MIAMI — A young sneakered man from Jamaica sits fidgeting near the end of Concourse E of the Miami International Airport awaiting word on his imminent departure. He is not seated in a gate area, however. He is in court - the first immigration court set up in a US airport.
The airport court, which opened as a pilot project July 1, is part of a joint federal and state initiative to reduce the number of illegal immigrants in Florida. The project - though controversial - may be adopted at other airports across the country if authorities deem it successful.
About 5,000 foreigners were caught at the Miami airport last year trying to get into the US with phony passports, improper visas, or otherwise unacceptable travel documents.
Until the court opened, federal immigration inspectors had given them an opportunity to fly back to where they had come from, without a hearing. If they agreed to return immediately, they were assured no record of their attempted illegal entry would be maintained by US authorities. That "voluntary return," as it's paradoxically termed in immigration jargon, is no longer an option.
Now, they are sent to the airport court. If found guilty, a permanent record is created, and anyone trying to re-enter the US within a year will face criminal charges with penalties of up to $15,000 in fines and five years in prison.
So far, an average of seven cases a day have been heard.
"The objective is to establish some credibility in our immigration law," says Russ Bergeron, an Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman in Washington. "In the past, the enforcement effort lacked credibility, since if an individual attempted illegal entry there was no punitive action taken against him."
Some immigration lawyers and refugee advocates are concerned that swift INS action at the airport may lead to abuses. They are particularly worried that asylum seekers could be swept into the swiftness of the airport court's schedule and end up on a plane back to persecution.
"It often takes asylum seekers a long time to be able to fully explain what happened to them and to be able to provide details about their cases, because they're traumatized, they're fearful, they're not sure who you are," says Joan Friedland, a lawyer at the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), in Miami.
Ms. Friedland charges that INS inspectors have sometimes "harshly interrogated" detainees and pressured some bona fide asylum seekers not to pursue their requests. Would-be asylum seekers are sometimes afraid to discuss their fears with immigration officers, who they often believe may be in cahoots with authorities in their own country, she says.
"Basically the immigration judges are rubber-stamping the INS decisions in this to give it a gloss of legality," says Cheryl Little, a lawyer and executive director of the FIAC.
Immigration officials reject the charges.
"Once that individual arrives in the United States there is nothing to prevent that individual from raising that asylum request, either with the INS officers who first encounter the individual, or when they appear before the immigration judge," says Mr. Bergeron.
Requests for political asylum and other challenges to exclusion from the US are not heard by the airport court, INS officials say, because such cases require weeks to prepare and would run counter to the new court's pace.
Since the new airport court was launched, one person detained has asked for asylum, says acting airport director Michael Hrinyak.