Five men without countries are fighting for their freedom from
behind US bars.
And how five federal judges decide their futures next month will
help shape policy and laws governing the imprisonment of more than
3,500 detainees held indefinitely by the Immigration and
Naturalization Service nationwide.
Under a tough law approved by Congress in 1996, criminal aliens
are subject to automatic deportation and must be held without bond
until their removal. The law imposes an indefinite sentence on those
whose countries won't take them back.
Indefinite detainees have won individual appeals for freedom in
California, Texas, and Louisiana. But the Washington case represents
the first time a group of them have been put together to argue the
constitutional rights of a large group of "lifers" or
as these detainees are called.
Lifers are immigrants and refugees who are ordered deported, but
whose home countries refuse to take them. Among those nations that
balk are Cuba, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Somalia, and the former
Dennis Batyuchenko, a Soviet Christian refugee, is one of the five
lifers involved in the Seattle suit. So far, Mr. Batyuchenko has
been held two years by the INS - long enough to see indefinite
incarceration take a toll on many detainees and their families.
"I've seen many people losing their identities, becoming men
without countries," he says. "They are the people nobody wants."
Lifers generally are ordered deported after serving time for a
criminal offense, though some have only immigration violations or
misdemeanor convictions. The law affects those with recent
convictions, as well as legal residents who may have served time
years, even decades ago.
The five men named in the Seattle suit were chosen to represent
about 150 lifers held in Washington. Their federal public defenders
argue that indefinite detention violates the detainees'
constitutional rights to due process.
In California, federal public defenders already have helped three
indefinite detainees win their freedom. Under court pressure, the
California INS began a more rigorous administrative-review process,
and subsequently released other lifers.
The five federal district court judges will convene in Seattle for
a joint hearing on the cases June 17 and are expected to issue
separate decisions early this summer. The unusual process was
hammered out in a series of discussions between Seattle judges, the
federal public defender, and the US attorney, representing the INS.
All five men in the Washington case came to America to find
freedom, lived legally in the Northwest for years, and were ordered
deported after serving time for crimes ranging from theft to man-
slaughter. Here are their stories:
*At age 13, Bin Phanh left behind his family and smuggled himself
aboard a boat bound for Indonesia - a desperate teen whose fellow
passengers nearly threw him overboard when they discovered his