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

INS officials tout their new authority as a boon to visitors because it offers quick resolution to cases. "People don't have to wait as long now," says Bywater, who adds that she loves working at the INS because there's no backlog. She would have some difficulty convincing Perlina Perez and Flor Aquino of that. Both women, who hail from the Dominican Republic, arrived in Miami on May 3 around 4:00 p.m. on American Airlines flight 1510 from Santo Domingo. The two planned to catch a connecting flight to New York City, where Perez intended to visit her daughter, who was recovering from heart surgery. Aquino wanted to buy clothing to resell back home.

The women say they cleared primary inspection only to be collared in customs and taken back to secondary. "They said our visas were fake," recalls the 71-year-old Perez. Both say they were detained in secondary for nine hours. "They never told me what was going on," fumes Aquino from a friend's house in Santo Domingo, where she and Perez had met for a telephone interview. "Since 1979 I've come to buy clothes here. I stay for six or eight days, then I leave."

For the elderly Perez, who can neither read nor write beyond signing her name, the situation was terrifying. She says INS officials browbeat her to sign documents she claims not to have understood. "They treated us like animals," she complains. "I was begging to go to the bathroom. They didn't give us food." After nine hours the two were transferred to the airport detention center. "When they took us upstairs, I asked why are we going back," she recalls. "I've never used drugs. I've never been to jail. I've never had problems with immigration. They told me to shut up and walk." By the time she was allowed to go to the restroom, Perez had defecated in her pants. She finally got the opportunity to change her underwear at 5:00 a.m., thirteen hours after her flight had landed. "My age demands that you treat me with respect," she says angrily. "When you Americans come to Santo Domingo, we treat you well."

Finally, at 11:00 the next morning, the two were taken to a flight leaving for Santo Domingo. Under watchful INS eyes, they waited until everyone had boarded before they were herded through a rear door. Stamped on their passports was a notice banning them from the United States for five years. It's a prohibition that Aquino says will ruin her clothing resale business and render her destitute.

Before IIRAIRA went into effect, all INS inspectors received two to three days of training about the new law. "This was a learning process for all of us," Bywater admits. But INS officials say little has changed in their job under IIRAIRA and that the training concerned mainly how to fill out new forms. "The new law doesn't change what an inspector does," says Bergeron from Washington.

Bywater insists that at MIA not only a supervisor but also one of the ten INS assistant port directors must sign off on every expedited order. "That's the beauty of it," she says. "It provides all these levels of review."

Under the law, the General Accounting Office is also required to undertake a study, slated for release on April 1, 1998, of how IIRAIRA is being applied. "The type of job we are doing is not terribly evaluative," acknowledges Marylane Renniger, senior evaluator on the study. "It's more descriptive. Obviously, if we see something that looks really bad, we will definitely bring that out."

The study will concentrate on five major ports of entry, including three airports: JFK in New York, LAX in Los Angeles, and MIA. In addition, the United Nations and a research project funded by the Ford Foundation are in negotiations with the INS to observe secondary removal. But so far the INS has managed to fend off such oversight.

In mid-October rumors spread among Miami's immigration lawyers of a group of plainclothes INS officials, the Tiger Team, who were coming to investigate agency misdeeds at the airport. Bywater referred New Times inquiries about the group to the district director, who faxed the following statement: "Tiger Team is a name often used in INS to refer to a team that is formed to conduct systematic reviews of procedures, policy, and practices. In relation to Miami International Airport, such a team was formed in mid-September to review the care, custody, and control of subjects within the inspectional process of the airport." But Bergeron, the INS's senior press officer, says he has never heard the term Tiger Team. Further attempts to obtain information from INS were unsuccessful. The review is considered an internal management issue and, as such, "not considered to be public information."

Nonetheless, according to Bergeron, the new rules are working fine. "Fundamentally, the conclusion is that implementation at this stage is going well," he says; however, "We are considering adding an additional level of review." When asked why the INS would consider additional oversight, he explains, "It's a judgment call. Many of the circumstances are not black and white. It makes sense to have another consideration to make sure the consensus is that it's the right one."

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