- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 24, 2001

NEW YORK American justice makes promises most citizens know by heart: Innocent until proven guilty. The right to remain silent. The right to an attorney, and to a speedy and public trial.
But those promises don't apply to thousands of refugees who come to the United States each year.
Undocumented asylum seekers some fleeing clan violence in Somalia, rape in Kosovo, or forced sterilization in China arrive uninvited and are sent to urban detention centers and rural county jails. Held without bail, sometimes imprisoned with rapists, murderers and thieves, they are virtually without rights under U.S. law because they don't have valid passports or visas.
Mohamed Jama Abdille is among them. He grew up an orphan in Somalia, and the mystery of his parentage made him suspect in the east African nation where alliances are built on clan heritage. Although a judge found his tale of torture and repeated arrest true, Mr. Abdille has been jailed in Georgia since April 1999.
Karyna Sanchez said she fled her ex-husband's death threats after their political differences spiraled out of control in Ecuador. When the Immigration and Naturalization Service locked her in a New York detention center, the young mother handed her 3-year-old daughter over to friends.
According to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, she saw her daughter only twice during the year it took to get their case heard. Mrs. Sanchez dropped her asylum claim after losing the first round. Last year, mother and daughter were deported.
Patrick Mkhizi grew up in Zaire, the son of an opponent to then-President Mobutu Sese Seko. He came to America aboard a Greek freighter after being beaten and imprisoned by soldiers he says attacked his family on Oct. 7, 1996.
Mr. Mkhizi won asylum after more than three years in INS custody, some of it spent in isolation. When he won his case last November, guards at a York, Pa., jail awoke him in the middle of the night without explanation, drove him 171 miles to the INS facility in Elizabeth, N.J., and set him free with $2.03, according to INS records.
Beginning this month, the INS will phase in new standards giving inmates better access to lawyers and legal materials, but the rules don't guarantee legal representation or other rights Americans take for granted.
"It's really ironic because the United States in some ways is so looked upon as a leader in refugee protection," said Eleanor Acer, senior asylum coordinator for the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. "Yet, when it comes to how we treat asylum seekers who come here to the United States, for some reason that generosity is just not there."
Before April 1997, the INS recognized many undocumented asylum seekers as well-intentioned. The United States gave them working papers and let them began building lives while immigration courts processed the paperwork.
But by the mid-1990s, such cases buried the INS. More and more people seemed to call themselves refugees just to get the green card that came with an asylum application. Some took jobs and disappeared into the population, skipping their asylum hearings.
Then Congress slammed the gates.
Since 1997, those whose passports or visas aren't in order when they arrive have been deported or jailed. Human rights advocates complain of inadequate medical care and the incarceration of asylum seekers alongside common criminals.
The fight for asylum can be long: 35 days on average, but years in some cases.
Pierre Ditunga Mulamba paid for his legal residency in America with four months of his life.
He arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York last April, telling authorities he had been beaten, starved and shocked with electricity for his political activism in Congo.
He escaped by using a tourist visa in someone else's name.
"It was the only way for me to travel. If I got to the United States, I could tell them the reason I left," he said in a recent interview.
But when he arrived, Mr. Mulamba was detained.
The INS has about 20,000 people detained on any given day. Most are criminals waiting to be deported. But about 3,000 a year are asylum seekers like Mr. Mulamba.
Asylum is granted only to those persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, social group, or politics.
Mr. Mulamba requested asylum after debarking the plane, and authorities eventually found his story true. But INS agents at the border don't have the power to judge a case's merit. They shackled Mr. Mulamba to a chair while he filled out some papers. Later, at the Wackenhut Correctional Facility in Queens, N.Y., he was given an orange prison jumpsuit and confined to a windowless dormitory with other detainees who ate, slept, and showered under guard. A chain-link barrier obscured the sky over the center's courtyard the only place inmates are allowed outside.
Miss Acer, whose job is to help immigrants, says detaining undocumented asylum seekers is unfair, especially in a country "founded on the refugee tradition."
She worries most about legal representation for those in INS custody, in part because a Georgetown University study found that asylum seekers who have attorneys are four to six times more likely to win their cases as those without.
Applicants need expert witnesses to testify, a doctor to confirm past tortures, and documents from overseas to back up their stories. It can take two months or more for a lawyer to prepare a case.
But refugees are not assigned taxpayer-funded attorneys the way criminal defendants are. It's up to the defendant to pay or find someone to help for free. And many are poor, she said.
Asylum seekers are not allowed to speak to a lawyer or immigration judge until after they have met with at least two INS agents. Under the law enacted in 1996, they must first pass through a preliminary INS inspection, then explain their fear of returning home to a second agent. Remaining silent means being deported under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act.
Later, during a more lengthy INS interview, detainees are allowed an attorney to help explain the process, but the rules don't allow the lawyers to make closing statements or object to any INS questions.
"This really adds to their trauma," said Panos Moumtzis, a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. "Just the sound of the cells and the prison guards, for some of them it's exactly what they have gone through back home."
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced a bill to end mandatory detention for asylum seekers who are not considered a flight risk or danger. The legislation would also allow the courts to order INS to parole certain detainees.
Depression and anxiety grip detainees. In a letter titled "Only the Corpse Knows the Torment of the Grave," Mr. Abdille, the Somali immigrant jailed in Kennesaw, Ga., writes from his cell that he has "fallen into the hands of merciless people."
In broken English, he compares jail to a cemetery, his fellow inmates to the dead. The letter includes a drawing of a man in shackles being pulled to the ground. The caption reads: "Behind bars 540 days and calling for help."


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