Welcome to America. Now Go Home.

Granted sweeping new powers by Congress, the INS is quickly earning a global reputation for cruel and capricious conduct at Miami International Airport

Little passed Wood's story on to Anthony Lewis of the New York Times, who included it in a series of columns critical of the new immigration law. When Lewis asked an agency spokesman about the case, he received a response from INS Commissioner Doris Meissner. "This was a complete mistake on the part of the immigration officer, so far as we can tell," she said. "I am ashamed that it happened. I hope that this is a totally isolated incident."

Some immigration lawyers are willing to accept Meissner's good intentions, but they say a "disconnect" remains between Washington, D.C., INS headquarters and district offices like the one in Miami. "Sometimes there is a deviation from national policy and how it is implemented at the local district office," says Charles Wheeler, an immigration lawyer in San Francisco who is following the new law. "Madeleine Albright dictates something and the State Department salutes, but with the INS it's a different matter."

For one thing, there's a question of bias. Critics have long accused the INS of selectively targeting people based on profiles of nationality or race. Of the 1026 non-U.S. citizens expelled under expedited removal at MIA since April, the leading nationalities were Colombian (156) and Jamaican (146). "I'm getting complaints from dozens of people on a weekly basis," says John Atkins, Jamaica's consul general in Miami. "The perception is that we are being singled out. But I can't intercede on a blanket basis. I can only deal with it case by case."

On October 10 Little and staff attorney Joan Friedland took their stories to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The investigative body is part of the Organization of American States, headquartered in Washington, D.C. The commission exists to explore and make recommendations on human rights violations in the Americas. The twice-yearly hearings often encompass offenses such as extrajudicial killings and torture in countries like Guatemala and Cuba, but the two immigration lawyers from Miami found a receptive audience for their testimony on INS detention and expedited removal procedures in Miami.

Little and Friedland spoke mainly of the new difficulties for asylum applicants under IIRAIRA. Yet it was expedited removal that grabbed the attention of the commissioners from Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela. They grilled Beau Cooper, associate general counsel for the INS, who attended the hearing to present the government's position, recalls Little. "They all had bad experiences at the Miami airport," she says.

Indeed, speaking from his Buenos Aires law office, Commissioner Oscar Fappiano explains how even his position with the OAS has not spared him ill treatment from Miami's INS officers. "We've had problems in Miami," he says. "They assume everyone is a lawbreaker, when in fact it's just a minority."

According to Fappiano, immigration authorities have been overzealous more than once in questioning the validity of his OAS visa. In one incident, while on the way to a commission meeting in Washington, he made the mistake of telling an INS inspector he had come to work. "You have to be very careful what you say to them," he warns. The INS inspector almost didn't let the Argentine into the United States, insisting his visa did not allow him to work while in the country. "I don't know what all the codes mean, and they don't give you a chance to defend yourself," Fappiano says.

Annette Bywater, an INS assistant port director at MIA, declined to respond to specific questions about Wood's case, citing issues of privacy. But she does say, "I don't think the facts are all really there. There is more to a story than meets the public's eye."

Bywater defends the agency's work at MIA. She maintains that about 85 percent of the inspectors are bilingual and insists that in cases where interpreters are needed, the INS provides them. "We always explain everything to the applicant in their language," she says. Russell Bergeron, senior press officer for the INS in Washington, agrees, adding that all inspectors at MIA receive courses in Spanish, despite the fact it is not required by law. Yet a common complaint among those alleging INS mistreatment at the Miami airport is that inspectors were not only unwilling to communicate with them in Spanish but were often hostile when asked to do so.

In response to allegations that the airport detention facility is overcrowded, that people must sleep on the floor without blankets, and that INS officials berate those who try to leave their seats and refuse them access to telephones and even restrooms, Bywater says the area is in fact a pleasant place, with televisions, magazines, and well-stocked refrigerators. There are two pay telephones, and a detention officer feeds detainees every few hours.

She also contends that INS guidelines stress that no one should be detained at the airport for more than six hours. "If we can't get a flight out, they are supposed to be put in Krome," she says. "For example, if they come in at 5:00 p.m. and they don't have a flight, they are taken to Krome for the night."

Nor is everyone who is removed forbidden to re-enter for five years. During the expedited removal process, INS can offer noncitizens the right to withdraw their applications, though they still must leave the country. "I'm not going to bar an elderly lady for five years who overstayed her visa by a few days," Bywater says. In addition, the agency can also allow "deferred admission" if it feels an applicant made an honest mistake that can be rectified without sending the person back home. But out of 2400 secondary investigations at MIA, deferred admission was granted to just 104 people. And only 329 were allowed to withdraw their applications and avoid the five-year ban. (Nationwide, the INS grants the right to withdraw applications to 60 to 65 percent of the people who undergo expedited removal, according to Bergeron.)

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