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Since April, however, foreigners who set foot in a port of entry such as an international airport have had virtually none of the rights U.S. citizens take for granted. At the immigration checkpoint INS officers may summarily turn away anyone whose papers or verbal responses are suspect. For example, if an INS inspector believes a Colombian arriving on a tourist visa secretly wants to live permanently in the United States, that agent has the power to turn him back. The only check on this authority is a supervisor who must approve the order. And once the order has been given, the visitor can be barred from re-entry for a minimum of five years.
The new procedure is called "expedited removal," and during the hours or days noncitizens are caught in its bureaucratic wheels, they have no access to legal representation. The INS may even deny them the right to make phone calls to a consulate or embassy, or even to relatives in this country. Those who are summarily removed are detained until they leave and they have no right to appeal. In essence, the airport is a private fiefdom of the INS, in which it sits as judge, jury, and executioner.
INS officials in Washington, D.C., were well aware of the potential for abuse under IIRAIRA, and admonishments appear throughout the latest inspector's manual. "This new process gives immigration officers a great deal of authority over removal of aliens and will remain subject to serious scrutiny by the public, advocate groups, and Congress," the manual warns. "All officers should be especially careful to exercise objectivity and professionalism when refusing admission to aliens under this provision."
The manual also advises employees to "exercise extreme caution to ensure a proper decision in every instance in order to avoid attempts at litigation and possibly even further legislation curtailing the agency's newly acquired authority."
But in the law's nine-month existence, horror stories -- of legitimate visitors to the United States being mistreated, expelled, and then barred from re-entry -- have filtered into the media. And critics charge that in dozens of cases, INS officers have abused their newfound authority: putting noncitizens with valid visas into expedited removal, imprisoning them for days, and depriving them of food, water, and even access to restrooms.
The first INS inspectors at Miami International Airport to review visas and passports sit in booths at what is called "primary inspection," located in concourses E and B. All passengers, including American citizens, who disembark from international flights must pass through primary.
Normally the inspectors -- currently there are 39 in the morning and 54 in the afternoon -- review passports and visas, checking the pictures and typography for forgeries. They then ask a few quick questions: Where are you coming from? How long will you stay? How much money are you carrying? Most of the 20,000 travelers a day are passed through within minutes and sent on to baggage claim and customs.
If an inspector has doubts about a document or believes the visitor harbors a desire to overstay the allotted time on a visa, is not in fact a legal resident of the United States, or has a criminal record, he will order the individual to stand along a back wall. The inspector turns on a red light above the booth, and a county employee -- a terminal operations specialist -- takes the visitor to "secondary inspection."
Secondary inspection is the subject of a lawsuit against the INS filed in May in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., challenging the new rules on expedited removal as a violation of both the Constitution and congressional intent.
The lead plaintiff in the case is Honduran native Elba Wood, wife of former contra leader Commander Blas, who served as chief of the Atlantic Front of the Nicaraguan Resistance. As Wood relates her experience at Miami International Airport over the phone from her husband's office in Managua, her voice grows indignant. She arrived at the airport on Thursday, August 7, with her three-year-old daughter Silma. American Airlines flight 970 from Managua touched down at MIA shortly after 5:00 p.m. Wood remembers eyeing the long lines in primary and hoping she could still catch her 7:15 connecting flight to Houston, where her sister lives.
It was a little before 6:00 when Wood and her daughter took their turns at the immigration booth. After studying both passports, the INS inspector called over a supervisor, who also reviewed the documents. The inspector asked Wood in English whether she had previously been in the United States. Wood, who says she doesn't speak English well, told the inspector she'd visited in 1994. In Spanish, she requested an interpreter, but the inspector reportedly replied, "I don't speak Spanish."
A confused Wood and her daughter were taken to a waiting room in secondary filled with about twenty other travelers. (The INS, citing security and privacy concerns, denied a request by New Times to view the facilities in either the secondary or the detention areas, where those awaiting removal are kept; Wood and other sources offered descriptions.) To one side of the waiting room are several small cubicles where INS officers conduct interviews to determine whether applicants will be expelled or allowed to enter the country.