- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

Attorney General John Ashcroft says the government can detain illegal immigrants indefinitely when federal authorities determine they pose a threat to national security.
In a 19-page opinion requested by the Department of Homeland Security in a case involving a Haitian immigrant, Mr. Ashcroft said "such national security considerations clearly constitute a reasonable foundation for the exercise of my discretion to deny release on bond."
Signed last week, the opinion has not been made public but has been reviewed by several immigration judges and attorneys, who said yesterday that it appears to reaffirm that the Justice Department, not the Department of Homeland Security, retains primary authority over immigration law.
The opinion, according to those who have reviewed it, gives the attorney general "broad discretion" in determining the status of detained illegal immigrants in the country. It also overturns a recent ruling by an immigration appeals board in Florida in a case involving Haitian asylum seeker David Joseph, who sought release on bond while an immigration judge decided his case.
Several federal agencies had opposed Mr. Joseph's release on bond, fearing that national security would be threatened if his release from custody sparked an influx of Haitians looking to immigrate to the United States, taxing the overburdened Coast Guard, Border Patrol and other law enforcement resources aimed at guarding against terrorist attacks.
Mr. Joseph, 18, was among 216 undocumented Haitians and others aboard a 50-foot boat from Haiti that reached Biscayne Bay in Miami in October. Dozens of the passengers jumped from the boat, scurrying to a nearby causeway, where they tried to cram into passing vehicles. Others were picked up in the water by the Coast Guard.
The Bush administration changed its detention policy on Haitian refugees in December to discourage a feared exodus from the Caribbean nation.
According to the State Department, Haiti has become "a staging point" for non-Haitians, including Pakistanis and Palestinians, considered security risks looking to enter the United States. The Ashcroft ruling appears to apply to all illegal immigrants except Cubans, who are permitted by law to remain in the United States if they reach its shores, the sources said.
In his ruling, Mr. Ashcroft said the release of illegal immigrants in custody without performing adequate background checks would undercut U.S. immigration policy.
"Surges in such illegal migration by sea injure national security by diverting valuable Coast Guard and [Defense Department] resources from counterterrorism and homeland security responsibilities," Mr. Ashcroft said, noting the State Department report of "an increase in third-country nations using Haiti as a staging point for attempted migration to the United States."
The Department of Homeland Security had asked for the ruling in the Joseph case, seeking to block his release on an ordered $2,500 bond. An immigration judge in Miami ruled that the government did not have the legal authority to hold Mr. Joseph based on national security concerns.
Despite the bond order, Mr. Joseph remained in custody pending an appeal by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which argued that his release would threaten important national security interests. His asylum request was denied, a decision he appealed.
Within weeks of the September 11 attacks, Mr. Ashcroft ordered a new terrorism task force to crack down on illegal immigration. He said at the time that the United States "will not allow terrorists to use our hospitality as a weapon against us."
The attorney general has since given the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service and local law enforcement agencies the power to arrest persons on suspicions of violating immigration law.
The INS was split into separate agencies March 1 and transferred to the Department of Homeland Security. The Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services handles residency and asylum matters. Law enforcement responsibilities are handled by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.

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