Foreign-Born Prisoners with Nowhere to Go Fill US Jails US Can't Deport Them Because It Doesn't Have Diplomatic Relations with Their Homelands

Article excerpt

Khaled Said knows that he is not a model citizen. He's been convicted of fraud and trespassing as well as cocaine possession - twice.

"I'm not a choir boy," says Mr. Said, wearing a bright orange prison uniform, handcuffs, and leg shackles. "But I'm not a threat to society. I didn't commit a crime heavy enough for me to spend the rest of my life behind bars."

Yet that is exactly what he's facing. Said, a Palestinian who has been a legal resident of the United States since 1979, is literally a man without a country. He is one of about 2,800 criminals being held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) who cannot be deported. Either their home countries will not take them or the US doesn't have diplomatic relations with their nations of origin. In INS terms, they are "lifers," and as their numbers grow - at twice the rate of all other federal and state prisoners - they have found themselves at the center of a nationwide debate between lawmakers and human-rights advocates about prison overcrowding and appropriate treatment of non-American criminals. The number of prisoners under INS control has surged recently because of laws passed by Congress in 1996. The changes increased the number of crimes that are considered "aggravated felonies" - or crimes that require noncitizen offenders to be deported. According to Russ Bergeron, a spokesman for the INS in Washington, any drug conviction beyond possession of marijuana is an aggravated felony. All violent crimes also fall into that category. If noncitizens are convicted of such a crime but cannot be deported, they stay under indefinite incarceration, unsure when, or even if, they will be released. Said was convicted of possession of crack cocaine in 1996. Born in the West Bank town of Batunia - about 10 miles from Jerusalem - he came to the US at age 10 and was allowed to enter with only a birth certificate. Since then, he has lived in Chicago with other family members, but he never became a US citizen and doesn't have a passport. After his conviction two years ago, he served his sentence in an Illinois state prison. Now he is in the custody of the INS. Running out of space But with the number of nonremovable prisoners growing by 10 percent a year, the INS has had trouble finding places to put them. …

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