January 27, 2005
Hala Ahmed, whose husband is in jail in Sudan because of his political views, left her country last April and arrived in Miami seeking political asylum. But her initial treatment here made her feel like a common criminal.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, fitted Ahmed, 45, with an electronic ankle bracelet to monitor her movements. She was not allowed to leave her sponsor's home in Miami-Dade County after 6 p.m. She had to wear the bracelet, an inch-wide strap holding a black box the size of a cigarette pack, for four months. She attempted to hide it by wearing pants and long skirts while at work.
"People associate ankle bracelets with criminals," said Jack Wallace of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, who worked to help Ahmed receive asylum status. "She had the feeling of being ashamed."
Ahmed is one of many political asylum seekers in South Florida and around the country that has opted for an electronic ankle bracelet rather than detention since ICE began the program to weed out potential terrorists among illegal aliens. About the time Ahmed's bracelet was removed in July, ICE was launching a new program, the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, which includes electronic bracelets as well as intensive phone monitoring. Miami-Dade is a test location.
The Department of Homeland Security argues that the bracelets and the Intensive Supervision Appearance Program are ways of keeping track of illegal aliens without detention while freeing up badly needed space in facilities such as the Krome Detention Center in western Miami-Dade. It helps ensure that illegal aliens appear for court dates.
Michael Dougherty, director of enforcement for ICE, told Congress last year that these alternatives are more cost effective and allow his agency to detain more aliens who may pose a threat to public safety. He also said early results show a higher appearance rate for immigration court proceedings, compared with releasing illegal immigrants on their own recognizance.
Finding effective alternatives to detention is needed because since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the detention rate for illegal immigrants has dramatically increased. ICE contracts with local jails to house detainees. But some on both sides of the immigration debate - those who favor a tougher crackdown and those who favor greater acceptance of immigration - object to the new programs.
Juan Mann, a Virginia lawyer who runs the Internet site DeportAliens.com, said ICE's electronic supervision program "smells like another scheme to get illegal aliens and criminal alien residents out of immigration detention and postpone removals."
Advocates for immigrants aren't happy either. They say the ankle bracelet program is an example of the heavy-handed measures taken by the federal government to weed out potential terrorists. They argue the bracelets are applied to harmless asylum seekers who otherwise would be released on their own or on bond.
Homeland Security officials say the increased efforts, including expedited legal proceedings, are crucial to America's safety. Deportation of illegal aliens increased 26 percent in 2003 from 2000.
"The 9/11 Commission Report details how our immigration system was exploited by terrorists, and we know that other dangerous criminals have sought illegal entry by similar means," said Michael J. Garcia, the assistant secretary for ICE, in the department's 2004 annual report. "We are bringing to bear the full force of our authorities to locate and remove those in the country illegally."
Cheryl Little, an attorney and executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami, said she has no problem with tougher rules and enforcement aimed at deflecting potential terrorists. But she argues that many ICE programs have hurt legal and illegal immigrants with no criminal records and who are not suspected of terrorism links.
Nationally, deportation of noncriminal aliens increased more than 10 percent from 2002 to 2003, while deportation of criminal aliens increased 6.6 percent, according to Homeland Security statistics. Noncriminal aliens account for about 43 percent of those deported last year. In the Miami area, the number of immigrants allowed to stay in the United States has declined by more than half since 2001. Nearly 48,000 people legally immigrated to Miami-Dade in 2001. In 2003, only 21,000 were allowed.
"We are concerned that President Bush's war on terrorism translates into a war on immigrants." Little said. "Nowhere is it felt more acutely than Florida."
Little and free-lance journalist Kathy Klarreich have spent months researching the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on immigration in South Florida. They plan to release a 150-page report, "Securing Our Borders: Post-9/11 Scapegoating of Immigrants," next month.
Little said the report will cite cases where federal policies have resulted in:
Department of Homeland Security spokeswoman Barbara Gonzalez in Miami declined to comment on the unreleased Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center report because she hadn't seen it.
Miami immigration attorney David S. Berger, who represents asylum seekers from Russia and Eastern Europe, said he has experienced particular problems with Homeland Security's Citizen and Immigration Service Center in Texas.
"The officers are not only stricter but less reasonable," Berger said. "Since 9/11, it seems there has been more training toward denying a case, where in the past it was toward adjudicating a case in a fair and reasonable manner."
Mann, however, said the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center's report is part of the effort by pro-immigration attorneys to elicit sympathy for their clients. He said "the real problem" is the system of immigration courts under the Justice Department's Executive Office for Immigration Review, which he complained keeps cases in a "perpetual bureaucratic limbo."
Asylum cases are a particular focus of controversy in the immigration area.
An applicant qualifies for asylum in the United States if he or she can demonstrate persecution or having a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her native country. In 2003, 46,000 political asylum cases were filed or reopened in the United States. Less than 25 percent were approved, according to Homeland Security statistics. That's down from more than 30 percent in 2000.
Before Sept. 11, asylum cases were difficult to win in immigration court, immigration attorneys say. But since the terrorist attacks, the immigrant advocacy center says, asylum seekers may not even get a chance to argue their cases in court.
That's because an expedited removal process has been in force at airports and border checkpoints since 1997. Under expedited removal, asylum seekers are not granted a hearing before an immigration judge and face a five-year bar to legal re-entry.
Last year the Bush administration expedited the deportation process even more by giving Border Patrol officers the authority of immigration judges. Officers now can turn away asylum seekers within 100 miles of U.S. borders.
There also have been cases where asylum seekers have been charged with attempting to enter the country using false documents, which is a felony, and sent back to their home country without a chance to state a formal asylum claim.
Colombian national Jose A. Builes-Medina was one. A farmer, Builes-Medina arrived at Miami International Airport last June using a false Venezuelan passport and immediately told authorities his real name and asked for asylum. He said he had been shot and left for dead by guerrillas after he refused to pay extortion, and had police reports and medical records to back up his claims. Nevertheless, he was prosecuted for using false documents to enter the country and recently was convicted.
A felony charge is a kiss of death to those seeking legal entry into the United States. Courts repeatedly have upheld immigration officials' right to deny access to aliens with a criminal record.
U.S. Attorney Marcos D. Jimenez in Miami has come under particular criticism for allegedly targeting asylum seekers for prosecution. But Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlos B. Castillo defended his office's prosecution policy.
"It is illegal to use false documents in an attempt to sneak into the United States, and it is a crime our office will prosecute," Castillo said. "As always, we will consider any legitimate asylum claims during our investigation, charging and prosecution of these crimes. But at the same time, we will not allow fabricated asylum claims to deter our efforts."
The international 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees recognized the difficulties faced by asylum seekers forced by circumstances beyond their control to enter a country of refuge illegally.
In 2003, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees responded to a request for an advisory opinion by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, saying it was "concerned that refugees seeking admission to the U.S. may be prosecuted and penalized for illegal entry before they are given the opportunity to seek asylum."
The problem of identifying legitimate asylum seekers existed before 9/11, and U.S. authorities have become accustomed to false claims of political persecution made by those who don't otherwise qualify for entry.
"There's no question there are a lot of bogus asylum seekers and have been for a number of years," said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for Numbers USA, a nonprofit group based in Arlington, Va., that seeks to slow the nation's immigration rate.
Little argued, however, that using false documents is sometimes the only way people can escape persecution in their country. "If you're fleeing a country, you're not going to go to the government you're trying to escape from to get the papers to leave," Little said.
Hala Ahmed was able to get into the United States with fraudulent papers, but she had bad timing.
Less than a year before she fled her native Sudan, Homeland Security launched Operation Liberty Shield in 2003. It was one of the department's first programs after it was given control over immigration and asylum issues. Liberty Shield detained all asylum seekers from a list of 35 countries where al Qaeda cells were believed to exist. Sudan was one of those countries.
Ahmed's arrival in the United States also coincided with a new pilot program that used electronic ankle bracelets to track nonviolent illegal aliens. Miami was one of three locations chosen for the experiment, along with Detroit and Anchorage. The use of ankle bracelets was expanded last summer as part of ICE's Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, which also is being tested in Miami, along with seven other cities.
Ahmed arrived at Miami International Airport last April, before the implementation of the supervision appearance program. She passed the preliminary asylum screening that allowed her temporary asylum until she had a formal hearing. Still, she was detained.
A speaker of Arabic, she spoke little English and no one there spoke Arabic. She couldn't get news of her husband, a member of the Sudanese opposition party, who remained jailed in Sudan. With the help of Jack Wallace, an attorney with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, and a Sudanese sponsor in southern Miami-Dade, Ahmed was released about a month later under the condition that she wear the ankle bracelet.
Wallace considers Ahmed fortunate in that she had a sponsor, a U.S. citizen originally from Sudan, who was willing to house her and give her a job. The sponsor had to add another phone line at home to accommodate the transmission to Ahmed's ankle bracelet.
She wore the ankle bracelet until July 2004, when an immigration judge granted her permanent asylum.
Immigrant advocates agree that requiring asylum seekers to wear an electronic bracelet is preferable to detaining them. "It's a benefit to people who would otherwise be sitting in Krome in an orange jumpsuit," Berger said.
But anecdotal evidence shows the bracelets are being used on people who otherwise wouldn't be detained, Wallace said. The Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center believes that all of Miami's 300 allotted electronic ankle bracelets have been placed on refugees who previously would have been released on their own recognizance until their formal asylum hearing.
Berger, however, says that it is beneficial to those who otherwise would have to post a bond of $5,000 or more to be released from detention.
Immigrant advocates also have concerns about state and local law enforcement officials increasingly serving as immigration cops.
In Florida, local police now have access to immigration records on their patrol car computers. Thirty-five state law and local enforcement officers throughout the state - including 11 full-time and four part-time in Miami - have been deputized to act as ICE agents. Another 35 have been federally approved for 2005.
At a meeting this month of the Miami-Dade Community Relations Board, some community leaders complained that law enforcement's expanded powers are being misused. They said police are targeting Hispanics and Haitians in South Florida for immigration-related traffic stops and questioning at bus stations.
Little argues that instead of providing more security, the growing role of local police in immigration enforcement has created widespread fear in the world of legal immigrants and illegal aliens in South Florida. The immigrants and illegal aliens are afraid of police, afraid to send their children to school, and afraid of the government in general.
"These sweeps are causing people to go underground," Little said. "People in the ethnic communities are afraid to come to the Community Relations Board meeting, even though they are here legally."
In Miami's Haitian-American community, worries about being deported have increased, said Joseph Petit-Geune of Haitian-American Affairs in Miami, which provides immigration services. He said those fears were founded on events such as the deportation of about 150 Haitians after Hurricane Jeanne had devastated parts of their country last September.
"They couldn't get back to their houses," Petit-Geune said of the deported Haitians. "They had no money in their pockets. You can't say anything, because if we do, [President] Bush will call us a terrorist."
Mann, the immigration opponent, called such claims "rubbish." He argued that tougher immigration enforcement is "desperately needed."
"Consider the source and follow the money trail," he said. "Doesn't every private immigration attorney think that their particular client is being unfairly targeted for removal?"
January 27, 2005