Anthony Owusu still has half-moon-shaped scars on his back, head and thighs, a reminder of his two spells in detention in his homeland of Ghana, where he was tortured and struck with rifle butts after public speeches decrying government corruption.
When armed soldiers and police sought him a third time and set his carpentry shop afire, he said, he fled to the United States in 1989. He arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport here with a fake passport and told immigration officers that he was seeking political asylum.
To his surprise, Owusu said, he was taken immediately to an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention center in Queens. He spent his first year in the United States behind bars.
“I haven’t committed any crime, even in my country I haven’t,” Owusu said. “I was trying to fight for my rights, and they put me in detention.”
Every day about 4,800 illegal immigrants from all over the globe sit in INS detention facilities. Some wait as long as two years for asylum applications to make the tedious trip through backlogged immigration courts. The United States will spend $157 million this year to detain and deport such people.
Owusu and others like him are in a legal netherworld of “excludable aliens"--people who are caught offshore or at airports and are not legally in the United States. They can be detained indefinitely pending resolution of asylum claims. To gain asylum, they must prove a “well-founded fear of persecution” back home. Owusu won asylum in June.
INS officials see detention of illegals immigrants seeking asylum as an important deterrent. “If you don’t detain, it sends the wrong signal,” said Duke Austin, an INS spokesman. “You’re saying, ‘Get here, and we’ll let you go.’ ”
The problem, said Verne Jervis, another INS spokesman, is that “there are a lot of good claims” for asylum each year, “but also a lot of frivolous ones. It just takes too long” to sift all claims.
If a hearing officer denies an asylum claim, Jervis said, the applicant may be detained while beginning the lengthy appeal process to an immigration judge and then to the Board of Immigration Appeals. “It is a bad system from everyone’s point of view,” he said.
Dissatisfaction with the system led to an unusual collaboration between the INS and its traditional adversaries, advocacy organizations for rights of immigrants and refugees, to establish an experimental parole program to reduce use of systematic and extended detention.
Beginning May 1, 1990, 200 people were released from detention in Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City, cities whose airports are the most common gateways for illegal entry. Of the 200, 127 were released from New York’s two INS detention centers in Queens and downtown Manhattan.
Those released were representative of INS’ incarcerated population, having come from Afghanistan, China, Haiti, India, Peru, Somalia and Sri Lanka, for example.
To qualify, potential parolees needed to prove that they had a place to live, an offer of employment or another means of financial support, an attorney’s representation and a bond of between $500 and $2,500. They had to agree to report to their local INS office each month in person or by mail.
Many were sponsored by local volunteer organizations such as churches, charities and cultural associations that agreed to account for the immigrants’ whereabouts and welfare.
Sixteen illegals immigrants paroled under the program, among them Owusu, have been granted asylum. INS records show that many parolees do not report consistently to their local INS office as required, but only seven have absconded.
INS Commissioner Gene McNary is considering expanding the program and attempting to speed the immigration adjudication process and reduce the backlog of more than 100,000 asylum cases.