship, Vargas Perez said. “I was like, ‘I guess I’ll do it later.’ That was a dumb mistake. I never thought my life was going to collapse, and I was going to fall into addiction.”

Before he went to prison, Vargas Perez had his own IT business where he conducted home repairs on computers. He also worked as a mechanic during the pandemic as well as a meatpacking plant. 

Vargas Perez has three children ages 16, 13, and 8. The oldest lives with her mother in Minneapolis. The other two live with their mother in Owatonna. Vargas Perez hasn’t seen his children in two years, as their mothers worry that visiting him in prison could be traumatizing to the children.

“The human cost is staggering. I’m over here, and my kids miss me,” Vargas Perez said. “Emotionally, it’s been a trip. That’s what get me the most—my kids need me. They seem strong, but I know for a fact that they do need me.”

Non-citizen inmates serving about two or three years with an immigration detainer usually have to wait until they have completed their prison sentences and are released into ICE custody before they can address detainers. However, said immigration attorney Linus Chan, inmates serving longer sentences may receive a notice to appear at an “institutional hearing” while they’re still in prison. These hearings typically occur towards the end of the sentence. 

Chan said there are three types of forms inmates can file in an attempt to cancel their immigration detainers: one form is for permanent residents like Vargas Perez, another is for undocumented inmates, and a third is for victims of domestic violence.

Vargas Perez connected with a pro bono immigration lawyer in 2021, and began researching ways to address his immigration detainer, and filed a form last year to cancel his detainer. His request was heard in immigration court this past March—a year and a half before his release date.

Vargas Perez won his fight, and the detainer was canceled.

“They granted me cancellation of removal, which allows me to stay a resident and allows me to, in the future, have a miniscule chance of becoming a citizen,” Vargas Perez said. “As long as I don’t mess up again.”

The cancellation means Vargas Perez remains a permanent resident and can apply to become a citizen when he is released from prison, but immigration officials can still take his current criminal record into consideration when deciding whether to approve his citizenship application. 

If Vargas Perez were to ever end up back in the prison, he’ll face deportation again and will be prohibited from filing any new requests to remove an immigration detainer.

“A detainer is a cruel thing,” Vargas Perez said. “I know people here right now, including my celly (cellmate), that have ICE detainers without a foreseeable court date in the future.”

The last two years have been an education for Vargas Perez, who is taking courses to complete a paralegal certificate and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree and eventually become a lawyer. He completes assignments and essays on paper and sends them to the course proctors by mail. He noticed that the undocumented inmates he helps have far more challenges than green card holders like himself. 

There’s little to no legal help for undocumented and non-citizen inmates, Vargas Perez said. It can cost $6,000 to $10,000 to defend yourself from deportation, he added. 

It inspired him to continue learning so he could encourage other inmates to take action on their cases. Vargas Perez helps them fill out forms, and sometimes advocates for other general needs like their medical care. 

Not knowing what his future holds was torture for Vargas Perez. He finds peace in working on his physical fitness, cooking with other inmates, and playing soccer. 

“Once I got the case resolved in my favor, it was a big weight lifted off my shoulders,” Vargas Perez said. “If I am having trouble with my kids visiting me in prison, it would have been impossible if I were in Mexico. So, now that that’s out of the way, I have hope—there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A general sense of hopelessness among other inmates still persists though, so he wants to pay it forward, he said. 

“The one good thing about being here is that it granted me this whole perspective, and I’ve witnessed the abysmal need that currently exists,” he said.

Vargas Perez continues to face barriers

Even though his immigration detainer was canceled, Vargas Perez is still having trouble obtaining early release.

Vargas Perez is scheduled to leave prison in October 2024 when his full sentence ends. Had he been eligible for early release, he could have been out of prison as early as October of 2022. 

While he was waiting for a hearing on his immigration detainer, Vargas Perez said, he received a six-month punishment for a pill that was found in his cell in January. That prevented him from applying for the bootcamp substance abuse rehabilitation and work training program until this past June. He said the pill wasn’t his, and that he has been sober since 2021. 

The Minnesota Department of Corrections said in an email statement that Vargas Perez’s application for the program was denied in May 2023 due to discipline, but he is now eligible to re-apply.

But Vargas Perez said he can only attend the prison rehabilitation programming known as bootcamp if he has more than 30 months left in his prison sentence. He has 15 months left.

He’s going to at least try to get into a work release program, so he can earn money to send to his children.

“I’m trying to get the hell out of here. I’m trying to be there for my kids,” Vargas Perez said. “I’m looking for redemption.”

Hibah Ansari is a reporter for Sahan Journal covering immigration and politics. She was named the 2022 Young Journalist of the Year by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists. She’s a graduate...