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Wood recalls pleading with officials to explain what was happening to her. "These gentlemen are severe when they speak with someone," she says. "When I asked whether I would miss my plane, they said, 'Don't ask questions.'" She sat in the room for two hours. When she was finally able to flag an inspector to ask if she and her daughter could use the restroom, she was told they were all too busy to escort her. At around 8:00 p.m. she was summoned to one of the cubicles. An interpreter was present for the 90-minute interview that followed, during which Wood learned she was being denied entry for having committed two crimes during her 1994 visit.
Wood could not understand her offenses. Yes, in 1994, she had come to the States while in the early stages of her pregnancy to visit her sister. During the visit she had health problems that caused complications with the pregnancy; weeks passed while she took tests and awaited the results. Finally her doctors decided to deliver the baby prematurely, and Wood was forced to overstay her visa.
Her second crime? While in the hospital, she received Medicaid from the Department of Health and Human Services. "I didn't know I was going to give birth in the United States," she says. "I came to visit my sister. I am not a drug dealer, robber, murderer, or prostitute. I am not a criminal. I haven't done anything."
Five hours after her first interview, Wood and her daughter were allowed to use the restroom. At around 11:30 p.m., after being fingerprinted and photographed, she was given a small carton of milk and a box of cereal for her daughter. A short while later an INS official transferred her upstairs to a round structure that, ironically, had formerly housed an immigration court. Today the area is a detention center for those awaiting removal.
In the detention center Wood was interviewed by two more INS officers who she says were particularly abusive. "If you entered as a tourist, why didn't you bring $20,000 for Disneyland?" one of the inspectors allegedly demanded. "It's like they are trained to treat people poorly," she complains. "Psychological torture is what it is." When she asked for a pen so she could write down the name of the INS officer questioning her, he raised his voice. "Your visa is fraudulent!" she says he bellowed. "These are federal charges, and your child is going to be handed over to the state!"
The officials also asked Wood if she wanted to apply for asylum. (In order to prevent those with legitimate asylum requests from being returned to countries where they could face danger, INS officials are given wide latitude to recommend such interviews. They're instructed to consider any indication of fear, verbal or not.) "They told me they would send me to Krome, and I said, 'No, no -- just send me home.'" But this was impossible, they told her; the paperwork had already been completed for an asylum request.
At 3:30 a.m. they gave Wood several papers in English, which she says she was unable to read. If she didn't sign them, she was warned, she would face imprisonment. Three and a half hours later she was allowed to call to her mother-in-law in Miami. At 10:30 that Friday morning her mother-in-law came and picked up Silma. Wood spent all of Friday at the airport before being transported by bus to Krome at around 2:00 a.m. Saturday, despite her request to return to Nicaragua. Her traveling companions were men in shackles.
Kept in Krome a full week, Wood told her story to workers for the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which is also a plaintiff in the federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C. When it became clear she did not wish to pursue an asylum case, her daughter was returned, and on August 14 the two flew back to Nicaragua, banned from the United States for five years.
Outraged at the treatment of his wife, Commander Blas wrote an angry letter to the State and Justice departments, the U.S. Embassy in Nicaragua, and Sen. Jesse Helms. "I was an ally of the United States government in the decade of the '80s," wrote Blas, whose real name is Osorno Coleman. "Now that the war is over, we are garbage to you, with your acts as shown to my family, you treat us as if we were criminals or drug dealers, enemies of the United States. That is how you Americans are to those that serve you well you treat very badly."
"Congress never intended that this law be applied to people with facially valid visas who never committed any fraud," argues Washington, D.C.-based Anna Marie Gallagher, the lead counsel in Wood's case against the government. And, she alleges, there is no accountability within INS.
Meanwhile, the agency has filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that it is baseless. A judge is scheduled to hear oral arguments on the motion January 12.
"It's like Miami International Airport has become a police state," says Cheryl Little, an attorney and executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. "The idea is to send as many people back as possible without legal representation. Even if their papers are genuine, by the time they're back home there is no way to confer with them."