Cubans await details of promised hearings. Detainees dependent on government good faith to uphold agreements' spirit

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Rebellious Cubans from the Atlanta penitentiary are now dispersed to 47 prisons around the country, awaiting the upshot of their 11-day siege - the design of their deportation hearings. Deputy Attorney General Arnold Burns is expected to announce some details on the hearings this week.

On paper, the Cubans gave up their hostages and quit their uprisings in Atlanta and Oakdale, La., with little more than they began them, according to some immigration lawyers.

The agreements that ended the sieges, they say, are general and ambiguous enough - and of questionable enough legal authority - that the Cuban detainees must simply trust the Justice Department to uphold the spirit of the agreements.

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``I don't think the agreements ... have necessarily changed anything,'' says Arthur Helton, director of the Lawyers' Committee for International Human Rights political asylum project.

Although the Cubans have won case-by-case reviews, notes Alex Aleinikoff, a University of Michigan professor and former federal immigration official, ``it doesn't necessarily change the possibility of deportation.''

But the uprisings certainly changed the climate of opinion surrounding the Cubans. They are no longer forgotten men.

The faction-ridden Cuban exile community based in Miami has generally been embarrassed by the criminal image of the detainees. But now, prominent leaders have united behind the cause of the detainees and have pledged their influence to ensure fair hearings.

The handful of lawyers, politicians, and conscientious activists who, along with one federal judge, have been sounding the plight of the Cuban detainees for years without significant effect, now have the clout that comes with access to the news media.

With all the attention now trained on the Cubans, federal Judge Marvin Shoob of Atlanta says, the US government would be ``hard-pressed not to come up with some reasonable hearing.''

Judge Shoob has been seeking more individualized consideration of the Cubans since the early 1980s.

All the detainees are legally ``excludable'' from the US, even though they are already here and many have American families. Based on the legal fiction that they have not officially entered the country, their status rests at the discretion of the US attorney general.

Since Cuba would not allow them to be deported back to Cuba, they were in detention indefinitely. When Cuba agreed on Nov. 19 to take back 2,545 people deemed deportable under a 1984 accord with the US, 3,800 Cubans were in detention and several thousand other excludables had been re-paroled into US society.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service planned to begin deporting that 2,545 at a rate of 100 month, as soon as practical, according to an INS spokesman. Several hundred of the Cubans on the list had been released in the US after hearings determined they posed no danger to society.

Although the US is not required in the agreement to deport everyone on the list, the INS planned no further hearings to re-evaluate these people. With the Atlanta and Oakdale uprisings, the Cubans have won the promise of ``full, fair, and equitable'' hearings for each before anyone is deported.

Attorney General Edwin Meese III told reporters late Friday that the hearings would be administrative, rather than judicial. This means, at least typically, that they will be handled within the Justice Department rather than by independent arbitrators. If the hearings devolve into administrative reviews by INS officials, Judge Shoob says, ``I think that type of hearing would be suspect.''

Mr. Helton notes that the agreements signed at Oakdale and Atlanta don't pinpoint the criteria for the hearings. If they aim to decide the technical status of the Cubans, then almost all of them will remain deportable, even if for crimes such as possessing $10 worth of marijuana or failing to report to a parole officer. But if the reviews aim to weigh dangerousness, Helton says, ``then a majority of them will be allowed to stay.''

There are no guarantees yet, even for those Cubans who have already been deemed not dangerous and approved for released into US society. The Atlanta agreement demands that no ``arbitrary change'' be make in their release decisions. This implies that these men will not be deported, says Atlanta immigration lawyer Dale Schwartz, but it does not guarantee it. ``That still depends on the good faith of the attorney general and the INS,'' he says.

From as early as 1981, Shoob says, the US government took the position that ``everyone in Atlanta was a dangerous criminal.'' Shoob's court eventually found hundreds of inmates with no criminal records whatsoever, who were subsequently released, and others with relatively minor infractions. The government held to its view of the detainees, however, ``in the face of mounting evidence.''

At the time of the uprising, he says, between 500 and 600 of the 1,100 Atlanta inmates ``shouldn't have been out there at all,'' Shoob says.

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