Last week the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement chartered a flight to deport over 20 immigrants including nine Palestinians. The deputy director of BICE, the agency formerly known as the INS, defends its practices in a debate with Ann Benson of the Washington Defenders Association Immigration Project and Subhash Kateel with Families for Freedom in New York City. [Includes transcript]
Click here to read to full transcript In the past two years, non-immigrant residents in the US from more than twenty countries targeted for special registration have faced the specter of indefinite detention and possible deportation. When non-citizens go before an immigration judge, the court is not required to appoint legal representation; 80-90 percent of them end up without lawyers and so are unable to contest deportation orders that may not be warranted. Detainees generally face deportation because of visa violations or criminal charges and are sent back to their countries of origin — if those countries accept them.
The situation of Palestinian detainees is unique in that they are a stateless people and so have no home country authorized to take them in. The US Departments of Justice and Homeland Security have worked out a deal, however, with Israel, Jordon, and Egypt to facilitate return of Palestinian deportees to the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian Authority is also facing pressure to permit deportees to b e sent to refugee camps. Immigrant rights groups say the US should not deport Palestinians to an area wracked by violence.
Last Tuesday, the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported nine Palestinians from a detention facility outside Buffalo, New York on a chartered a plane along with Egyptians and Jordanians. 54-year-old Palestinian Munir Lami, who is blind and diabetic, was among those deported — he had served time in prison for welfare fraud and a visa violation but was released until July because BICE apparently did not have sufficient documentation to deport him. Upon arriving in Jordon last week, he was placed in a prison without the knowledge of his family for several days. Lami has lived in the United States for 16 years and has raised 9 children and 8 grandchildren here.
- Subhash Kateel, organizers with Families for Freedom in New York City
- Ann Benson, directing attorney with Washington Defenders Association Immigration Project who provides legal assistance to criminal defense attorneys who represent immigrants accused of crimes and immigration lawyers defending immigrants against deportation because of their criminal convictions.
- David Venturella, Deputy Director for Detention and Removal Operations at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement
AMY GOODMAN: We turn first to Subhash Kateel, of Families For Freedom in New York City. Can you tell us more about the case of this man, of Munir Lami.
SUBHASH KATEEL: Munir Lami is another person who is part of just a greater attempt of what we’ve been seeing over the past couple months in which a while back in June 2001 the Supreme Court had ruled indefinite detention was unconstitutional. By saying that, it said that stateless people and people that were unable to be deported within a reasonable amount of time were to be released from immigration custody. In that process, folks from Guyana, folks from Cambodia, folks from places like Somalia, places like Palestine, were released from I.N.S. custody because they were unable to be deported. What we have seen over the past year is the I.N.S. is openly flouted the Supreme Court decision and the face of the Supreme Court decision. It has really put pressure on consulates around the world and on countries around the world to take back stateless folks, take back people that they refuse to take back in the past. The Lami case is another situation where there is a person released because he couldn’t be deported, and Supreme Court has said that trying to keep him in custody is unconstitutional. And then they go ahead and put pressure on the Jordanian government, on the Egyptian government, on the Israeli government to find other ways to take them back into the country.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain what happened to Munir Lami when he was deported to Jordan? Why did he end up in prison there?
SUBHASH KATEEL: Why he ended up in prison is actually anybody’s guess. What we do know is that in some countries like Egypt and Israel and Jordan and also in some of the Caribbean countries, when folks are deported, either when they are deported because they’re not citizens of the stated country or being deported for prior criminal conviction, they’re sometimes held by government authorities or because of the political activities they’re involved in before, in their countries of origin. Why Mr. Lami was detained by Jordanian officials, I’m not exactly sure. The United States is signatory to the convention against torture. One of the things the convention against torture states is that you can’t send individuals back to situations where they will face prison and torture. So in a lot of ways the United States is violating its own laws by deporting Palestinians back to Palestine, number one. But also deporting Palestinians and deporting other stateless people back to countries where they most certainly face persecution and most certainly face possibility of being imprisoned and tortured.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the telephone by David Venturella, who is Deputy Director for Detention and Removal Operations at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as Ann Benson, who is the directing attorney with Washington Defenders Association Immigration Project. Can you respond to this case, David Venturella?
DAVID VENTURELLA: Well, first—
AMY GOODMAN: Could you come off your speakerphone please?
DAVID VENTURELLA: Sure, no problem. First of all, the gentleman was correct in citing Supreme Court decision regarding the indefinite detention. However, we do have an obligation to continue with pursuing an individual’s removal whether they’re in custody or not. And as he characterizes, Zadvydas decision by the Supreme Court did put pressure on the federal government to continue to pursue removals of individuals who had gone through the process and had their day in court and had an order of removal issued by an immigration authority. So we continue to pursue removals even though we may not be authorized to detain them for longer periods of time based on the Supreme Court’s ruling. So he’s correct there. If I could clarify that the U.S. government will still pursue the removal of individuals who have outstanding orders. The ruling does not afford them status in the United States. In fact that removal order is outstanding until it’s enforced. We as immigration officers have to enforce the law. And we do abide by all decisions by supreme courts and other authorities, but our mission is to remove individuals who have an outstanding removal order.
AMY GOODMAN: Ann Benson, can you respond to this?
ANN BENSON: Well, I think that the point that I would like to respond to is the people getting their day in court. I think that one of the things that is most important to highlight here is that, yes, that’s what the government is doing. They are actually trying to affect what they believe to be valid orders of deportation when they continue the process of trying to remove folks. But I think that it’s important to highlight perhaps a step further back in terms of the quality of the day in court that people get. I think that as you have highlighted, Amy, 80 to 90 percent of the people who actually appear in removal proceedings, as they are now called, are unrepresented, particularly if they are detained and if they are facing deportation for any type of criminal violation. Under the process of law that we have here, deportation and removal is still considered to be a civil proceeding and so folks are not entitled to have lawyers appointed for them if they cannot afford counsel. And without effective lawyering, it’s very hard to have your day in court in a way that is very meaningful, in a way that actually could mean that you could challenge the laws that are being applied to you. And I wasn’t specifically involved in Mr. Lami’s case, but I note from some of the facts that have been provided to me, I seriously question the due process of law that was afforded to him. And that if him and so many other folks without adequate legal representation, it’s really impossible to end up with anything other than an order of deportation.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you respond to that, David Venturella, of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
DAVID VENTURELLA: Well, I’m not going to debate whether or not—
AMY GOODMAN: Off your speakerphone, please?
DAVID VENTURELLA: I don’t think it’s the speakerphone. I just think it’s my phone. As far as the process in whether or not he had his day in court as the young lady stated correctly, these are civil proceedings. There’s no obligation to provide a government-appointed attorney, that’s the difference between the civil proceedings and criminal proceedings. However, the immigration court which is not overseen by the Department of Homeland Security but by the Department of Justice, the judges there do inform the individual of their rights, they do give them opportunities to seek counsel, they grant a number of continuances to allow for this opportunity. It’s up to the individual to procure the services of adequate counsel.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to see they give them the right to seek counsel?
DAVID VENTURELLA: Give them the opportunity to seek counsel.
AMY GOODMAN: Could you come off your speakerphone, it would make it much easier for us to understand you. It was much better before.
DAVID VENTURELLA: I don’t think I have the ability right now unfortunately. This phone doesn’t allow me to get off the speaker. I’ll speak louder and hopefully it will come across.
AMY GOODMAN: Okay.
DAVID VENTURELLA: Individuals are informed of the charges against them in the notice to appear which is a charging document that the Immigration Customs Enforcement Bureau issues to individuals saying what violations of the immigration statutes are being charged with. And an immigration judge reads those charges, asks that the individual understands them, asks them if they have counsel. If not, and the alien wishes to seek counsel, in most cases the immigration judge will grant a continuance to allow for the individual to procure the services of legal counsel.
AMY GOODMAN: Ann Benson, do you find that to be the case with the thousands of people who have been detained now?
ANN BENSON: I just actually spent last Thursday in the immigration court proceedings that were held in the detention center here in Seattle. What’s interesting is that, yes, the immigration judge does read the charges and gives people the opportunity to seek counsel and a continuance— oftentimes it’s a week, a one-week continuance to get counsel. The thing is that they could give people continuances into the next millennium to get counsel, but if you are in the detention center and you have very significant language limitations and you have very little money or no money, it doesn’t really matter. And the charges are read to people in English. My experience after doing this for 13 years is watching people in detention who are extremely distressed because of the situation that they’re in and the separation that they’re already enduring from their families, is they’re very much like deer in the headlights, in many respects. It’s important to remember that immigration law is perhaps one of the most complicated areas of law in our system. And my experience is that even immigration counsel, particularly when you’re dealing with people who are facing issues of detention and removal for criminal convictions, it’s such a complicated area of law that without counsel it’s impossible to really think that you’re going to get any kind of day in court. And people simply aren’t able to get counsel. There aren’t adequate public interests organizations that can meet the need and as we have already adequately talked about here, there is no process whereby people are appointed attorneys. So what happens oftentimes after the second continuance and people haven’t been able to get lawyers, the judges will simply go forward with the process. And the attorney general, who has the authority over the immigration courts at this point, has recently imposed case completion goals on the immigration courts and so, the immigration judges are very focused now on moving the cases forward through their docket in a very rapid manner because the case completion goals require I think it’s a 30-day completion for cases in detention. And so what has begun to happen in an increased way than from where it was before, is that the immigration judges, because of these pressures, are extremely focused on moving people through the system as rapidly as possible.
AMY GOODMAN: David Venturella of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, what about the issue of the Supreme Court ruling that indefinite detention is unconstitutional. There are people in detention facilities now like Farouk Abdel-Muhti, who is a Palestinian man who has been moved from New Jersey to Pennsylvania detention facilities who has been in prison for well over a year.
DAVID VENTURELLA: Before I address that I want to address a couple of things that were raised. In the last couple of years we’ve stepped up our efforts to allow pro bono organizations and other legal advocacy groups into our facilities to conduct “know your rights” presentations to detainees who may not have legal counsel available to them at the point that they’re arrested. We also provide all of our detainees with lists of legal services, we’ve increased the access to phone and to legal presentations. And I think that one thing that the lady from Washington points out is that there are not enough pro bono organizations who can provide those types of services. But we do everything we can to provide at least the access to these individuals and provide them with information about the process. And it comes from outside attorneys not government attorneys, not government-appointed officials advising them of their rights in the process, it’s immigrant advocacy groups or pro bono organizations that provide that information to them. That’s one point I wanted to clarify. On the case that you mentioned, I’m not familiar with all aspects of that particular case, but individuals, the whole process can take days or years. The Supreme Court decision talked about at the point an individual received a removal order that the time allotted was about six months. However, if there are circumstances which permitted the detention beyond that, that was permissible, but there had to be very specific reasons to hold someone beyond the customary or normal six months. So in the case that you referred to again, I’m not sure what stage he is in in his removal proceedings, but if he’s on an appeal it could take several months and/or years before he gets a removal order.
AMY GOODMAN: Ann Benson, what about this issue of indefinite detention?
ANN BENSON: Interestingly, the indefinite detention cases originated here in Seattle with the federal public defender offices that they have here and the federal public defenders were the folks that argued that before the Supreme Court. I’m somewhat familiar with that litigation. Interestingly, while the Supreme Court in the Zadvydas case said that persons cannot be held for longer than six months if they can’t be deported, what we have experienced here in Seattle, and I know it’s happened around the country, is that the government has continued to resist efforts to actually release them in compliance with the law. In virtually every case that we have here in Seattle, the federal public defenders are having to go back into federal court and do habeas corpus petitions for each one of these folks in order to actually get the government to comply with the efforts to release people pursuant to the Zadvydas Supreme Court decision.
DAVID VENTURELLA: We’ve released thousands of people since that decision came out. And, yes, there are habeas challenges in court that come before the six-month removal period. But to say that across the country we’ve continued to detain people in defiance of the Supreme Court order is just unfounded. I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but I can almost assure it’s in the thousands that we’ve released because of the Zadvydas decision.
SUBHASH KATEEL: Many of those cases where people have been released, they actually had to petition for their own release, they actually had to be insisted upon their own release.
AMY GOODMAN: Subhash Kateel of Families for Freedom.
DAVID VENTURELLA: If you look at the Zadvydas decision and the regulation that came out afterwards that they do have to make a request to be released based on the Zadvydas decision. That they view that their removal is not immediate or in the foreseeable future. That is correct. They do that in the form of a habeas petition. But they do it the day after they get a removal order, not six months after. But again the point is, we release thousands of people in compliance with the Zadvydas decision.
SUBHASH KATEEL: The way folks like Munir Lami and the other folks who were picked up in the recent round of Palestinian folks, out of I.N.S. custody, is really telling. A lot of people that we’ve talked to, both in the Palestinian community and other communities, that have been rounded up in the past week and reported, were told to report to the I.N.S. for either their monthly reports, not told they’re going to be detained when they report, and in some cases were approached by I.N.S. agents at their homes. I mean they’re not given time to even tie ends up over here before they leave. They’re not given time to sit and eat with their family before they leave. Often their lawyers aren’t told that they’re going to be detained when they check in for their monthly appointments. To say this is a transparent process is actually not true especially for the family members that go through this. In the past week alone we’ve heard of people that have been asked to check in with the I.N.S. and had received letters where—I’m sorry with the Department of Homeland Security—with the Bureau of Immigrant and Customs Enforcement, they were told to check in, not told they were going to be detained, come with their travel documents, and then, within a one-week period, are processed for deportation back to their home country. This is not an open and transparent process at all.
DAVID VENTURELLA: They all have—
SUBHASH KATEEL: Excuse me, sir.
DAVID VENTURELLA: Hold on. They all have outstanding orders of removal when they’re released they’re told to report in that they need to pursue travel document for their removal. Ultimately, if we’re successful they will be removed from the United States. People are called in instead of showing up at their homes or pulling them out of their jobs or elsewhere.
SUBHASH KATEEL: People are called for what they believe are monthly check-ins. They’ve checked in once a month for the past 12 months. Then all of a sudden on one random check-in they’re detained into custody. In many cases they’re not given a chance to contact their family and in many cases their attorneys don’t even know. For example, a lot of the Palestinian detainees that were transferred to Batavia, their attorneys weren’t notified that they were being transferred to Batavia, which is in Buffalo, which is where a lot of the Palestinians were deported from.
ANN BENSON: I would confirm the same has been true here and as many of you may be familiar with the Somali deportation litigation that was the case that—
AMY GOODMAN: This is Ann Benson from Seattle.
ANN BENSON: That the bureau of, well at the time it was still the Immigration and Naturalization Service, either issued people these letters that were very ambiguous and people didn’t know that they weren’t their monthly reporting letters, these very ambiguous letters that essentially were luring them back into the I.N.S. that they just show up or actually went out to their homes and rounded them up with essentially no notice of what was happening here. That was essentially what gave rise to the Somali deportation litigation. But it all happened extremely rapidly, like within a period of 48 hours we had to be in court filing habeas corpus petitions because these people were literally just plucked off the street. They, they were people who were under orders of supervision.
DAVID VENTURELLA: The other thing that I want to point out is that when we notify individuals to come into the office they have a tendency not to show up. And I point to the fact that we have over 400,000 unexecuted removal orders in the United States. That’s the result of us trying to let the, give the individual, an opportunity to come in on their own and affect the removal order. As a result it’s been highly unsuccessful. So—
AMY GOODMAN: David Venturella, let me just ask a quick question.
DAVID VENTURELLA: … supervision of their responsibilities and obligations and that one day it may result in a removal. That order does not go away because you’re released from custody, that order is still in effect and it won’t be satisfied until the removal occurs.
SUBHASH KATEEL: If I could just say anecdotally speaking, we’ve worked with hundreds of families who have had to report monthly—
AMY GOODMAN: Subhash Kateel of Families for Freedom.
SUBHASH KATEEL: for the I.N.S. meetings, we have a couple coming up in the next couple of weeks, and in almost every case when people think they’re going to be deported they either do report… or they leave the country on their own. The majority of the cases that we’ve known of in the New York area. Furthermore, the overwhelming majority of the families that we’ve worked with that have had to check in for the monthly immigration appointments have done so. Or, if they haven’t done so, they haven’t done so because they’re not clear whether they’re going to be detained. If you’re telling people, well we’re not sure if we’re going to detain you or not but come and check in once a month, and every monthly decision is “Am I going to be in jail?” You’re not creating a lot of incentives for people to comply.
DAVID VENTURELLA: I agree. There’s probably not a lot of incentive. That’s why there is 80 percent of the individuals who we call in don’t show up. So you said your information was anecdotal and if it’s true, that’s outstanding. But our statistics show that 80 percent of the individuals that we call in don’t come in.
AMY GOODMAN: David Venturella, how many people are now being detained in detention facilities around the United States?
DAVID VENTURELLA: On average we have about 20 to 21,000 individuals detained.
AMY GOODMAN: And how many mass deportations have there been?
DAVID VENTURELLA: I wouldn’t characterize them as mass deportations. Last year we removed 115,000 individuals.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean when you—
DAVID VENTURELLA: Every day of the week people are removed.
AMY GOODMAN: Right. I’m talking about the difference between when someone is just put on a flight and when you charter a flight like the last one is about two dozen. There are ones of more than 100 flights to Pakistan.
DAVID VENTURELLA: We have either chartered flights or what we use the justice prisoner alien transportation system. We have flights daily to central America, to South America, to the Caribbean, where we have plane loads of up to 60 to 90 individuals. They occur daily. There’s weekly schedules. So the charter that happened to the Middle East last week was part of the normal removal system that we have. It’s true that the number to the Middle East is only two for this year. But we envision that we’ll have more removals to that region in a coordinated effort that we did the last two.
AMY GOODMAN: And why does the Justice Department continue to insist on not revealing the names of the people it holds in detention and these deportations, the mass ones where you charter a flight, are secret.
DAVID VENTURELLA: You have to talk to the Justice Department about the release of names. But as far as a removal, no, we don’t publicize that for the safety of our officers, for the safety of the aircraft personnel, and for the individuals that are being removed. However the individual knows it. Their attorneys do get notice of it. The receiving countries, a lot of other individuals who have a need to know about the removal are told about it.
AMY GOODMAN: We have ten seconds.
DAVID VENTURELLA: We don’t release it to concerned citizens who have gripes about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds to Ann Benson of Washington Defenders Association Immigration Project.
ANN BENSON: Again I think the final point I’d like to emphasize is, even backing up before this, is the due process of law that people actually aren’t getting before they actually get these orders of removal. Not only are their mass deportations in the charter flights, there are mass deportations that we haven’t actually gotten to talk about that happen in detention where groups of people are ordered deported all at once by an immigration judge. So I think that the due process of law is really in jeopardy for immigrants who are in deportation and removal proceedings.
AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you all for being with us. Ann Benson, Washington Defenders Association Immigration Project; David Venturella, Deputy Director for Detention and Removal Operations and at the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement; and Subhash Kateel with Families for Freedom in New York City. You’re listening to Democracy Now! When we come back we go to Israel. We’ll speak with a reporter who has just left the Jerusalem Post. Stay with us.