U.S. unveils immigration `checks and balances'

Homeland Security Dept. revises detention policy

April 14, 2004|By Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - Immigrants detained in terrorism investigations can no longer be held indefinitely without evidence, the Department of Homeland Security said yesterday, announcing a new policy to prevent abuses of authority.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, hundreds of men - mainly from the Middle East - were arrested because of alleged minor immigration violations and jailed for months, some under harsh conditions.

Widespread complaints from detainees, their relatives and civil rights groups prompted an investigation by the Justice Department inspector general's office. Last summer, that office issued a report criticizing the government for failing to uphold basic standards of due process, including physical abuse and mistreatment at a federal facility in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The new policy is intended to correct those problems and create a system of "checks and balances," said Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security.

Civil rights groups applauded the changes. "There will be no more blanket detentions of whole classes of aliens," said Kareem Shora, legal adviser to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "We welcome this step as a very positive one."

But the Justice Department remained steadfast in its defense of the detentions. Officials said that the policy was lawful and that authorities could not risk allowing any suspects to flee the country.

At the time of the 2001 terrorist attacks, both the FBI and immigration were under the umbrella of the Justice Department. Now, immigration is part of Homeland Security.

More than 760 immigrants were swept up in connection with the FBI's investigation of the attacks. The detainees were held an average of 80 days, and most ultimately were deported to their home countries. Many have told their stories to Arabic-language news media, reinforcing negative perceptions of the United States in Muslim countries.

The Homeland Security Department's new policy limits the conditions under which an individual detained on immigration charges during a terrorism investigation can be held. Many immigration violations - for example, an expired visa - are administrative, not criminal, and do not require lengthy detention.

Existing rules had already set some limits: Authorities had 48 hours to decide whether to charge an immigration detainee and whether to allow the person to post bond, and the detainee had to be notified of any charges within 72 hours. But those rules allowed exceptions in cases of "emergency or other extraordinary circumstance."

The new policy clarifies what is considered an emergency - including a terrorist attack and natural disasters - and sets up several levels of periodic reviews to ensure that detainees do not languish behind bars indefinitely.

If deadlines are missed for any reason, authorities must notify a detainee of charges "as soon as practicable," the policy memo states.

Decisions to hold a detainee because of a "compelling law-enforcement need" must be approved by senior supervisors and cannot be made by immigration enforcement agents. Long-term detention cases of 180 days or more must be referred to headquarters.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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