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Cover story

Immigrants draw harsh terms for simple mistakes

NCR Staff
New York and Washington

Four years after an anti-immigrant Congress passed draconian new legislation, U.S. immigrants and asylum seekers exist -- according to the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network -- in a world of justice delayed, justice denied and justice not even considered.

The Catholic Legal Immigrant Network, sometimes known as CLINIC, has prepared four devastating reports replete with analyses, statistics and case studies. Their reports declare that the 1996 Immigration Act has ushered in no-appeal border crossing rules, arbitrary naturalization application decisions, increased raids by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, retroactive converting of misdemeanors into felonies, deportation of legal immigrants without recourse and unwarranted detention -- detention without sentence or time-limit.

The Kafkaesque nightmares for new Americans -- and one in five U.S. residents is foreign-born -- result from immigrants’ innocent mistakes, bizarre immigration service rules, lost documents, seemingly inexplicable delays and arbitrary decisions by low-level officials. Here are some examples drawn from the Catholic network’s reports:

• M and J, brother and sister, ages 20 and 21, had lived in the United States since infancy. One evening they walked across the border into Mexico to visit relatives, as Mexican-Americans often do. Though M and J were not yet legal residents, petitions had been filed on their behalf by their parents. On their way back, immigration agents asked if they were U.S. citizens. They said yes. They believed they were citizens because they lived here legally.

Because they claimed citizenship, these young people, raised and educated in the United States, are now barred from living in the United States with their permanent-resident mother and U.S. citizen stepfather. They were ousted without recourse, and without notification to their parents, with no chance of appeal.

• Mr. and Mrs. U, migrant farm workers and legal U.S. residents who live in Virginia, filed family-based visa petitions in 1993 for permanent residency status for their children. Years later, when the U.S. immigration service was ready to consider the petitions, two of the three children had turned 21 and were automatically bumped into another category. In the new category, there is an eight-year backlog before their residency claims will be heard. As a consequence, the two faced possible deportation.

Their plight worsened.

Arrested during an immigration service raid on blueberry pickers this year, and despite their approved visa petitions, the immigration service decided to initiate deportation proceedings. If the three -- the two in the over-21 category and the younger one, whose case is not yet completed -- do not depart when ordered, they will face a permanent bar to any future residency application.

Seventeen-year-old H arrived at a U.S. airport in November 1999, and claimed asylum. A Muslim, and member of a persecuted minority clan in Somalia, he was fleeing for his life after his parents had been killed.

Though he had no criminal history, the young Muslim was housed with criminals. During Ramadan, the Muslim holy season, his religion’s rules of fasting required that he refrain from eating during daylight hours. For dinner he was served ham, which he could not eat at all. Another day, he tried to save his lunch, a chicken sandwich, for dinner. He was punished with a 24-hour lockdown.

In 1999, America deported almost 180,000 people. Another 72,000 left “voluntarily” -- that is, they were threatened with deportation unless they left on their own. Among the 20,000 in mandatory detention on any given day are thousands of legal U.S. residents who years ago may have committed a misdemeanor and paid their debt to society with a fine, probation or short sentence. They’ve since lived as law-abiding wage earners, family members and, often, churchgoers. However, the immigration service was given the right to retroactively declare these misdemeanors felonies, making these people deportable. Again, with no recourse.

Typically it’s the breadwinner who is deported.

“Americans simply have no idea of the extent to which the 1996 act is marginalizing and impoverishing entire families,” said Donald Kerwin, chief executive officer of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. He means families in every town in America, people who may live on the next block.

“The only question is: Who is the major villain here?” said Kerwin. “And certainly you can blame Congress for its 1996 mandatory detention laws.”

Kerwin and other clinic officials acknowledge that INS also is in a bind -- the 1996 legislation is its overall mandate. The Clinton administration and INS Commissioner Doris Meissner have made it clear they don’t agree with some of the excessive instances of regulation.

Kerwin’s network tries to rescue mandatory detainees from the anonymity of isolated jails in Louisiana and elsewhere, where they may be incarcerated with criminals, bereft of visitors and interpreters. The Catholic network also tries to buffer immigrants from bureaucratic mazes created when the U.S. immigration service suddenly shifts them elsewhere without notification to families or attorneys.

Founded by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1988 to support Catholic legal immigrant work at the local level, and now operating 200 legal services offices in 121 local settings, the Catholic network is the largest charitable immigrant legal support agency in the country.

Through local Catholic Charities, diocesan agencies and parish-based outreach, the network provides legal and technical assistance to frontline groups of volunteers. These are federally accredited representatives, pro bono lawyers and local church people who provide legal guidance or spiritual and emotional caring to the detained.

Getting the word out

The local groups also feed the individual horror stories back to the center where they’ve become part of three published reports, and a fourth about to be released. The three published reports are titled “Placing Immigrants at Risk: The Impact of Our Laws on American Families”; “Citizenship at Risk: New Obstacles to Naturalization”; and “Work Without Justice: Low-Wage Immigrant Laborers.”

In its fourth report, “Needless Detention of Immigrants,” the network presents a comprehensive account of the increasingly unconscionable immigrant and detainee rights abuses, neglect and official obfuscation.

The downward spiral for immigrants and asylum seekers began in 1995 when Texas Congressman Lamar Smith, a Republican representing a suburban Dallas constituency, introduced an extremely harsh anti-immigrant bill. It failed to pass. The next year, with some Democratic backing, his less harsh but still punitive 1996 Immigration Act was approved. President Clinton signed it.

NCR contacted Smith’s office to ask what motivated Smith’s bills, and in the light of the growing criticisms, to seek his present assessment of the outcome of the new law.

In the absence of a press aide, the reply was a faxed opinion article by Smith, “Immigration Reforms Have Positive Results,” which reportedly was published by a Texas paper about two months ago. Smith wrote that critics of U.S. immigration policies are mostly “immigration lawyers and self-appointed activists [who] represent special interests, not American interests.”

Said Smith, “The 1996 legislation, called the most comprehensive immigration reform in three decades by many Texas media, helps to secure America’s borders, reduce crime, protect jobs and save taxpayers billions of dollars.”

The law provides the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service “with unprecedented resources,” he wrote, “and confronts illegal aliens with tough new laws. The benefits are evident. Crime has dropped in border communities. Drug cartels have been hampered. Illegal immigration has slowed.”

The legislation -- passed “by the first Republican Congress in decades,” Smith noted -- has boosted the U.S. Border Patrol. “Agents tell me how much their jobs have changed since [its] passage,” Smith wrote. “Before they felt powerless against illegal aliens who vastly outnumbered them and knew how to avoid or exploit weak federal laws to avoid deportation.”

The organizations opposing the 1996 law, stated Smith, “represent the political left, not typical immigrants,” and are dependent on “liberal foundations, huge corporations or other organizations for their financial support, but not the Hispanic rank-and-file.”

Linked to Prop 187

NCR asked the Catholic network’s Kerwin why the 1996 law was so evidently vicious.

Kerwin, eight years with the Catholic agency, said many people link the 1996 law to a “seminal event”: California’s 1994 Proposition 187, most of which was found unconstitutional, which would have denied schooling to undocumented children, created an informer culture and required public officials to report undocumented people. “That,” said Kerwin, “was the pinnacle of anti-immigrant ugliness. It passed, I think, by 57 percent. The U.S. bishops opposed Prop. 187 with everything in their power, yet just barely did Catholics vote against it.

“But it was that kind of atmosphere,” he said, “that led to the 1996 act and made it possible. I think the tables have turned some,” he said, “but unfortunately the bad laws are still in place.”

In 1999, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., introduced the Refugee Protection Act “to limit and reform the expedited removal system,” the system that allows low-level officers of the U.S. immigration service to summarily deport on the spot newly arrived, deserving asylum seekers or immigrants whose paperwork is not in order.” Their decisions are subject only to a supervisor’s approval.

Leahy, introducing the bill, said U.S. immigration policy ignores the fact that many asylum seekers are forced to travel without papers because they are fleeing homelands at a moment’s notice. Unless, on arrival, they request asylum immediately, or know they must indicate fear of persecution in the country they left, they face expedited removal.

Though Leahy’s bill has 10 cosponsors, including two Republicans, the GOP Senate leadership still has not slated the hearings Leahy requested a year ago.

The Clinton administration actually favors several key reforms, including legalizing the status of people who have been in the United States since 1986, restoring the provision that allows people to become permanent residents of the United States without first having to leave the country and re-enter, plus permanent legal status for Central American refugees.

Permanent resident status allows an immigrant to live in the United States permanently and lawfully. It is not the same as citizenship, which allows a person to vote and other privileges. Permanent residents are still subject to deportation if they commit a deportable offense.

Kerwin cited two great moral wrongs in the current approach. One, he said, is the unnecessary detention of people in jails and prisons. They don’t have to be in jail, he said, but the immigration service won’t aggressively pursue alternatives, such as house arrest, supervised release or electronic monitoring.

The other moral outrage, he said, is the detention of asylum seekers who deserve U.S. protection but find themselves shunted into prisons where conditions rival those in the troubled places they fled.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights has described that situation: refugees detained for 36 hours, deprived of food and water, shackled, often without an interpreter or using an interpreter “who works for the airline owned by the government they claim is persecuting them.”

Delays, disparities

Further, delays caused by the immigration service are Dickensian, the demands Catch-22. The Catholic network documents them in its reports:

• In Seattle, the U.S. immigration service processes a permanent resident application in 90 days. In Phoenix it takes just under three years.

• U.S. citizen Tomas Rodriguez’s Catch-22 bewilderment began during his long wait for the U.S. immigration service reply to his application for his wife, still living in Cuba, to join him. Finally, after a year, the immigration service returned the application to Rodriguez stating that he needed to include a biographic information form. In fact, the already-completed form was in the packet the U.S. immigration service had returned to Rodriguez.

Tens of thousands of new Americans want to bring in immediate family members from abroad -- children, parents, siblings. The current wait for U.S. citizens to bring in siblings is eight years. Kerwin said U.S. rules require applicants who are members of families already in the United States to be earning 125 percent of the federal poverty level. The earning minimum is intended to guarantee that the new family member won’t become a charge on the state.

“Seventy percent of all immigrant families can’t meet that 125 percent threshold,” said Kerwin. “About 20 percent of people that come into Catholic Charities offices to seek family reunification -- who otherwise would be eligible because of citizenship or permanent residency status -- can’t petition because they just don’t have enough money.” That’s one-fifth of immigrant families, he said.

At the local level, the U.S. immigration service has deteriorated into the arbitrary.

At naturalization hearings, the unfortunate immigrant discovers the naturalization test is dependent not on uniform U.S. standards, but on which immigration service officials are on duty that day. The service’s loss of documents, its rudeness and reputation for officiousness and slowness are legendary.

The Catholic network describes cases in which immigrants have had to arrive at 3 a.m. outside U.S. immigration offices in order to reach the naturalization counter before it closes at 5 p.m. Cost to the immigrant is not only the high naturalization application fee -- raised from $95 to $225, a one-time increase in the late 1990s, but also loss of work. The higher fee has resulted in a 70 percent decline in naturalization applications because the poor can’t afford them.

If that’s bad, there’s worse.

Losing rights by accident

At the U.S. border, there are so many capricious provisions that legal U.S. residents can lose their rights by accident. “If you live in a border community,” said Kerwin, “it’s possible you don’t know if you’re a citizen or a permanent resident. And if you’re a permanent resident and mistakenly vote, you are permanently barred from the United States. There is no waiver from that ruling. All these provisions are impoverishing stable, settled families. They’re tearing families apart.”

In addition to aiding the 121 Catholic groups working directly to assist immigrants around the United States, the Catholic network’s staff confronts these harsh realities firsthand. The 51 full-time staffers represent detainees at immigration service hearings and work one-on-one at desks in immigration centers with the detained.

Inside compounds operated by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, Catholic agencies can represent detainees, as well as present “know your rights” programs. Unlike the federal and state prison systems, the immigration service has no system of chaplains to provide spiritual care to those detained.

Jesuit Fr. Michael Gallagher, who worked in the El Paso, Texas, facility until this summer, served in that facility as an attorney, not a chaplain. Any spiritual care provided around the country is ad hoc, dependent on local volunteers, and their ability to persuade the U.S. immigration service to let them provide the programs.

If that spiritual support includes Bible studies that mention Matthew 25, as it did in Elizabeth, N.J., late last year, then agencies can suddenly find themselves locked out of helping those locked up.

Last Christmas, the immigration service canceled Bible studies in the Elizabeth Immigration Detention Center. In Newark, Jesuit Refugee Service’s Will Coley explained that the lectionary reading for the week was Matthew 25, in which Jesus tells his followers to welcome strangers and comfort those in prison. The Jesuit Refugee Service had been running the program for two-and-a-half years.

To Andrea J. Quarantillo, director of the immigration service’s Newark office, Matthew 25 was holding out too much hope. She ended the Jesuit Refugee Service’s Bible class, she said, because Matthew 25 dealt with “detention issues.” Matthew (25:31-46) is “a very rich passage,” Quarantillo later commented, “and the volunteers could have spoken for weeks about the passage and never gotten to detention.” Also canceled were the English-language classes initiated by the Jesuit Refugee Service.

Bible studies are now provided by local Episcopalians.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network’s reports, like Matthew 25, hold out promises of change.

CLINIC at a glance

Established by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 1988, the Catholic Legal Immigrant Network, sometimes known as CLINIC, offers legal and technical assistance to Catholic Charities offices and dioceses in 121 locations nationwide.

These local offices work through the Bureau of Immigration Appeals to provide refugees and immigrants with educational programs concerning their rights, and provide social and spiritual support.

Local programs frequently are funded through foundation grants. The Catholic network raises between $4 and $6 million annually. Its staff of 51 attorneys and experts is supported by U.S. Catholic bishops through the budget of the U.S. Catholic Conference in Washington.

Some network attorneys in regional offices work directly with the detained through a Jesuit Refugee Service fellowship program, which draws students from Jesuit law schools in New York, Boston, Los Angeles and New Orleans.

Contacts: the Catholic network’s Website: CLINICLEGAL.org

E-mail: national@cliniclegal.org

Jesuit Refugee Service, contact:JRSColey@aol.com.

National Catholic Reporter, September 29, 2000