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Criminal Past Comes Back to Haunt Some Immigrants

TIMES STAFF WRITER

To visit with Saeid Aframian is to spend time with a condemned man, someone far removed from his previous life as a prosperous jewelry salesman and family man with a home in Bel-Air.

His bearded face is skeletal, his deep-set eyes bloodshot and he shuffles about in plastic slippers and a government-issue red jumpsuit like a haunted soul.

“It’s like a shadow has been following me and has finally taken over my life,” a sobbing, gaunt Aframian said recently during an interview at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service lockup on Terminal Island in San Pedro. “I really need one more chance. It’s a matter of life or death.”

Aframian, one of thousands of Persian Jews who fled to Southern California after the Islamic revolution in Iran, faces deportation to a homeland where human rights advocates say religious minorities continue to be persecuted.

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His undoing: a conviction for credit card fraud and a two-year prison stint in California a decade ago for receiving stolen property--two watches and a gold broach.

He says he has been clean for 10 years, but sweeping new immigration laws passed by Congress last year leave Aframian and many other longtime legal residents with criminal histories newly categorized as deportable “aggravated felons.” The catchall definition now includes everyone from murderers and drug traffickers to shoplifters.

For these offenders, Congress eliminated even the possibility of a so-called waiver of deportation. The last-chance opportunity was heretofore available to all but egregious criminals who could demonstrate compelling “equities"--such as proof of reform, lack of ties to their native lands and likely extreme hardship to U.S. citizen dependents. According to estimates by immigration attorneys, the law could affect thousands of noncitizen immigrants who have committed crimes but have been residing in the United States legally for many years.

Now irrelevant in the gaze of the law is Aframian’s avowed rehabilitation, his 17 years in the United States, his alienation from his tumultuous homeland and his financial support of his wife, a U.S. citizen, and two young children, both born in the United States.

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Breaking Strong Ties

The cases of Aframian and other longtime legal immigrants whose criminal pasts have caught up to them represent a singular conflict between their claims of attachment to the United States and the government’s aggressive blueprint to expel noncitizen lawbreakers.

Under the new congressional regimen, it makes no difference if the offenses triggering deportation for those defined as aggravated felons occurred last week or decades ago, or whether the person targeted has led an exemplary life since completing his or her sentence. Even some misdemeanor offenses, if they draw maximum one-year sentences, can now be deemed aggravated felonies under federal immigration law.

Behind the changes are several national currents: a preoccupation with crime, the threat of terrorism and unease with high immigration levels.

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The complex revisions are included in two laws: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, signed into law by President Clinton April 24, and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, signed Sept. 30.

Both severely restrict federal court review of deportation orders, while mandating detention without bond for deportees with criminal records--a provision that U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno has put off for a year, citing a lack of space in overflowing INS detention centers.

Despite the use of legislation targeting terrorists, officials concede that the vast majority of those affected are common criminals. In the case of Aframian, his lawyer, David Ross of Los Angeles, notes that his client is being forced back to a nation that the State Department considers an abettor of terrorism.

That some deportees are culturally and even linguistically alienated from their birthplaces is also irrelevant, legally.

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“I’ve always thought of myself as an American,” said Eremasi Ernesta Attah, who moved to the United States 20 years ago at the age of 4 and now faces deportation to her native Nigeria. “I would be an outcast [there],” she said during an interview in INS custody.

A mother of two U.S.-born daughters, ages 6 and 2, Attah is an admitted former thief, having twice been convicted of shoplifting from the neighborhood Kmart and Alpha Beta market, most recently in 1995. Her take included a hot plate, cosmetics and baby clothes. Attah served only three months in jail for the shoplifting convictions, but the INS calls her an aggravated felon and is moving to deport her.

To the congressional majority, those complaining now are simply “criminal aliens” who for too long have enlisted the aid of attorneys skilled at identifying legal “loopholes” to aid lawbreakers in averting deportation.

“It’s outrageous that Americans should be asked to put up with crimes from individuals from other countries who have been graciously granted the unique right to live here,” said Allen Kay, spokesman for U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who, as head of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, spearheaded the changes.

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Added David Martin, the INS’ general counsel: “The basic, fundamental message is: If you want to retain your rights to have permanent residence in this country, it’s not that hard. Just don’t commit a crime.”

The Clinton administration has heralded its stepped-up campaign against “criminal aliens,” energizing a torpid immigration bureaucracy that has long been assailed for failing to deport even violent lawbreakers. Today, a reinforced INS regularly picks up deportable offenders at jails and prisons; others are intercepted at citizenship interviews, airports, borders, work sites and other locales.

Four INS agents arrested Aframian shortly after dawn on Dec. 16 at his home, handcuffing him in front of his stunned wife and the couple’s 7-year-old daughter.

To detractors, the congressional revisions are a manifestation of a nationwide anti-immigrant backlash. In their view, the policy amounts to a kind of double jeopardy that imposes the equivalent of a life sentence on legal residents who have paid for their crimes, while simultaneously dividing families, pushing dependents left behind onto public assistance--and sometimes even endangering deportees’ lives.

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Aframian fears he could face execution in Iran, where he says he was briefly arrested and accused of being a spy for Israel before he managed to escape in 1979. He acknowledges his criminal past in the United States, but says he is a different man.

“I have changed,” said Aframian, an observant Jew who says his distress in custody is exacerbated by a lack of kosher cuisine and a proper setting for prayer. “The Bible speaks of forgiveness.”

His wife, Hengameh Aframian, 28, a naturalized U.S. citizen also from Iran, can barely articulate her grief. “I don’t understand it,” she remarked repeatedly while visiting the INS detention center, tears clouding her eyes as she fidgeted nervously in the cramped waiting area. “This is supposed to be the land of freedom.”

Her husband’s plight has become somewhat of a cause celebre. Representatives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, among other Jewish groups, have urged the INS to cancel the deportation, arguing that Aframian would be imperiled in Iran.

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While Aframian’s case carries a sense of life-and-death urgency, longtime residents facing expulsion to less repressive regimes say their lives will likewise be destroyed for mistakes for which they have served their time.

Haunted by the Past

The story of Refugio Rubio seems the classic tale of the upwardly mobile immigrant: A longtime field hand and laborer who has lived legally in the United States for almost 34 years, Rubio built his own home in the Bay Area community of Vallejo, and is the patriarch of a family that includes seven sons, all U.S. citizens, and seven citizen grandchildren.

But there is one black mark. Rubio, now 57, was convicted in 1972 of possession with intent to distribute marijuana. That episode came to haunt him when an unsuspecting Rubio walked into his citizenship interview at an INS office last March--and was arrested. A standard fingerprint check turned up his record. Ironically, it was the fear of congressional action against noncitizens that had finally motivated him to apply for citizenship.

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Rubio is now free on bond until his hearing in June, but he seems destined to be ordered back to Mexico, a nation where he says he has nothing. He arrived in his adopted homeland in the spring of 1963, at a time when John F. Kennedy was still president.

“If I was a person who continued doing bad things, I could understand this,” said Rubio, who worries about losing hard-earned Social Security and pension benefits. “But I never had trouble with the law again. I’ve always worked hard and paid my taxes, and my family has never depended on the government.”

Adriana Upchurch is a more recent arrival--she and her mother came 26 years ago from Mexico, when Upchurch was 2. But she remembers little of her native land and was reared in Orange County. After high school, she enlisted in the Marines, where she remained for eight years.

While attached to Camp Pendleton, however, the Gulf War veteran got swept up in an off-base drug scene. She was convicted in 1995 of possession for sale of methamphetamine and possession of a shotgun. Upchurch served 13 months of a two-year sentence before being released from state prison last spring. The INS moved promptly to deport her.

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“I know what I did was wrong,” Upchurch, working as a travel agent in Orange County while free on bond, acknowledged in an interview. “I never want to go back to that again.”

Like many others now facing expulsion, Upchurch could probably have qualified as a U.S. citizen years ago, before the onset of her legal troubles. But she never bothered, remaining a “resident alien,” much to her regret now. Citizenship status would have insulated her from deportation even after her drug conviction.

These days, she endeavors to suppress thoughts of being permanently banished to a country where she last lived as an infant, last visited as just another tourist taking in the rays at Puerto Vallarta. “I just can’t fathom it,” Upchurch said. “I have this hanging over my head, but, for some reason, I don’t believe it’s going to happen. I just can’t imagine what I would do.”


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