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Bad INS law creates cruel, unusual mess

The moving finger of the Immigration and Naturalization Service writes, and having written, moves on, leaving almost 10,000 legal immigrants in an indeterminate detention that is unethical and immoral.

And in any clear-minded view of law, illegal.

What’s written is the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act -- and it is a monster with teeth.

Teeth tough enough to chew up human rights, dignity and refuge under the law.

At best, the INS, “la Migra,” has a hellish row to hoe. Rounding up people attempting to do what most Americans’ forebears did, get into America one way or another, can never be popular.

This is the nation trapped somewhere between the Statue of Liberty’s welcome and the unwanted nonstop flood of poor people who by land and sea -- seldom by air -- will pay almost any price, take any risk, to enter the United States. The INS, sometimes badly, sometimes dutifully, has been handed this mess to patrol and control.

Current anti-immigrant America is still making up the rules as it goes along. In the case of that 1996 law, some of the provisions are deplorable.

What’s worst is that INS has written, unchallenged by its boss, the attorney general, a new definition for the existing criminal law term “aggravated felony.”

A legal immigrant who commits a misdemeanor, who pays the fine, pays his debt to society and returns to the everyday fold remains, under INS interpretation, a felon; his crime, an aggravated felony.

Ten years after 29-year legal resident Gerardo Mosquera was convicted and punished for selling $10 worth of drugs, a misdemeanor at the time (but no matter, the 1996 law is applied retroactively), he was deported back to his native Colombia. He left behind his U.S.-born wife, sons and daughters. His despondent son, Gerardo Jr., took a gun and committed suicide in the street outside the home.

Had Mosquera been Vietnamese, and therefore not deportable because Vietnam would not accept him, he could be included among the INS “lifers.” These are detained as deportees for life -- they can be neither returned nor released. Their INS detention exceeds their original sentences and will continue to do so by increasing factors.

For misdemeanor detainees, the people described as nondangerous detained noncitizens in recent Congressional testimony by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, each INS district creates its own release policy. DiMarzio is Newark auxiliary and U.S. Catholic bishops’ migration committee chair.

The Catholic Legal Immigrant Network reports enormous difficulties with the process, including timing of hearings, detainees’ inability to contact their lawyers, notices in a language the detainees cannot read and lack of information about what applicants for release must prove. This situation is a cruel and unusual mess.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act is an example of a bad law almost being worse than no law at all. It abuses human rights. Attorney General Janet Reno ought to clean up the law’s results while the administration tries to persuade Congress to clean up the Act itself.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999