Cleaning Up Krome

Lawyers Tina Fassnacht and Stacy Taeuber are all-purpose advocates at the West Dade immigrant camp

To get from downtown Miami to the federal detention camp officially known as the Krome Service Processing Center, one must drive west to where the Tamiami Trail meets the Everglades. The road parallels the C-4 canal, where the scaly back of an alligator occasionally pokes through the water or a cattle egret steps gingerly upon the bank. Modernity is catching up with this once-desolate stretch and For Sale signs line the brush along the canal. The trail meets Krome Avenue, where the Miccosukees are adding a hotel to their gambling mecca. A left on Krome and a half-mile down the road brings the traveler to a concrete sign. Behind trees and bushes lies the place that intimates simply call Krome.

If one decides to turn right at the sign, a little more than a half-mile past fences, concertina wire, and speed bumps is a guard post. It is just the first of several checkpoints on the way to the interior of a camp few outsiders know. This is the only part of America that some would-be immigrants will ever touch, except for the airport or beach where they come ashore.

That's not to say that Krome is completely unknown. During its eighteen-year history, the center has been forced into the public eye by a litany of scandal, usually brought to light by lawyers, journalists, and whistle blowers. Throughout the 1990s news accounts have detailed allegations of inmate neglect, sexual misconduct, beatings, and guards' use of stun guns. Detainees regularly staged hunger strikes. Advocates held demonstrations to protest the conditions and testified before innumerable boards to draw attention to abuses. In 1990 two teachers who worked at Krome were removed after complaining to the media about inmate treatment. In 1995 INS officials misled a seven-person congressional delegation about camp conditions. The incident blossomed into a scandal popularly known as "Kromegate," which resulted in the removal of the facility's Officer in Charge (OIC), Constance Weiss. (A civil service judge subsequently exonerated Weiss, concluding that she just followed orders.)

It wasn't until September 14, 1998, that Edward Stubbs, a Miami native who ran the U.S. Marshals Service's Palm Beach County office, was appointed as OIC. (Several others served on an interim basis.) Stubbs's daunting task involves nothing less than an overhaul of the wayward institution. Many believe he is off to a promising start. In his first three and a half months, he has won kudos from some community groups and the Miami Herald for his frank assessment of Krome's problems, as well as his responsiveness, ambitious capital improvement plan, and release programs. Skeptics caution that it's premature to declare victory. Many of Stubbs's most serious challenges stem from a changing U.S. immigration policy and a recalcitrant INS bureaucracy.

One factor in Stubbs's ultimate success might be a unique experiment that he inherited. A year before his arrival, two young public interest lawyers began working within the institution. Representing organizations that frequently criticize the INS and Krome, they could be the new OIC's most helpful allies or his harshest critics.

Fresh from law school, Tina Fassnacht and Stacy Taeuber began their professional careers in jobs that quickly became part of a crusade. Sponsored by the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) and the Catholic Legal Immigration Network (CLINIC) respectively, the pair came to Krome to help detainees seeking asylum. In most cases the lawyers help clients to prove a "credible fear" of persecution in their native countries. The two also report on conditions and help noncitizens convicted of crimes fight deportation, among other things.

During their seventeen months at the camp, each has struggled to cope with a never-ending stream of human suffering. They are an unlikely pair, different in temperament and background. Taeuber, slender and usually soberly dressed, is a long-time activist whose car is covered with bumper stickers that embrace causes ranging from disarmament to ending U.S involvement in Central America. The daughter of academics at the University of Wisconsin, she is every bit the even-keeled midwesterner. Fassnacht, with a ready smile and curly hair, is a conservative from a small town in New York State. Effusive and warm, she is the type to argue with INS officials one day and then bring them home-baked cookies the next. Both Fassnacht and Taeuber aim to make Krome a more compassionate and logical place. Spending a few days with them gives one a sense of what it will take to change the camp.

For Tina Fassnacht a recent Thursday at Krome begins like most workdays: talking with Lulseged Dhine. The Ethiopian Jew has been held by the INS for nine years, longer than any other detainee presently in custody. He fled to the United States in 1978 after his parents and a brother were murdered. His three sisters have also disappeared into the turmoil of his native land. The INS gave Dhine conditional permission to enter the United States pending consideration of his residency application. But he started abusing drugs and by 1990 had accumulated seven misdemeanor convictions, more than half drug related. He attributes his actions to trauma from the loss of his family and lack of support in the United States, but insists he has mended his ways. "I made some small errors and I have paid a heavy price," he says. Because of the convictions the INS can deport him. But Dhine wants to stay because, he states, Ethiopians will persecute him for his Judaism. The INS has rejected the claim and his appeal. He is currently awaiting deportation.

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