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Jorge Vargas Perez spends all day buried in legal cases when he's allowed to visit the law library in the Faribault state prison. He sifts through about 40 books that cover topics like child support and criminal procedures.

He hopes to become a paralegal and tackle his own case — as a non-U.S. citizen who for that reason doesn't qualify for several prison programs offered by Minnesota.

"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," he 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, holds a green card as a legal permanent U.S. resident. But because he's not a citizen, Minnesota has denied him prison programming and benefits granted to other inmates. He wasn't eligible for work release or supervised release after serving two-thirds of his prison sentence, and couldn't enroll in a drug rehabilitation program.

A probation violation landed Vargas Perez in prison in 2021. Within the first few weeks, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) served him with an immigration detainer, which asks local law enforcement officers to notify immigration agents before a non-citizen is released.

Advocates say immigration-related limitations placed on more than 200 Minnesota inmates who are legal residents but not U.S. citizens, or immigrants who don't have legal status, hinder them from improving themselves 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.

Unlike most inmates in Minnesota, those with an immigration detainer aren't eligible to spend the last third of their sentence on supervised release. 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 contacts ICE if an inmate was born outside the United States. A department spokesperson declined requests for an interview but issued a statement saying a hold may be placed on an inmate if ICE finds probable cause that the inmate is a "removable alien."

As of July 24, there were 254 inmates in Minnesota's prison system with active immigration detainers, according to the department.

Vargas Perez was a young teen in 2002 when he and his mother immigrated illegally to the United States from Mexico. He eventually became a legal permanent resident and could have applied to become a citizen after five years. But he said he didn't have the money to pay the application fees.

"That was a dumb mistake," he said. "I never thought my life was going to collapse, and I was going to fall into addiction."

Vargas Perez was arrested in 2018 for drug possession in Rice County and granted probation on 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, he violated the outpatient program absence policy by missing appointments and not obtaining mental health services immediately.

By September 2020, he had completed a different program that included both chemical dependency and mental health treatment. But it was too late; because he had violated his probation, he was sentenced to 65 months in prison.

He's scheduled to leave prison in October 2024. Had he been eligible for early release, he could have been out as early as last October.

Before he went to prison, Vargas Perez had his own IT business repairing computers. He worked as a mechanic during the COVID-19 pandemic and at a meatpacking plant. He hasn't seen his three children in two years. Their mothers worry that visiting him in prison could traumatize them.

"That's what gets me the most — my kids need me," he said. "They seem strong, but I know for a fact that they do need me."

Vargas Perez connected with a pro bono immigration lawyer in 2021 and began researching ways to address his immigration detainer. He filed a form last year to cancel his detainer and won in immigration court, allowing him to remain a U.S. resident and opening the door to citizenship "as long as I don't mess up again," he said.

But immigration officials can still take his criminal record into consideration when deciding whether to approve his citizenship application. If Vargas Perez were to end up back in prison, he would face deportation again.

There's little to no legal help for immigrants without legal status and non-citizen inmates, Vargas Perez said, and it can cost $6,000 to $10,000 to defend yourself from deportation. It's inspired him to continue learning so he can help other inmates take action on their cases. After he gets his paralegal certificate, he hopes to eventually become a lawyer.

"Once I got the case resolved in my favor, it was a big weight lifted off my shoulders," he said. "So, now that that's out of the way, I have hope — there's a light at the end of the tunnel."