‘Lifer’ Illegal Immigrants Seek Release


Lawyers for about 130 illegal immigrants being held indefinitely in detention centers and jails from Lancaster to San Pedro argued in U.S. District Court on Monday that they should be released if their home countries will not take them back.

The hearing involved Immigration and Naturalization Service detainees known as “lifers,” who are still being held in permanent detention after doing their time for crimes ranging from petty theft to drug trafficking. There are about 3,800 lifers in the United States.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 17, 1999 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday December 17, 1999 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
IMMIGRANT HEARING--A story Tuesday referred incorrectly to the immigration status of 130 “lifer” federal detainees who were the subject of a U.S. District Court hearing. Most of the detainees are in the United States legally.

At issue is whether deportable illegal immigrants have constitutional rights, such as the right to due process. Chief Judge Terry J. Hatter said he expected to make a ruling within 30 days on whether it is lawful to detain them indefinitely.


“We are dealing with the constitutional right of an alien person who has no right to be here,” said John Bartos, special assistant to the U.S attorney’s office in Los Angeles. “That is the reason they are being held.”

David S. McLane, a deputy public defender, argued that the INS has a right to hold people only if it plans to deport them. But when deportation becomes impossible, he said, the INS no longer has a compelling reason to hold them.

“Your constitutional rights remain, even if you are ordered deported,” McLane said. “The Constitution does not allow individuals to be detained based on the speculation that they are dangerous.”

In July, a federal court panel in Seattle ruled that immigrants awaiting deportation because of crimes they have committed cannot be jailed indefinitely after they have served their time. That ruling was binding only in western Washington state.

The majority of long-term detainees in INS facilities throughout the country are from Cuba, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. All these lifers would have been freed if they were U.S. citizens or were from a country that would have accepted their repatriation.

About 70 of the defendants in Monday’s hearing are from the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster. Others are being held at Terminal Island in San Pedro and in local jails such as Santa Ana’s.


The hundreds of pages of court documents portray a picture of hopelessness.

This past spring, Thanom Posavtoy, a lifer from Laos being held at San Pedro, hanged himself in the shower with his bedsheet. Fellow detainees said he became depressed after learning it was unlikely that he would ever be released, court documents said.

By law, detainees are entitled to a custody hearing within 90 days of their deportation orders. Federal public defender Robert Boyle said only four of 122 clients entitled to such hearings received them.

“How long are they going to keep that person in custody, when they have already punished them for their crime?” asked Ohanes Darbirian, whose 34-year-old son, Suren, is being held indefinitely at the Mira Loma Detention Center in Lancaster.

Suren served a year and three months in prison on a felony charge and has been held in Lancaster for a year with no end in sight. Suren was born in Armenia, and came to the U.S. 22 years ago.

“How do they know that person is dangerous?” Darbirian asked of his son. “How do they know?”