Who Is On the Inside?

Accounts from INS Jail

On December 3 Roger Calero, a 12-year permanent resident, was arrested by immigration cops at the Houston airport on his way back from a reporting assignment in Guadalajara, Mexico. Released December 10 on his own recognizance after the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) district director was flooded with protest messages from around the world, Calero still faces a deportation hearing.

Houston–”I’ve worked on a lot of government projects,” said Mariano Tovar, a construction worker locked up in this immigration jail together with this reporter.

“I painted the courthouse and the local jail in Nacogdoches,” Tovar said. “I even worked on the construction of this jail in 1981.”

Recounting his personal story, he ran down a long list of government and other construction projects he had worked on since moving to the United States 34 years ago. Tovar, who was living in Nacogdoches, Texas, northeast of Houston, at the time of his arrest, arrived from Mexico in 1968. He became a permanent resident through the federal government’s 1986 general amnesty. A year ago he began his application for U.S. citizenship.

El Abuelo (Grandpa), as the younger workers here call Tovar, swapping experiences in the prison dormitory, was arrested a few weeks ago when he went to the INS offices to renew his expired green card. The immigration police is trying to use a conviction from more than 30 years ago as grounds to deport him.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, passed in 1996, expanded the number of crimes for which a person could be deemed “deportable,” including offenses as minor as trespassing or joyriding. The INS has sought to impose its own interpretation of the law by applying it retroactively, that is, to convictions that took place before the law was enacted.

One of the workers locked up here, originally from Nigeria, is facing deportation over a trespassing charge. What was his crime? Working as a door-to-door salesman and having the back luck of knocking on the door of a Houston cop.

Deportation on this basis can mean not only losing your job but your retirement benefits. Manuel García, 63, a carpenter from Utah, tells Tovar and others that this is what he faces if deported on the basis of a 1987 conviction. He has lived and worked in this country since 1974, gained his permanent residence 16 years ago, and would be eligible for retirement benefits next year.

“They let us work and work, and then when we get old, they want to throw us out,” said Tovar.

Many of those here were arrested after reporting to INS offices in order to renew a work permit or follow up on a pending application. For example, Artemio Monroy, 28, a hotel worker from Houston, was applying for his permanent residence through his wife, a U.S. citizen. He was arrested when he came in to renew a work permit he had received in 2000.

Monroy, originally from Guatemala, had been granted political asylum in 1992. But the INS issued a deportation order against him in 1996 after the Guatemalan government and guerrilla forces signed a political settlement to end the civil war in that country. In the meantime, Monroy has married and has a one-year old daughter, and his wife is currently pregnant. If deported he hopes to move back as close to the border as possible to work and help support his family in Houston.

Arrested in post-September 11 sweep “I am convinced that I am here simply because I am Muslim,” said Karim Bey Slimani, 27, who was born in Algeria. Slimani has been jailed here since October 2001.

“I am the only one left of those who were locked up here after September 11,” he said, reporting that about 40 immigrants from Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries were brought to this INS jail after that date. Slimani has not been charged with any crime associated with the attack on the Twin Towers. An estimated 1,200 to 2,000 people, mostly immigrants from the Mideast and South Asia, were rounded up over the past year and in many cases held for months without criminal charges. They were often picked up on some minor charge such as not having their immigration papers in order.

Slimani, who had a deportation order dating back to when he first entered the country in 1996, is now being held indefinitely by the INS, which claims he has not cooperated with the “investigation process” in providing travel documents required to complete the paperwork for his deportation.

Despite the fact that the INS has his Algerian birth certificate, which they seized when they searched his home at the time of the arrest, and despite several phone conferences with Algerian consular officials to verify his identity, the INS deportation officer in charge of his case maintains that Slimani is Palestinian, insisting that he does not speak Arabic with a North African accent and that his passport “appears” fake.

Last September 30, having exhausted all administrative appeals with the INS, his lawyer filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus, seeking a court hearing. The petition pointed to a series of violations of his rights.

Under immigration law, a person facing deportation is supposed to be removed within 90 days of receiving a final deportation order, and the period can sometimes be extended to six months.

The day before he was arrested, Slimani received a call from an FBI agent on the cell phone he uses for his job as a cab driver in Houston. The cop asked Slimani for a meeting. At the meeting, the FBI agent asked him if he knew anyone who had celebrated the September 11 attacks, and went on to ask if he was Muslim and how often he went to the mosque, Slimani reported. It was during this interrogation that he told the FBI agent he had a pending deportation case. The next morning the INS arrested him.

The INS then told Slimani that if he had any information about the September 11 attacks, they could help him “resolve” his situation. “He was assuming that we are all terrorists,” Slimani said. “The cop then took me to my apartment, where he began searching everywhere. There he found my birth certificate, and $30,000 I had been saving at home.” A few days later, when his uncle stopped by to check on his apartment, the money was gone.

At one point, the deportation officer threatened that he was going to be deported to another country. They also warned that if he “kept playing games” they would jail him for three to five years, Slimani said.

“I have committed no crimes. I do not use any drugs, I don’t drink, I am clean,” he said. “Many people who came after me have already left. I just want an opportunity to clear my case, but I cannot do it from here,” he added.

According to the federal government, the vast majority of the more than 1,200 immigrants it swept up after September 11 have been released, deported, or convicted of minor crimes that are not “terrorist-related.”

The government reports that only six of the 765 people arrested in the “anti-terror” sweep on immigration charges are still in INS prisons. “I am one of them,” Slimani said.