e-mail us
INS policy on ‘aggravated felony’ unclear, bishop says

NCR Staff

Ethiopia is not a serendipitous place for Jews. One young Jew, Luseged Dhine, was 14 when he fled, on foot, to Sudan -- after his parents and brother had been murdered and he was beaten. He does not know what happened to his three sisters. He was admitted to the United States as a legal refugee in 1978. That tempest tossed the teenager into Washington where on the city streets he discovered drugs. He was four times arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana and has three other misdemeanors on his record.

For those offenses, Dhine, 36, now using a wheelchair, has spent the past nine years in prison, not charged, but simply held awaiting deportation back to Ethiopia -- and probably death. A well-organized community of support has been pressing for his release. The Rabbinical Association of Greater Miami has pledged it will be responsible for him if he is released.

To no avail.

In February, Attorney General Janet Reno, on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, turned down his request for relief.

Dhine, credited with saving an INS agent’s life while in confinement and with helping bust a drug ring, is not alone in captivity. He is one of an estimated 16,400 immigrants in INS detention today, nearly triple the number from 1994. A quarter to a third of the detainees are legal immigrants.

Congressional hearing

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, Newark auxiliary and U.S. Catholic Conference chair on migration, testified Feb. 25 about Dhine and others at the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims, a three-hour oversight hearing on the effectiveness of INS control over illegal aliens and legal immigrants who have committed a crime.

Subcommittee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, convened the hearing two weeks after he and fellow subcommittee member Rep. Elton Gallegly, R-Calif., wrote that INS Commissioner Doris Meissner should be removed if the INS does not do a better job of enforcing immigrant detention and removal provisions.

DiMarzio also told Congress of Salvadoran “Mr. G.”

He fled the civil war in 1985 after his uncle and two brothers were killed. He worked his way up from low-paying jobs to a $45,000-a-year job as the driver of a tractor trailer. However, while in high school here he was in a car with two friends when the driver picked up another friend. That youth had a stolen stereo system. The police stopped the car for a broken tail light; the youths were charged, and the public prosecutor encouraged the three to plead guilty to petty larceny. Mr. G. was fined, given a suspended sentence for what, under Virginia law, was a misdemeanor. He paid the fine, did no jail time, has no other record.

The INS is now charging him retroactively as an “aggravated felon” under its 1996 act, arguing, said DiMarzio, that the 1996 law recognizes no distinction between an actual sentence and a suspended sentence.

“We do not condone the offense,” DiMarzio told the subcommittee, “but the penalty does not fit it. Further, the rules were changed several years after the mistake was made. Mr. G. will probably be separated from his son, perhaps indefinitely, because of a minor offense committed years ago for which he has paid his debt to society.”

Act undermines rights

The new act’s provisions, DiMarzio said, “undermine basic human dignity and human rights, unnecessarily separate and divide families, violate fundamental notions of fairness and equal protection under the law -- time-honored concepts on which our nation was founded -- and create an artificial ‘crisis’ in [the ability of the INS to detain] truly violent or dangerous individuals.”

While acknowledging the government’s duty to provide for public safety, the bishop insisted that such duty is accompanied by an obligation to assess whether each individual in this category of INS detention is actually a threat to safety.

The 1996 law greatly expands the definition of “aggravated felony,” said DiMarzio. “The INS phrase now bears little resemblance to the meaning of those words used in criminal law. In our view these persons’ cases should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, not subjected to a one-size-fits-all approach.”

Catholic churches and social service agencies are receiving numerous requests “each week from immigrant families for help with loved ones who have languished in detention for several months or even years after having served a sentence, or are being deported because of a minor crime.”

There are no figures on the minor crimes cases DiMarzio referred to. But INS commissioner Meissner told the same hearing the INS will not release any “criminal aliens.”

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999