Housing illegal immigrants in prisons pays off for Pa.


YORK - Using false papers, Moise-Aime Zokou fled West Africa's Ivory Coast in November for asylum in the United States. Once safely at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, he gave immigration officers his real name and story - one of persecution for his politics back home, of fear for his life.

Zokou, a 34-year-old teacher, expected to be taken to "some sort of refugee camp."

"I thought people would come and ask what happened to me in my country, the imprisonment and torture," he said, "and then in a few days, a judge would say OK."

He wound up in what has become an Ellis Island for the 1990s: central Pennsylvania. There, to his surprise, he was locked up in the Berks County Prison, along with hundreds of other illegal aliens.

Zokou, who spent eight months in an Ivory Coast jail, would be behind bars for six more in America.

Faced with an onslaught of foreigners fleeing military dictatorships, civil wars and economic turmoil - and charged by Congress to better guard the gates against terrorists - the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service now routinely detains those who arrive in the United States with improper documents. They are incarcerated until their cases are heard - a wait that can, and usually does, last months.

Among the major new holding sites in the Northeast are the county prisons of central Pennsylvania.

A financial boon

Almost 600 detainees from such countries as Sri Lanka, Liberia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, China, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia are in four county jails: 315 in York, 200 in Berks, 65 in Lehigh and 15 in Snyder. The immigrants, about 40 of them women, are housed separately from the inmates.

Nationwide, more than 80,000 aliens spent time in INS detention last year. Currently, 8,600 are being held in a total of nine INS-run centers, four privately operated facilities and 500 county prisons.

For county officials and local taxpayers, the detainees are a financial boon, a way of making money on unused prison space.

Christopher Riley, the York County commissioner who heads the prison board there, said the county made $4 million on its INS contract last year and is considering building a 500-inmate addition to the jail, just to rent to the agency.

"It costs us $25 a day to hold someone and the INS pays us $50," Riley said, "so it's a good deal."

Besides pulling in the cash, the massive detentions have put these counties at the center of a national debate over whether it is humane, or even necessary, to jail asylum seekers for the four to five months it typically takes for them to get a hearing.

'You hear amazing stuff'

The detentions also have spurred something else: a sizable volunteer effort by local citizens and lawyers to help the immigrants present their cases.

"You hear amazing stuff you would never think you would be dealing with in York, Pa.," said Craig Trebilcock, a personal-injury lawyer who has represented four asylum seekers free of charge.

"One guy had been a professor in a small province south of Bosnia. Among other things, he had had his hands broken for the crime of teaching children the Albanian language because officials wanted only Serbian taught."

The professor was given asylum after four months in the York County Prison.

Although the York prison had housed a few immigrants from time to time in the last two decades, their numbers were small until May 1993, when the Golden Venture, a ship smuggling immigrants from China, ran aground off New York City.

All adults on board were detained - a change in INS practice.

Because the Golden Venture was only one of several Chinese boats stopped that month, "we could see we were faced with a major smuggling effort," INS spokesman Russ Bergeron said.

Allowing the Chinese from earlier boats to go free, he said, had encouraged others to take the same chance. So the INS decided to "create a deterrent" by holding the 300 Golden Venture passengers.

More than a third were sent to the York prison, which had just been expanded. Today, 47 men - some of whom said they fled China to avoid forced sterilization under the country's one-child policy - remain housed here, pending final appeals.

Last summer, the INS began renting even more space in central Pennsylvania jails, after detainees at the privately run Esmor Detention Center in Elizabeth, N.J., rioted over long incarcerations and poor living conditions. Esmor has yet to reopen.

So many detainees now are held in the York prison that the Executive Office of Immigration Review, which decides their cases, has opened courtrooms down the road - ironically, in an 18th-century farmhouse built by a German immigrant.

The majority of Pennsylvania's detainees, according to the INS, were stopped with false documents or none at all, primarily at Kennedy and Newark Airports. Others are illegal immigrants caught later on, or legal aliens who committed crimes and face deportation. By INS estimates, one-third are asylum seekers.

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