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INS detentions: No crime needed

NCR Staff
Lancaster, Calif.

Livinus Mbanefo spoke softly in mid-June from behind the bolted doors, barbed wire and electronic surveillance systems of the Mira Loma Contract Detention Center in this desert city about 90 miles north of Los Angeles.

For all practical purposes, Mbanefo (pronounced Mmm-ba-nay-fo) is in prison, but he has committed no crime. In fact, he was a victim of crimes against humanity, he said. He was seized in 1996 by government thugs in his homeland, Nigeria, for distributing posters that said, “Let’s struggle for a democratically elected government” and “Fight against corruption and human rights abuses.” His captors, he said, worked for the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. They imprisoned him for nine months and tortured him. He managed to escape and flee through Ghana, South Africa and Malaysia to the United States.

Once again, however, Mbanefo is in captivity. As a result of strict immigration laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996, Mbanefo is being held at Mira Loma instead of receiving parole -- as would have occurred more easily under the old laws -- while he appeals an asylum claim denied him in February.

Mbanefo is one person in a swelling population housed in detention facilities contracted out or run by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. As controversial legislation passed by Congress in 1996 has begun to take effect -- primarily the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act -- INS officials have found themselves “scurrying to find as much bed space as we can to detain all of the aliens we are required by law to detain,” in the words of Leonard Kovensky, assistant director for the INS Los Angeles district, in a June telephone interview with NCR.

“I’ve never stayed in a place like this. I’ve never lost my freedom. I love to express myself,” Mbanefo, an athletic man clad in bright orange prison fatigues, said. “I now have no choice. If I’m to go back to Nigeria it means more torture and death. But here, it’s almost the same thing because I am detained.”

Mbanefo, while visibly discouraged, said two things give him hope -- his friendship with Fr. Robert McChesney of the Jesuit Refugee Service USA (http://www.jesuit.org/refugee/jrs.html) and contact with the Ibo community in Los Angeles, a link that occurred thanks to McChesney’s pastoral efforts.

“It was hell before I met him. He is a father, a brother, everything to me,” Mbanefo said. “And the Ibo organization, they do a lot. It has changed my life. It’s a different ball game when these people are interested in your problems.” Ibos are a Nigerian tribal community (NCR, March 27.)

The 1996 laws, Kovensky said, have considerably increased the number of those who must be detained and deported, especially in the case of noncitizens with criminal records. A limited number of detainees with records of minor crimes may be released under bond while awaiting judges’ decisions. The legislation also restricts parole opportunities for asylum seekers like Mbanefo. According to his lawyer, Carolyn Perkins of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (http://www.nccbuscc.org/mrs/index.htm), it would have been easier for Mbanefo to seek parole under the old system.

“Congress says this was not their intention, but the policies are extreme,” said James Haggerty, special projects director for the Immigration Network’s New York office. “There are asylum cases where there is no parole even after people pass credible fear tests. And once they are in detention, they are treated as criminals.”

Perkins said that because of the backlogs, asylum seekers -- even those with “very strong claims” -- may spend six months behind bars waiting for a hearing. Many of these people could be active in their communities if paroled.

A study by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a research and public policy organization, showed that 85 percent of parolees participating in the institute’s supervised program showed up for their hearings to complete their legal procedures.

Expensive policies

The combination of more detentions -- many through dramatic workplace raids by INS officials -- and fewer channels for relief means that INS facilities are filling up fast. Deportations increased 178 percent during a nine-month period last year; bed capacity at facilities such as Mira Loma is expanding with projections that it will double before long.

“These policies are expensive to implement. Massive roundups of people are expensive,” the Catholic Network’s Haggerty said. “This is very political legislation. It is not [the result of] a reasoned discussion of immigration policy. ... They don’t even know all of the consequences or all of the problems with implementation.”

One collateral effect of the rise in demand is the boost it provides some county and city budgets and the increased business it creates for private security companies with INS contracts. An example of the former is Mira Loma, a county jail that closed in 1993. The INS now contracts for the services of the facility through the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, an agreement that has provided employment in the small town and income for the county.

“This is a way counties and cities are balancing their budgets,” said McChesney, who heads a Jesuit Relief Service pilot project that ministers to INS detainees in Los Angeles.

It costs the INS -- and ultimately taxpayers -- approximately $80 a day to house and feed a detainee at the Loma Mira Center in Lancaster, according to an INS estimate. Another estimate put the per-bed price at $88. With 650 beds at Mira Loma, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department makes at least $1.5 million a month from that one operation.

The government has spent at least $21,600 so far keeping Mbanefo behind bars. That sum is minimal compared to “lifers” -- people detained indefinitely, although they have final deportation orders, because their home countries will not permit them to enter.

Chinese national Bi Meng Zheng, for example, has lived in various INS detention centers for more than three years, costing the INS an estimated $109,200. In an interview at his current home -- the INS San Pedro Service Processing Center, about 30 miles south of Los Angeles -- Zheng said he came to the United States because he and his wife opposed China’s one child policy.

“We had a daughter, and because of China’s rules, they wanted my wife sterilized,” he said. “My wife was afraid of the sterilization procedure because her mother got sick from it and couldn’t work for 10 years.”

Zheng said he and his wife thought that if he left, the authorities would not demand that she be sterilized. Zheng entered Hawaii with a false Korean passport, requested asylum, was detained and paroled. When the Chinese authorities again pressured his wife, she requested and received asylum in Switzerland, Zheng said. From there, she planned to sponsor him and their daughter so the family could be together.

By then, however, Zheng had been detained a second time by the INS. He had traveled to Maryland to find family members and employment, he said, and had asked a lawyer to transfer his case from Hawaii. The lawyer did not complete the procedure, according to Zheng, so he missed his hearing in Hawaii and was considered in violation of his parole. That was 1993. “I have been looking ever since to resolve my problem,” he said.

In 1994, another lawyer advised him to go directly to the INS to straighten out his papers. “I didn’t want to mislead Immigration,” Zheng said. He was immediately detained for not showing up in court in Hawaii, where a deportation order had been issued. Zheng, a 31-year-old auto repair technician, was then assured that within two months he would be sent back to China. Had he been deported, he said he believes he could have joined his wife in Switzerland, bringing his daughter with him.

Instead, almost four years have passed since Zheng’s deportation order was issued, and the only places the INS has sent him are to four different INS centers located in Oakdale, La.; Bakersfield, Calif.; Lancaster; and now San Pedro. He has not been able to work to support his family during this time. His said his wife, exhausted by financial burdens and the impossibility of the situation, recently filed for divorce.

“I had a lot of hope for the United States before. But after this treatment, I feel that the United States has less respect than China for the human being,” Zheng said.

While conditions at INS centers vary, overcrowding is becoming a problem at some facilities. Other locations may have enough beds, but they are simply not set up to serve long-term detainees like Zheng and Mbanefo.

“As an immigration service, we are not in the business of doing long-term detention,” the INS’s Kovensky said. “Our business is to remove, not to keep people a long time. We need programs in place to provide long-term care.”

At one facility, Kovensky said, detainees stay 17 days on average, “not enough time for the environment to fester, for them to get dissatisfied.” But in other facilities, he said, detainees are held for several months -- and some indefinitely, with no hope of release. “They need programs to give them some kind of hope or to give them something to strive for, to structure their time while in custody,” he said.

Despite the INS scramble to expand, environments have festered. Two riots occurred within two months earlier this year at the INS center in El Centro, Calif. In addition, a Los Angeles legal assistance organization has brought a federal class action suit against the INS for not providing adequate medical and legal services to detainees.

The legal quagmire behind the rising numbers is extensive. To begin with, the 1996 laws increased the number of so-called “aggravated felonies” for which noncitizen immigrants may be deported or, even after serving their prison sentences, may be held by the INS without the possibility of temporary release under bond while their cases are in process. These crimes -- such as minimum drug possession with intent to sell, domestic violence and in some cases offenses such as shoplifting or driving under the influence -- can be used against immigrants retroactively. Moreover, deportation on the basis of such crimes prohibits immigrants from ever re-entering the United States legally.

Under the new regulations that allow crimes to be considered retroactively, immigrants who have lived here productively for decades may be deported for even relatively minor crimes they believed were buried in the past.

In one case, published in the Los Angeles Times, Colombian Gerardo Antonio Mosquera was deported in 1997 after 29 years of residency in the United States for a 1989 conviction for dealing $10 worth of marijuana. According to newspaper reports, his 17-year-old U.S.-born son, bereft by his father’s absence, committed suicide. Mosquera, because of the prohibition on even his temporary return, could not enter the United States to attend his son’s funeral.

The worsening of the situation of INS detainees has prompted the Catholic church to expand ministry in this area. While Catholic prison ministry has a long and strong track record across the country, INS detainees constitute “a hidden population,” according to McChesney, whose National Immigration Detention Project in Los Angeles, supported by the Jesuit Refugee Service, is breaking new ground.

Numbers are soaring

“We need the church to be aware of the needs of this population,” said McChesney, who with others has begun to fill that need. The pilot program he heads is duplicated in Elizabeth, N.J., the location of another INS detention center. “The need is obvious enough,” McChesney wrote in a statement of purpose for the project. “Though prior to 1980 it was rare for the INS to detain immigrants and refugees, last year the number soared to over 100,000.” McChesney and volunteers attempt to provide basic ministry services, focusing on the San Pedro facilities, for 500 detainees.

The outreach is culturally complex: “On a typical day, approximately 60 countries will be represented, two-thirds [of the detainees] being Hispanic and criminal alien. There are significant numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese and Filipinos.” Sometimes McChesney works through traditional religious outreach, saying Mass, for example, in the recreation area of the facility, with soccer balls “bouncing off the altar.”

In the case of Mbanefo, McChesney served as a vital link to the Ibo Catholic community. Members of the community visit Mbanefo regularly and advocate for his asylum and parole. One member of the Ibo community came from the same village as Mbanefo’s family in Nigeria.

The Catholic Legal Immigration Network, meanwhile, has shifted its focus and resource allocation in the past two years to expand services to INS detainees nationwide, opening or expanding offices in five locations. Founded in 1988, the network, a subsidiary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the United States Catholic Conference, provides support services, including training and mentoring, to a network of diocesan immigration offices.

In June, network attorney Perkins initiated an innovative project at the Los Angeles San Pedro facility to better inform immigrants of their legal rights. On week nights, Perkins, Loyola Law School intern Ruth Jimenez and immigration attorney Ruth Lupash give a bilingual overview presentation of immigration relief procedures to approximately 30 detainees. They then meet with detainees individually to sort out the particulars of their cases.

To meet demand for these services, the Catholic Legal Immigration Network office in Los Angeles has added administrative personnel and will add two more full-time attorneys in the fall. Like Perkins, whose post is sponsored by St. Mary’s Law School in San Antonio, both attorneys will be paid through fellowships from Catholic law schools -- Loyola in Los Angeles and Georgetown in Washington. The program attracts interns from Loyola.

During one of the Immigration Network’s June sessions, many detainees showed visible relief as they received help to sort through the legal procedures in preparation for their hearings the next morning. Many, who had no reprieve possible, shuffled out of the room after a general information session to await deportation. Others, however, discovered ways they could attempt to remain in the United States. Without the help of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, most of the detainees would have no access to legal assistance and limited information about the immigration procedures.

Through the information sessions the Immigration Network has discovered people who should not be in detention. One 16-year-old youth, for example, was found housed in the adult San Pedro center. Immigration Network staff believe he is a citizen. When he was picked up in an INS sweep in East Los Angeles, his mother, a Mexican woman whom he says was naturalized, was in Mexico caring for his grandmother, who was in a coma. The boy had no papers and could not prove his citizenship. Immigration Network advocates immediately obtained his transfer to a juvenile facility. They are working with his neighbors and a pro bono attorney to find his mother and verify his claim to citizen status. Without the Catholic group’s help, the boy may have been deported to Mexico.

The INS’s Kovensky complimented the work of the Immigration Network and the Jesuit Refugee Service. “I think it’s great.” he said. “We know we are telling the unbiased, unvarnished truth [to detainees]. But we know they don’t believe us. If someone from a nongovernmental or religious organization tells them the same thing, they are more credible than we are.”

They don’t know the culture,” he said. Kovensky said he hopes an organization with the global reach of Jesuit Refugee Service could eventually set up guidance houses in home countries, “places for these people to go when they get out of the airplane, so we could give them at least a phone number to call.”

National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998