INS Says Lawyer Incited Alien Hunger Strike, Asks to Bar Her

Times Staff Writers

Immigration officials Thursday accused an El Centro attorney of inciting a continuing hunger strike by illegal aliens at a detention facility and took the unusual step of seeking to bar her from practicing at Immigration and Naturalization Service hearings.

Lawyers for the striking aliens, who are protesting living conditions at the INS El Centro detention center, countered with a legal petition, filed in Los Angeles, that said that the INS had improperly prevented the attorneys from counseling or communicating with their clients.

The legal moves--accompanied by accelerating rhetoric--came as the hunger strike reached its fourth day.

INS Western Regional Commissioner Harold Ezell, in a written statement made public at a press conference here Thursday, said that activist lawyer Graciela Zavala had incited aliens at the camp and “contributed to the disruption within the facility itself.” Earlier, Ezell accused Zavala of helping to “orchestrate” the hunger strike.


Earlier this week, Zavala heatedly denied the charges and called the allegations by Ezell and INS District Director James B. Turnage, Jr. “clear-cut lies.” Zavala, an attorney with the Imperial Valley Immigration Project, was unavailable for comment on Thursday.

Turnage said that Ezell has officially notified Zavala of his recommendation that she be permanently or temporarily banned from practicing before the INS. Ezell has also asked the California Bar to look into Zavala’s “unprofessional conduct.”

Attorneys such as Zavala frequently represent aliens before INS appeal and review boards and administrative law judges. While the INS can prevent Zavala from practicing in those forums, the agency cannot prevent her from practicing law in a court.

Most of the hunger strikers are from Central America. According to Zavala, they are protesting overcrowding, poor sanitation and violations of their legal rights.


There is wide disparity in reports on the number of strikers. On Monday, Zavala, who represents some of the strikers, said that 300 aliens were taking part in the strike. The court documents filed Thursday stated that the number involved in the strike was 180. The camp currently holds about 500 aliens, all of them men.

But INS officials have said that the total number of strikers has never exceeded 175, and on Thursday said that only 12 aliens were still participating in the strike. They are taking liquids only and officials said they are prepared to force-feed the protesters if necessary.

Joe Flanders, an INS spokesman in Los Angeles, said that Zavala has 30 days to respond to a letter from Ezell informing her that Ezell has recommended that she be disbarred or suspended from practicing before the INS. According to Flanders, Zavala has the option of asking for a hearing before Ezell to appeal the charges. Ezell’s recommendation will be forwarded to the U.S. Immigration Board of Appeals in Washington.

The board will then act on Ezell’s recommendation and make a decision as to whether Zavala should be suspended, disbarred or the board can decide that no action should be taken against her. U.S. Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III will make the final decision as to what action, if any, should be taken against Zavala, Flanders said.


Meanwhile, in Los Angeles federal court, attorneys for the various immigrants’ rights groups filed a petition accusing the INS of cutting off contact between the lawyers and the Salvadorans involved in the hunger strike.

“In retaliation, and without justification, the INS abruptly cut off all access by attorneys and paralegals with their clients detained in the facility,” the petition charged.

Attorneys for the Central American Refugee Center, National Center for Immigrants’ Rights, Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, National Lawyers Guild and American Civil Liberties Union all joined in seeking a temporary restraining order against the INS to stop its agents from denying access of the lawyers to their Salvadoran clients seeking political asylum.

U.S. District Judge David Kenyon, who is scheduled to act on the petition, has been in Tucson this week attending the 9th Circuit Judicial Conference and was not immediately available.


Kenyon’s court clerk in Los Angeles has been in touch with the judge and said Kenyon will decide today whether he will handle the matter via telephone or return to conduct a hearing, according to Sandra Pettit of the Legal Aid Foundation’s Immigrants’ Rights Office.

An injunction was issued by Kenyon on April 30, ordering the INS to grant attorneys access to all Salvadorans being held for deportation proceedings.

“We think what the INS has done over the past three days violates that earlier injunction,” Pettit said.

H. G. Reza reported from San Diego and Bill Farr reported from Los Angeles.