3 languish in jail awaiting INS action

August 26, 1994|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,Sun Staff Writer

Satnaam Singh and two other Sikhs lost their bid for political asylum after they tried to enter the United States two years ago. Pending their return home, they were shipped to an Eastern Shore jail.

They have remained there, apparently lost on the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) radar screen ever since. Last week, their predicament came to the attention of a federal judge who called an emergency hearing. U.S. District Judge Marvin J. Garbis has given the INS 30 days to investigate and respond to the Sikhs' request to be freed.

When Judge Garbis contacted the jail for information on Satnaam Singh, he was startled to learn that the jail was holding three men in the same predicament, all named Singh, a common Sikh surname.

All three had filed court papers requesting their freedom. Judge Garbis immediately assigned public defenders to represent them.

"There is nothing to indicate any have ever committed a criminal act, are enemies of the state in India or are undesirable people," said James K. Bredar, the federal public defender. "What has gone awry is these guys have just been parked. This can't be right."

In a letter to the court, one of the men pleaded for his release, saying he had been jailed for nearly two years "just for my attempt to enjoy the liberty of a free country like the United States of America."

"This is not my image of America either," the judge said.

All three men declined requests for interviews.

Even if U.S. officials tried to send the men home, they would be turned away because India has not confirmed their identities.

Officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service say that because the men carried no documents when they arrived at Kennedy International Airport in New York City, the INS was dependent on the government of India to verify their identification and backgrounds.

Lengthy detentions are not uncommon when foreign governments are slow to reply, officials said. That apparently has been the holdup for Satnaam Singh, Manjit Singh and Manjeet Singh, who have been in jail 19 to 24 months each. In their papers, all claim to have fled India to avoid political persecution.

Hostilities against Sikhs, who are seeking their own state, have escalated since the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh members of her bodyguard.

Mr. Bredar said that within the next week he will ask the INS to release the men pending the conclusion of their cases.

But releasing foreign nationals before identifying them is too risky, said Don Crocetti, deputy director of the INS office in Baltimore.

"You saw what happened with the World Trade Center," Mr. Crocetti said, referring to the terrorist bombing last year. "We have to be very careful when we don't know who they are."

And, relaxing the detention policy, even for those who are not a threat to the community, would open a loophole for anyone who wanted to skip the lengthy wait abroad for a U.S. visa, he said.

Two years of jail might be a small price to pay for people trying to immigrate, Mr. Crocetti said. "They get fed well, have access to a library, cable TV, and then they'd be released."

Replied Mr. Bredar: "I don't buy that. When detention becomes indefinite detention, I think we have an obligation on a basic human rights level to make inquiries to see if it's not an acceptable risk to let them be free in our community."

Had the cases not caught the attention of a federal judge, the subsequent activity to resolve them would have been unlikely, Mr. Crocetti conceded. Members of Baltimore's Sikh community are supporting the men, and the INS is now pressing the Indian government to expedite matters.

Usually, Mr. Crocetti said, "We make a request [to the Indian government], and we'll wait six or eight months because we know it often takes that long."

In the eyes of the U.S. government, the three men legally never arrived in this country, so they are not entitled to the civil rights provided others. They are ineligible for release on bond, for example.

Home has become the Wicomico and Dorchester county jails in the Maryland INS district, one of five sites between Maine and Florida where about 100 people at a time are held awaiting expulsion or deportation.

Their attorneys say the Singhs have tried to make the best of the situation, but described all three as very discouraged.

"The inability in getting my freedom has seriously affected my physical and psychological state," Manjeet Singh wrote to the judge.

At Mr. Singh's November 1992 hearing before an immigration judge, it was noted that he was eager for the ruling, having already been in jail two months. According to Mr. Singh's testimony, he fled India because he feared for his life. As a member of the All India Sikh Student Federation, he was harassed by police in Punjab, Mr. Singh said.

The judge rejected his request for asylum for several reasons, among them that the police actions did not appear to be wanton acts of persecution because of Mr. Singh's religion or political opinions.

Transcripts of hearings for the other two prisoners have not been released.

INS attorney George W. Maugans who is handling the cases did not return numerous phone calls .

Carol Wolchok, director of the American Bar Association's Center for Immigration Law and Representation, said the most important issue is that people have access to legal remedies. Prolonged incarcerations in situations like this have been a problem periodically, she said.

"The ABA believes that bona fide asylum seekers should be released while their cases are being considered," she said. "We don't support indefinite incarceration."

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