INS Detentions: No Crime Needed; '96 Immigration Reform Laws Mean More Deportations, Longer Stays in Prison

By Wirpsa, Leslie | National Catholic Reporter, July 17, 1998 | Go to article overview
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INS Detentions: No Crime Needed; '96 Immigration Reform Laws Mean More Deportations, Longer Stays in Prison


Wirpsa, Leslie, National Catholic Reporter


LANCASTER, Calif. -- Livinus Mbanefo spoke softly in mid-June from behind the bolted doors, barbed wire and electronic surveillance systems of the Mira Loma Contract Detention Center in this desert city about 90 miles north Los Angeles.

For all practical purposes, Mbanefo (pronounced Mmm-ba-nay-fo) is in prison, but he has committed no crime. In fact, he was a victim of crimes against humanity, he said. He was seized in 1996 by government thugs in his homeland, Nigeria, for distributing posters that said, "Let's struggle for a democratically elected government" and "Fight against corruption and human rights abuses." His captors, he said, worked for the late dictator Gen. Sani Abacha. They imprisoned him for nine months and tortured him. He managed to escape and flee through Ghana, South Africa and Malaysia to the United States.

Once again, however, Mbanefo is in captivity. As a result of strict immigration laws passed by the U.S. Congress in 1996, Mbanefo is being held at Mira Loma instead of receiving parole -- as would have occurred more easily under the old laws -- while he appeals an asylum claim denied him in February.

Mbanefo is one person in a swelling population housed in detention facilities contracted out or run by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. As controversial legislation passed by Congress in 1996 has begun to take effect -- primarily the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act -- INS officials have found themselves "scurrying to find as much bed space as we can to detain all of the aliens we are required by law to detain," in the words of Leonard Kovensky, assistant director for the INS Los Angeles district, in a June telephone interview with NCR.

"I've never stayed in a place like this. I've never lost my freedom. I love to express myself," Mbanefo, an athletic man clad in bright orange prison fatigues, said. "I now have no choice. If I'm to go back to Nigeria it means more torture and death. But here, it's almost the same thing because I am detained."

Mbanefo, while visibly discouraged, said two things give him hope -- his friendship with Fr. Robert McChesney of the Jesuit Refugee Service USA and contact with the Ibo community in Los Angeles, a link that occurred thanks to McChesney's pastoral efforts.

"It was hell before I met him. He is a father, a brother, everything to me," Mbanefo said. "And the Ibo organization, they do a lot. It has changed my life. It's a different hall game when these people are interested in your problems." Ibos are a Nigerian tribal community (see NCR, March 27.)

The 1996 laws, Kovensky said, have considerably increased the number of those who must be detained and deported, especially in the case of noncitizens with criminal records. A limited number of detainees with records of minor crimes may be released under bond while awaiting judges' decisions. The legislation also restricts parole opportunities for asylum seekers like Mbanefo. According to his lawyer, Carolyn Perkins of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, it would have been easier for Mbanefo to seek parole under the old system.

"Congress says this was not their intention, but the policies are extreme," said James Haggerty, special projects director for the Immigration Network's New York office. "There are asylum cases where there is no parole even after people pass credible fear tests. And once they are in detention, they are treated as criminals."

Perkins said that because of the backlogs, asylum seekers -- even those with "very strong claims" -- may spend six months behind bars waiting for a hearing. Many of these people could be active in their communities if paroled.

A study by the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, a research and public policy organization, showed that 85 percent of parolees participating in the institute's supervised program showed up for their hearings to complete their legal procedures.

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