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Legal Immigrants Deported If They Have a Criminal Past

By Jonathan S. LandayStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 5, 1996



WASHINGTON

Returning from her mother's funeral in her native Colombia, Olga Gonzalez had no idea that the immigration check at New York's Kennedy Airport would be any different from the other times she had gone through it in the 25 years she had been a legal United States resident. But it was.

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Ms. Gonzalez was arrested and shackled to a chair overnight. She was then interned for two months in the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Manhattan detention center. She would have been deported if it weren't for a reprieve from a judge, who ordered her freed pending a resolution of her case. She still faces expulsion if the INS wins.

Gonzalez was snared under new immigration laws requiring that all legal residents ever convicted in the US of most major and minor crimes be deported.

Quietly tacked onto the anti-terrorism act, the new statutes were signed by President Clinton April 24. They are intended to help reduce the crime rate in the US and cut the costs to prosecute and incarcerate prisoners.

But critics decry the provisions as draconian and say they are an attempt by lawmakers to exploit for political gain the strong anti-immigrant and get-tough-on-crime sentiments that have emerged around the country.

"It's coming from some real ideologues who are vicious and intend to have a zero-tolerance policy on anything related to a criminal conviction," says Jeanne Butterfield of the Washington-based American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Advocates of the new law, however, say the US needs to get tougher on immigrant criminals. "People who commit serious crimes have forfeited their right to come into this country," says K.C. McApline, deputy director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington.

INS officials are not sure of the number of legal permanent residents convicted of a crime in the US, but they estimate that it is in the tens of thousands. Hundreds have already been detained, mostly as they reenter the US from abroad. Many have been deported with no chance of returning.

The new laws are being challenged in courts as unconstitutional. Civil libertarians say the statutes deny to the legal residents their right - as affirmed by the US Supreme Court - to hearings. They also remove from immigration judges the discretion to exempt from detention and deportation those they determine pose no public threat to society.

"Many people's lives are being destroyed," says Judy Rabinovitz of the American Civil Liberties Union's Immigrants Rights Research Project. "They are in mandatory detention and are being deported. Many of them have kids who are US citizens and spouses who are US citizens." Gonzalez has a teenage son who is a US citizen.

Legal permanent resident status is granted to foreigners who have lived in the US for at least seven years, but do not opt for citizenship, or who have children or spouses who are citizens.

While they are rigorously enforcing the new statutes, INS officials concede that portions could be overturned in court. They also say the laws are counter-productive and costly. Because of mandatory detention, the agency will soon run out of space in its facilities and have to begin releasing illegal aliens to free up beds.