Immigrants Fleeing Human Rights Violations Deserve
from the U.S. Than More of the Same
"This is a country that respects peoples rights. I come
here because this country is a freedom country for me to raise my family." Bi Meng Zheng, while being held at an INS
Bi Meng Zheng fled China for the promise of freedom. Sadly, reality and promise dont
The Immigration and Naturalization Service jailed Zheng after he missed his first
immigration court hearing. He was ordered deported, but China refused to repatriate him.
Zheng, who never committed a crime, spent four years in jail. Zhengs lost years were
of no consequence to the INS, which released him only after human rights advocates
campaigned zealously for his freedom.
INS policy regarding "lifers" or indefinite detainees came into
the public spotlight when detained Cubans took hostages and threatened to kill their
After nearly a week, they released their unharmed hostages and surrendered, but only
because the US had negotiated a highly unusual agreement with Cuba to accept their return.
Nationally the INS warehouses approximately 4,000 "lifers" immigrants
who have been ordered deported but cannot to be removed for various reasons.
Some, like the Cuban hostage takers, have completed their criminal sentences, but remain
jailed because their native countries have no diplomatic relations with the U.S. Some,
like Zheng, with no criminal history, languish in jail because their countries refuse to
accept them back. Others are stateless.
While taking hostages and threatening them with harm or death is deplorable, the Cubans in
Louisiana believed they had nothing to lose. Theirs was a life sentence in the legal limbo
of an INS quagmire.
How did the United States become a country that indefinitely locks up people who have
committed no crime, or if they did have already served their sentence? How can a lifelong
incarceration, not imposed by a court, be characterized as anything other than cruel and
The answer lies partially in the tough 1996 Illegal Immigration
Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act, which awarded the INS unprecedented powers to
detain and deport individuals. The answer also lies partially with the INS, which
consistently chooses to detain people who could be released.
The INS continues to hold "lifers" despite a mandate requiring a review of
anyone with a final order of deportation who has not been removed within 90 days.
INS own figures show that 34.6 percent of lifers whose cases have been reviewed have
warranted supervised release.
Many local INS district directors, however, operate independently and often do not convene
Reviews, when they do occur, often are nothing more than rubber-stamped denials that
cannot be appealed.
Under powers vested in it by the 1996 legislation, the INS has become judge and jury with
totalitarian authority over immigrants. Under our system of justice judges normally hand
down sentences, but under this system jailers, in effect, sentence detainees to indefinite
incarceration. Thirteen courts now have ruled that the INS review process is inadequate.
The INS must establish rules for reviews in legally enforceable regulations, which will
ensure uniform application throughout the country. The decisions must come from an
impartial fact finder, with an independent review of negative decisions.
The Cubans took drastic steps because they thought they had
nothing to lose and felt desperate. Dramatic confrontations or intensive advocacy
campaigns by human rights advocates should not be the criteria to release detained
As the FBI agents surrounding the Louisiana jail heard there had
been a deal struck ending the standoff, they cheered.
But as a nation, we should not cheer. This is a hostage taking that should have never
begun. We should never be a nation that indefinitely incarcerates those seeking freedom.
This is just not the American way, and it must stop.