ACLU Defends Immigrant Imprisoned for Three Years While Awaiting Deportation

June 14, 2004 12:00 am

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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today appeared in federal court on behalf of an Ethiopian immigrant who has been imprisoned for the past three years solely because he overstayed his visa.

“”This case is the latest example of the federal government’s low regard for the rights of immigrants,”” said ACLU of Rhode Island Executive Director Steven Brown. He noted that this is the third case that the ACLU of Rhode Island has filed on behalf of immigrant detainees subjected to indefinite confinement.

Sirak Gebremichael was first taken into custody by the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement in May 2001 because his three-year visa to be in the country had expired. He agreed to his deportation, but an immigration court held that he could be imprisoned pending a formal deportation proceeding because he presented “”a danger to the community.”” That finding was based on a Massachusetts warrant charging him with “”annoying a person of the opposite sex,”” a misdemeanor, even though he was never convicted of any crime.

Gebremichael was allowed to languish in prison for more than 15 months while the immigration service did nothing to either deport him or to reconsider his jailed status. It was only after Gebremichael filed a habeas corpus petition in January of this year that immigration officials finally contacted the Ethiopian embassy to try to arrange for his deportation.

In April, with still no change in Gebremichael’s status, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Lovegreen granted his petition for release, calling the case “”Kafkaesque.””

“”To have a man without a criminal history ? languishing in jail in a foreign country, imprisoned by a system he does not understand, disadvantaged by language difficulties, and apparently guilty of nothing more than overstaying his visa, is unconscionable,”” Lovegreen wrote.

The ACLU of Rhode Island agreed to assist Gebremichael in obtaining his freedom after the government appealed Lovegreen’s ruling.

“”While Mr. Gebremichael’s situation is indeed Kafkaesque, it is hardly unprecedented,”” said Randy Olen, a volunteer attorney with the ACLU of Rhode Island. “”In this case, the government’s recent belated attempts to convince the court that it can now deport him – assurances that to this very day have proven unfounded – only serve to highlight its shameful conduct over the preceding 15 months, in which it violated its legal obligations by simply ignoring Mr. Gebremichael while he languished in federal custody.””

On June 3, U.S. District Court Judge Ernest Torres affirmed Lovegreen’s ruling, giving the government until June 10th to deport Gebremichael before authorizing his release. Since the government failed to meet their deadline, a hearing has been scheduled for tomorrow to set bail conditions for his release.

“”The low regard in which the federal immigration service appears to hold immigrants’ fundamental interest in personal liberty is at odds with this nation’s most cherished ideals,”” Olen said.

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