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America's Least Wanted

Inside the World of Maryland's Undocumented Aliens

Michelle Gienow
Attorney Thanos Kanellakos' parents emigrated from Greece in the 1950s; now he represents aliens seeking to remain in the United States.
Catherine Khasu's son, Ernest Brown, is being held at the Wicomico County jail while awaiting word on whether he'll be deported to his native Liberia.
Raimonda Mikatavage, who hosts a cable-TV show that aims to help acclimate immigrants to America, opposes granting illegal aliens asylum or citizenship.

By Jill Yesko | Posted 9/30/1998

On a late-spring morning, a white jet emblazoned with the word "spirit" in red, white, and blue letters taxis to a remote corner of Harrisburg International Airport. Nearby, idling in the hot sun, a green Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) van full of aliens slated for deportation awaits the arrival of the government-chartered plane that will return them to Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Armed guards position themselves around the perimeter of the jet as the gangway is lowered. Squinting into the midday sun, their feet in shackles, their hands cuffed and tethered to their waists, a disheveled-looking group of men hobble aboard the plane under the watchful eyes of INS officers and U.S. marshals outfitted in dark blue combat fatigues.

This how the journey to America ends for some immigrants: a one-way ticket back home courtesy of the U.S. government.

According to the Maryland Office for New Americans, approximately 44,000 of the state's immigrants, or about 11 percent of foreign-born Marylanders, are undocumented, meaning that they have either entered this country illegally or are here without official papers.

"There is a flood of illegal immigration into Maryland," John Shallman, lNS spokesperson for the Baltimore region, says. "The problems that we have now in Maryland are similar problems to what the border states had 20 years ago."

Last year, the INS "removed" (the agency's synonym for "deported") more than 111,000 aliens nationwide, including more than 700 from the Baltimore area. While some of those deported served time in U.S. prisons for crimes such as robbery and murder, many were longtime residents--taxpaying aliens (albeit illegal ones) with children and spouses who are citizens.

Many of Baltimore's immigrants, particularly Latinos, live in fear of deportation, according to Haydee Rodriguez, executive director of the local Latino-services agency Centro de la Comunidad and formerly Mayor Kurt Schmoke's liaison to the city's Hispanic community. "Wherever you go you hear about INS raids," the Guatemalan-born Rodriguez says. "People have to live in anonymity."

As the United States becomes a more multicultural and multiethnic society, concerns over who can legally be admitted to the country--and who should be allowed to stay--have intensified. "Nobody has an inherent right to be here," says K.C. McAlpin, deputy director of the Washington, D.C.-based Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). McAlpin contends new laws designed to restrict illegal immigration don't do enough to stem the tide of aliens entering the country--aliens he and other critics maintain take jobs from those here legally and give legal immigrants a bad name.

It's a fear many legal immigrants share. "America is kind enough to allow 1 million new immigrants to come into the U.S. each year," says Raimonda Mikatavage, a Lithuanian-born author and host of Dreams in Action, a weekly show on Carroll County cable television that aims to familiarize immigrants with American culture and customs. "People who are coming here illegally undermine everything America is about." She likens illegals to uninvited guests who would "barge into your home and demand services."

Congress has stepped into the fray with the strictest immigration reforms enacted in 100 years. The 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act gives the INS power to deport aliens who have been convicted of crimes as minor as shoplifting, and those who do not show valid documents upon entering the United States (a measure that concerns human-rights advocates, who say asylum seekers fleeing war-torn countries don't always have official papers). The law also makes it more difficult for aliens who say they are fleeing political persecution to seek asylum here. Groups such as FAIR want to go even farther, calling for a moratorium on immigration while the government rethinks its stance on the issue.

Immigration advocates attribute the 1996 reform less to concern for protecting American jobs than to congressional xenophobia. They maintain the law, and local efforts such as bids in the Maryland General Assembly to mandate English as the state's official language, fuel a climate of fear and paranoia among legal and undocumented aliens alike. Immigrants, says Mark Horak, an attorney for Catholic Charities Immigration Legal Services in Baltimore and a Jesuit priest, have become "scapegoats" for many of America's social ills.

During the 19th century, most new Americans came through New York. But 2 million immigrants from Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe, Ireland, France, and a dozen other countries caught their first glimpse of America from the decks of boats landing in Canton, Locust Point, and Fells Point. Baltimore was third only to New York and Boston as a landing port for new Americans. In place of the Statue of Liberty, those who who sailed up the Patapsco past Fort McHenry were greeted by a statue of Major George Armistead, who helped defend the fort from the British during the War of 1812.

Western Europeans still trickle in, but today's new arrivals in Maryland are far more likely to come from Latin America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the former Soviet Union. Many are political and economic refugees, casualties of undeclared "dirty" wars and ethnic-cleansing campaigns.

Most of Maryland's undocumented aliens enter without much drama or fanfare. Some asylum seekers simply fly in as would anyone else; disembarking at Baltimore/Washington International Airport, they are met by INS officers who immediately take them into custody. More than half of the state's undocumented aliens, the INS estimates, enter the country legally but become illegal by overstaying student or visitor visas. Still others make their way into Maryland by quietly slipping across state borders by bus and car.

"Folks come by all means of transit. We've got a lot a extended families here," Baltimore immigration lawyer Ana Zigel says. She knows of illegals who have come from as far away as Southern California to join relatives here.

INS officials and immigration advocates alike are concerned that a growing number of illegals are smuggled into the country and the state by "coyotes"--shady brokers who charge exorbitant amounts to take people across the U.S. border. "Rarely do smugglers show concern for clients," the INS' Shallman says, citing cases in which coyotes use aliens as indentured servants. In April, the U.S. Attorney's office for Maryland charged Leandro Sanchez, a Silver Spring resident, with illegally smuggling aliens. Sanchez allegedly housed 11 Mexican nationals in his home and employed them in his drywall business.

The coyotes thrive because they've got a strong market. Maryland's robust economy and its proximity to Washington, D.C. --a mecca for both legal and undocumented immigrants--makes the state an appealing destination. "You don't have to speak English to work for a landscaper. . . . You don't have to speak English to process chickens in a plant on the Eastern Shore," the INS' Shallman says. Last year, the INS arrested more than 400 illegals in Maryland during what it calls "work-site enforcements." Federal regulations require employers to check to make sure workers are legal, but two local businesspeople who have employed immigrants say that unless they employ costly document specialists, it's difficult to tell forged from legitimate papers--a situation Shallman confirms.

Not all immigrants fit the stereotype of manual laborers or less-than-legal nannies. According to the Maryland Office for New Americans, a quarter of the state's immigrants earn more than $35,000 a year. Many illegal aliens, often people who come here to study and overstay their student visas, work in lucrative white-collar, high-tech jobs. Many of immigration attorney Thanos Kanellakos' clients are illegal aliens in professional jobs who have been quietly paying taxes and raising their American-born children (who are automatically granted citizenship) alongside their neighbors for years, and still fear deportation.

Kanellakos, a first-generation Greek-American, argues that INS raids are a waste of time--employers know they can always replace the workers with more illegal aliens, who come cheaper than citizens and are less likely to complain about working conditions. "You're never going to get all the violators," Kanellakos says. "Employers are always going to look for the lowest labor cost."

Businesses found to have knowingly hired illegal aliens are subject to punishment. Last year the INS assessed more than $500,000 in fines to 25 Maryland businesses for hiring illegal aliens. The agency refuses to disclose how much it actually collected, but according to the Center for Immigration Studies--a Washington, D.C., organization that tracks INS enforcement of laws on hiring illegals--only a fraction of firms charged end up paying fines. While the companies stave off paying penalties through appeals, the workers themselves are usually deported.

Upon entering the United States, all immigrants are given a "status" that sets the terms and conditions of their stay. Anyone who enters the country without proper papers or overstays his or her visa is subject to deportation. Those who overstay their visas by more than 180 days are automatically barred from reentering the United States for three years. Those caught overstaying for a year may not legally return to this country for a decade.

For illegal aliens who are caught by the INS, deportation is often a swift process. Shallman says the agency is sometimes able to escort aliens who opt to "self-deport"--pay for their own one-way airline ticket--out of the country the same day they are arrested. Undocumented aliens arrested by the INS are often briefly held in the agency's Catonsville office, then transferred to the Howard County detention center. The INS tries to get them on a commercial flight within three days.

For those who can't pay for their tickets, or who have been convicted of a felony, the U.S. government operates its own deportation airline. The three-jet Justice Prisoner Alien Transportation Service, or JPATS, flies regularly scheduled "repatriation" flights to El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Nigeria, and Cuba. On a recent JPATS flight from Harrisburg to Laredo, Texas, burly U.S. Marshals acted as de facto airline attendants, serving sandwiches and juice to handcuffed and shackled deportees. (JPATS is not allowed to land in Mexico. Aliens from that nation must be bused to the border, where they are turned over to Mexican officials for return to their hometowns.)

"I'd be very surprised if any aliens transported on JPATS are frequent fliers," says Kristine Marcy, senior counsel for detention and deportation for the INS. "This is a much safer way of handling the bad guys--they don't spit, they don't kick, they don't hurt people."

But for others, the deportation process can drag on for months. Immigration lawyers tell of clients who have spent more than a year in custody--usually in local jails contracted by the INS to house aliens--while their cases and appeals snake their way through the system. Attorneys say clients--even those with strong cases--often choose to be deported rather than remain in jail.

On an unseasonably chilly August morning, knots of men and women dressed in their best clothing nervously puff cigarettes and huddle with their lawyers before entering the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review, commonly known as immigration court, a hulking edifice occupying a windswept corner in downtown Baltimore. The building resembles something out of a Leni Riefenstahl movie, with a fierce black eagle crouched over the entrance way. Here, in tiny courtrooms, a trio of immigration judges decide who can and cannot stay in the United States.

In the hallway of the seventh floor, families whisper anxiously in a half-dozen languages as they review a docket that lists cases ranging from asylum hearings to removals. An unmarked door opens to reveal a holding area where shackled detainees converse with lawyers from behind a thick glass partitions.

Around the corner, in a courtroom decorated with world maps, Judge John Gossart Jr. shifts in his chair as Saheed Bello, a Nigerian taxi driver from Laurel scheduled to be deported because he used a stolen credit card four years ago, pleads with the judge to allow him to remain in the United States. Although Bello made restitution for the stolen card and did not violate his probation, his removal is demanded by beefed-up immigration laws that call for deporting aliens convicted of some crimes on grounds of "moral turpitude."

A powerfully built man with a shaved head and a thick accent, Bello has been in INS custody in the Wicomico County detention center in Salisbury for nine months waiting for his case to wend its way through immigration court. Escorted into the courtroom by two armed INS officers, Bello--who remains in handcuffs and ankle shackles during his court appearance--breaks down as he describes what he fears will happen to his five American-born children and their mother if he is returned to Nigeria. He says he will have difficulty supporting his family there: "Life in Nigeria is even tougher than here."

Oralee Jackson, Bello's common-law wife and the mother of his children, is sobbing. "He's a family man. My kids need a father," she says. Jackson, who is a U.S. citizen, says she wouldn't be able to join Bello in Nigeria because she doesn't have enough money to buy plane tickets for herself and her family. "What am I going to do with five kids and no income? I don't want my kids to be on welfare."

INS attorneys argue for Bello's removal, citing the 1996 law, which requires deportation for any alien committing a crime that carries a sentence of more than a year. But Thanos Kanellakos, representing Bello, questions the severity of the punishment compared to the crime. "Is a $300 theft a crime of moral turpitude?" he asks, noting that that his client has spent more time in INS custody than he did for the credit-card fraud (for which he received a suspended sentence). "Anytime you deport someone, you're penalizing family members left behind," he adds. (Gossart had not ruled on Bello's case at press time.)

In another courtroom, an elderly woman from the Ivory Coast, clad in maroon, gold, and yellow robes and an ornate head wrap, stands impassively before Judge Bruce Barrett. The woman's son, a U.S. citizen, has petitioned the court to allow her to stay because she qualifies as an immediate relative.

"She's fortunate. It's likely she's going to be allowed to stay," says Konstantine "Gus" Prevas, a Baltimore lawyer who has handled hundreds of immigration cases in his 43 years of practice. Family separations are becoming more common because of deportations, Prevas says. He predicts immigration laws will continue to get more restrictive--that soon even members of the immediate family of immigrants who have become citizens won't be granted any preference for staying in the United States.

"Times are changing," says state Delegate Robert Kittleman (R-Howard/Montgomery), one of the sponsors of the English-only bill pending before the state legislature. "Immigrants have made this country, but you could have a tidal wave that could completely bury you."

Immigration is not the hot-button issue here that it is in Florida, or border states such as Texas and California. "The bills we've put through are pretty mild," Kittleman says. "It's more a statement that we don't want this country to become a two-language country like Canada. I see that as a danger." But he does worry that increasing immigration and bilingualism could strain the state's--and the nation's--educational and economic resources.

"My grandmother came here from Czechoslovakia," Kittleman says. "She thought the streets were paved with gold. She worked hard and was a good citizen. I think that on the whole, immigrants are some of the nicest people. But there could come a time when you can't accept them all."

Catherine Khasu is tired of people telling her to be patient. "Americans are always bragging about human rights," Khasu rants, pacing the living-room floor of her modest Hamilton home. "I left Liberia because of man's inhumanity to man, but I don't see much justice here."

Since August, Khasu's 37-year-old son, Ernest Brown, has been jailed in the Wicomico detention center awaiting word on whether he will be deported for failing to appear in court for an asylum hearing. Khasu says her son is in jail because he was 11 minutes late for the hearing.

A former case manager with the Baltimore City Department of Social Services (she recently resigned to devote all of her time to fighting her son's deportation), Khasu says that while at the Howard County detention center, before being transferred to Wicomico, Brown--who had previously been hospitalized for psychiatric disorders--was put naked in a small cell with only a blanket after being arrested by INS officers and has been denied medical care for a severe gum infection. (Shallman says he has no knowledge of the incident, but says there is a prison nurse on duty 24 hours a day to attend to the medical needs of inmates.) Khasu, who was an attorney in Liberia, is seeking to have her son paroled for health reasons; a decision from the INS on the matter is pending.

Khasu says she fears Brown will be killed for political reasons if he returns to Liberia because he took part in protests against the government of Samuel K. Doe (who was overthrown and executed in 1990) and was suspected of CIA ties when he worked as a guard at the U.S. Embassy. Khasu's mother and grandmother were killed in the civil conflict that has engulfed Liberia since 1989.

Detainees awaiting deportation or immigration-court hearings are housed in local jails because the INS doesn't have its own detention facility, Shallman says. The federal agency pays local governments between $55 and $70 a day to house aliens in five counties around the state. (INS detainees are kept separate from the general prison population, but must adhere to prison regulations.) This warehousing is a boon for the counties--under a contract with the INS, Wicomico County received about $3 million last year for housing illegal aliens in its detention center.

"Why should I have been locked up with all those criminals? There was no reason for me to have been there," says "Boris," a giant of a man from Eastern Europe who has twice been detained at Wicomico--once after illegally crossing the border in 1991 and again in July 1995 because INS officials did not receive proper paperwork regarding his plea for political asylum. (He was granted asylum in 1997.)

Boris--who asked that his real name and native nation be withheld because he fears workplace repercussions--says he came to the United States because he couldn't make a living in post-Communist Eastern Europe, and because his family was harassed for its political views.

Boris made his way to the United States in via a circuitous route that took him first to Czechoslovakia (which had not yet split into the independent Czech and Slovak Republics). There he boarded an Aeroflot plane bound for Cuba, but instead of disembarking in Havana he got off the plane in Montreal and applied for political asylum. After being turned down by the Canadian government, Boris, joined by a friend, crossed an unguarded stretch of the U.S. border into New York state. Trying to pass as intrepid outdoorsmen, the two dressed as fishermen, even carrying poles as they bushwhacked their way through miles of scrubby underbrush. But eventually, they were picked up by INS agents at a gas station. Boris and several other illegal aliens were bused to Wicomico; after spending a month there, a friend from back home posted bail for Boris, who then applied to the U.S. government for asylum.

After coming to Maryland, Boris existed in a sort of limbo, living in what he calls "safe houses" and trying to get a work permit from the INS. "I used to walk around Baltimore looking at construction workers and thinking, Why can't I do this?," he recalls. "I filed five times to allow the INS to let me work. I waited over a year." He eventually got his permit and, among other jobs, has worked as a bus boy, a hotel doorman, and a car salesman. But he remains angry about being jailed twice, and fears people will find out about his past as an illegal alien.

"It's like you've done something so wrong," he says. "You say, 'Why me? Why is this happening to me? If I'm deported, it means I'm a very bad person.'"

Catherine Khasu says she can understand why authorities would be anxious to deport aliens with criminal records. But she can't fathom why the government is trying to remove undocumented aliens whose only crime is wanting to stay in this country.

"I don't want the dregs of society to come to the United States," says Khasu, who is a legal permanent resident and will be eligible for citizenship before the end of this year. "But if a good child of God wants to go to another part of God's Earth, they should be able to go there."

For their part, INS officials say that as an enforcement agency, their hands are tied when it comes to deporting undocumented aliens. "We are sworn to enforce the law that says we will know who comes into our country and who doesn't come into our country," John Shallman says. "As an alien, the burden of proof is always on you."

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