Transcript

170:

Immigration
Transcript

Originally aired 10.13.2000

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/170

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Tom Hodgson's one of those "get tough on crime" politicians, a Republican who was appointed to the job of sheriff by a Republican governor. And as soon as he became sheriff in Bristol County, Massachusetts, he went right to work in the county jail.

Carlos Carrero

Before he came, we had no control over this jail. The inmates had control of the jail. He changed all that.

Ira Glass

Carlos Carrero has worked in the jail for 10 years. He says Sheriff Hodgson imposed discipline on the inmates and the guards. He changed the rules so that inmates had to go into classes or activities if they wanted their time counted as good time. He removed the TVs from the cells, removed the weight room. Carlos gestures around his own office.

Carlos Carrero

As a matter of fact, this office right here, this used to be a weight room, right here we were are. He removed all that, because to him, it made no sense for us to make people charged with crimes, to make them even stronger than when they came in.

I remember before him that we used to have requests every single day from different institutions, of inmates who wanted to come to this institution. This was vacation ground. This was where they could do whatever they want. Everything was going fine. Now it's the other way around. Everybody wants to leave this jail. They don't want to stay here. It's a very strict institution within the laws.

Ira Glass

But not long after Sheriff Hodgson took office in 1997, Carlos Carrero started to tell him about something going on at the jail that seemed terribly unfair. There was a new immigration law put into place just a year before, which was sentencing lots of people to deportation who had never been eligible for deportation before this. Here's Sheriff Hodgson.

Tom Hodgson

When I took over this job-- obviously one of the things that is fundamental whenever you're in public office is to make sure that the scales of justice are properly balanced. So if I see that somehow the law is being applied in an unbalanced way, then shame on me if I don't stand up and try to correct that. First of all, there were certain offenses-- drunk driving, for example-- that prior to '96 was not a deportable offense, that today would be a deportable offense.

Ira Glass

In fact, any crime that got a sentence of a year in length was suddenly bad enough to get you deported if you didn't have full citizenship-- drunk driving, petty theft, minor drug possession charges. All of these could suddenly get a person deported. But what made this especially severe was that it was retroactive. If you committed these crimes decades ago, served your time, been a model community member ever since, suddenly you could be thrown out of the country.

Tom Hodgson

If, for example, someone, say, when they were 20 years old, was arrested for drunk driving, got a year, either probation or jail, finished their probation-- it was the only run-in with the law they had. And then at 24 years old, he decides to get married. Has a job, responsible, pays taxes, has a couple of children. And now, the kids are four and five years old. The '96 law kicks in, the change in the law. The person decides, my son's three years old, my daughter's now five. I'm going to go ahead and get my citizenship.

Ira Glass

Or perhaps they heard about the changes in the law and thought, hey, the country is getting tougher on green card holders. I should finally get my full citizenship. And they head down to the immigration service to do that.

Tom Hodgson

When they get there, voluntarily, to apply, they run their background check and find out that 15 years earlier, this person got arrested for drunk driving. INS says, I'm sorry, we're shipping you back to wherever. That to me is a law that clearly is unfair. The person had done their time. They'd volunteered to go get their citizenship, and here, now, they're being taken away from their family.

Ira Glass

And so this law-and-order Republican has found himself in the position of calling for Congress to change a law that he thinks is too harsh. He's traveled to Washington DC to lobby legislators. And for the people in his jail who are awaiting deportation, he's brought in teachers to prepare them for their new lives overseas.

Mario Medeiros

[SPEAKING PORTUGUESE]

Ira Glass

Bristol County happens to be home to a large Portuguese population, which has seen over 400 people deported in the last four years under this new law. On any given date, 35 to 40 people are being held in the county jail, most of them waiting to be deported back to Portugal.

Mario Medeiros

[SPEAKING PORTUGUESE]

Ira Glass

Mario Medeiros drops some Portuguese money onto a desk for four inmates and explains to them how much each coin and bill is worth in the country that they will soon be deported to, for most of them a country they haven't even seen since they were small children. The whole thing's done in Portuguese so they can get some practice. Some need it more than others. Most of them don't even remember seeing this money before.

Jorge Aruda

Yeah, that's totally new to me. Yeah, totally new.

Ira Glass

Jorge Aruda expects to be shipped overseas any day now.

Jorge Aruda

Weird-looking money. It's all different colors, and coins. I'm used to an American dollar bill, you know?

Man

I am lost with that.

Ira Glass

Jorge Aruda came to America when he was two years old. Now he's 25. He's no angel. He was addicted to heroin. While robbing a store, he got into a fight with an off-duty cop. It was the second time he was convicted of an assault charge, and he was sentenced to a year, which he served. That was enough to result in deportation under the '96 law.

Ira Glass

Do you feel like you shouldn't have been punished?

Jorge Aruda

I feel like I should have been punished somewhat, but not punished for the rest of my life. That's how I take it. That was a life sentence for me. They've punished me for the rest of my life. I feel there's no need for it. If someone pays-- if someone does their time, is committed to any kind of sentence for what they've done, then that should be their punishment. That's it. Let him go home. He's done. He's paid for what he's done. Let him go home to his family. Why ship me out of the country?

Ira Glass

Jorge will be sent to a part of Portugal where his family's from, where he has godparents and an aunt, all elderly.

Ira Glass

What do you picture when you picture what it's like there?

Jorge Aruda

What do I picture? We've seen a video here of how it was out there. And it's like a country life, you know? I've lived in the city all my life. You know what I mean? I'm watching this video and there's people riding on donkeys and milking cows and stuff, you know? That's something I've never done. I drink milk from the fridge and I ride around in a car. I can't picture myself on a donkey and milking cows, you know? It's going to be hard to adapt. But I guess I've got no choice but to get used to it.

Ira Glass

Today on our program, the story of a little-known law and how it has affected one community in Massachusetts. We live in a big enough country that there are actually lots of laws too obscure for most of us to have heard of, which actually affect tens of thousands of lives in huge, huge ways. Today we hear about one of them. It's an immigration law that the immigration service itself says is unfair. Most of the law's original sponsors in Congress now say they went too far, they were too harsh when they passed the law, and yet most of the law's key provisions still stand unchanged and unchallenged. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Act One of our show today, Where Goes the Neighborhood? We hear how the immigration law of 1996 has a community of nonpolitical people reluctantly going to protests, attending meetings at night, talking to politicians, doing all sorts of things most of us would do anything to avoid.

Act Two, Whose Idea Was This Anyway? Congressman Barney Frank argues that most of his colleagues had no idea what they were voting for when they voted for key portions of this law, and an advocate for the law explains why we should want to deport more people.

Act Three, Man Without a Country. What happens if the immigration service wants to deport you, but the country that you come from won't take you back. Under current law, usually, you stay in jail indefinitely. Alex Kotlowitz tells the story from Texas. It is an action-packed hour. Stay with us.

Act One: Where Goes The Neighborhood.

Ira Glass

Act One, Where Goes the Neighborhood. When the 1996 immigration law kicked into effect, the number of people deported because of their criminal past doubled from about 30,000 people a year to about 60,000. Two towns in Massachusetts, Fall River and New Bedford, were especially hard-hit because of the large Portuguese community there, which includes many newcomers and which mostly comes from the Portuguese island called the Azores. This American Life producer Blue Chevigny spent some time there recently talking to people about the effects of the law.

Blue Chevigny

Mario Fredas is the kinds of dad who has learned to tune out the fact that there's a five-year-old, a one-and-a-half-year-old, and a recently-born baby all wanting attention as he tries to talk to me in his living room. He came to this country 19 years ago, when he was 17, from the Azores, the islands off of Portugal. He and his wife Maria show me pictures, one from 1980.

Mario Fredas

That was when we came to this country.

Blue Chevigny

Who are these?

Mario Fredas

This is me. This is my older brother. And this was a friend of us who was already here. He's from Boston.

Child

Hey, Daddy. That's Uncle Tony.

Mario Fredas

Yes.

Blue Chevigny

Mario is like most of the people in this community who face deportation under the '96 immigration law. They came here from Portugal in the '70s as children with their families to escape the Salazar dictatorship. They were legal immigrants with green cards. Typically they got involved with drugs or alcohol and got in trouble with the law for drunk driving, drug possession, domestic violence, and minor assault charges. Mario was convicted of cocaine possession with intent to distribute when he was 24. He served a three-year sentence. He was released in 1991. Then, after his parole, he didn't think about his crime all that much until one morning last year.

Mario Fredas

I was going to work. I work in Boston. Just a regular day. I get up. I get [INAUDIBLE].

Blue Chevigny

We walk outside.

Mario Fredas

And I just get in my truck over here. I just went inside. I've got my coffee, my bagel. Just on my mind is getting to work, make some money. I back it up, just like a regular back-up. When I reach to that car right there--

Blue Chevigny

He points to a car half a block away.

Mario Fredas

That's about, what, 150 feet? I see a police car coming from the corner where you see that tree, coming this way.

Blue Chevigny

He pulled over, thinking the police were there for someone else. And suddenly officers appeared on both sides of this truck.

Mario Fredas

They opened my right door, my left door, and pulled their guns all over. So I cannot move. I can't even pull the key.

Blue Chevigny

Wow.

Mario Fredas

So then he did the key for me, pulled the emergency brake. They take me out of the truck. I thought I was being kidnapped. I thought it was a mistake, you know? They identify themselves. They say, that's immigration, and you'll be going to Portugal next week. Never mind this country. Think about Portugal. Of course, I was in shock. I have my family, my kids sleeping over here 150 feet away. So I was not too happy.

Blue Chevigny

It's still not clear why they came for him that particular day, what brought his case up on their radar. They put him in a van and drove him into Boston, right past his actual job site. He lays concrete on the massive tunnel highway construction project that's called the Big Dig.

Mario Fredas

I thought it was a bad dream, you know? I go by my job. I'm thinking, I'm supposed to be over there. I'm not supposed to be on all those [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Maria Fredas

I was asleep when my next-door neighbor called and said, they took your husband.

Blue Chevigny

This is Maria Fredas, Mario's wife.

Maria Fredas

And I knew in my heart that it was immigration, because we already had heard of a few cases. So when she said immigration, my first reaction was to run outside. Because I'm thinking he's still outside, but they already had taken him away. So the only thing I could do was, I got into the truck, and his coffee was still sitting there. The hot coffee and a warm bagel. And I took the truck and parked it into the yard and started calling family.

I think the worst part was my daughter. She was, at the time, four. And that was hard for her, because she thought her dad had died. She said, "Why are these people here?" This was in the morning. "Why are you crying?" And I said, "Nothing." And she ran to the window and said, "Mommy, that's Daddy's truck. Did Daddy die?" I said, "No, Daddy didn't die." And she said, "Yes, he did." And I said, "No, he didn't," and she said, "Yeah, my Daddy died."

Blue Chevigny

The INS held him for 20 days, and then his lawyer got him out on a technicality. A year later, he's still waiting for a final decision about whether he'll be sent to Portugal.

As you've heard, the 1996 law did a few things. It made a lot of crimes deportable that weren't deportable before. It was retroactive, applying to crimes that happened years before it was written. And it did one more thing, and it's this third change that's probably had the most effect on this community and the country. It removed judges from the process.

Before the 1996 law, Mario would have had the right to appear before a judge, who would examine the specifics of his case, take into account the fact that he hadn't had other arrests and that he's a parent of three children with a job and a house, and then decide whether he deserves to be deported. Fred Watt is an attorney in New Bedford who's handled dozens of these cases, including Mario's.

Fred Watt

I think that probably the easiest way to understand the changes in the law is to understand that what the new law or laws did is-- the big difference is that now the judges do not have the discretion, in many cases, to give a waiver from deportation.

Blue Chevigny

Fred Watts says that if they had that discretion, well over half of his clients might have had a decent shot at staying in the US. Before the changes in the law, that's how many of his clients won their cases with judges. As it stands now, though, all sorts of cases lead to deportation more or less automatically.

Luis Ramos

I never knew that this thing was going to happen like this, you know? Because I'm not a criminal. I consider myself-- I'm not a criminal. My problem was drink.

Blue Chevigny

Luis Ramos is 48, did construction and manufacturing work, and served a sentence for drunk driving. Before 1996, a judge might have taken away his driver's license and ruled that he posed no further danger to the community. Now the INS is planning to deport him.

Luis Ramos

I never go around robbing houses or something like that. I've worked in this country for 32 years. 32 years. And I never robbed nobody. I always pay taxes to the government. And I've hurt no one. I have an 18 years' marriage, two kids, wife. Never did nothing to hurt America.

Blue Chevigny

New Bedford and Fall River are both really pretty port towns, with cobblestones, colonial-looking downtowns, and small houses on streets winding back from the waterfront. And Portuguese immigrants have been coming here since the 1790s, because this was a major whaling town, and the Portuguese islands, the Azores, were full of whalers as well. A section of Moby Dick where Ishmael meets up with whalers from all over the world is set in New Bedford. This is the kind of place where it seems like every little store and doctor's office has a Portuguese name, and where many first-generation Portuguese immigrants never learned to speak English. Over half of the population is of Portuguese descent.

At this point, there have been so many deportations, a women's group has formed here, made up of mothers, sisters, and wives of men who've been deported to Portugal. They hold a monthly support group and weekly vigils in downtown New Bedford. They dress in black and carry signs protesting the deportations. Last month, they held a speaker's forum in a Fall River church, where women were invited to tell their stories, and politicians were invited to come and listen and respond.

Woman 1

I would also like to recognize Maria Costa, who's representing Congressman Jim McGovern.

Blue Chevigny

About a dozen politicians showed up or sent their aides, most of them state and local representatives who can't do much about the federal immigration law. The women go up to the podium first-- a niece, a few sisters, a wife, several mothers-- and each one gets a few sentences into her story about someone's deportation and starts to cry.

Woman 2

Good afternoon, everybody. My name Mary [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I come today here to talk about my brother, Norbert Souza. He's in a jail for nine months. So I'm so confused in this life because--

Girl 1

--but this time it was different. In our car ride on the way to the airport, he told me, "Melanie, Titi's very sick."'

Lillian Rodericks

My name is Lillian Rodericks. And I'm speaking on behalf of my husband.

Woman 5

Good evening. I'm here on behalf of my brother, Emmanual [? Meros. ?] He came to the US at the age of two and a half.

Blue Chevigny

This is the first political involvement of any kind that most of these women have ever had. As the number of deportees has grown and affected more and more families, even not very civic-minded people are becoming outraged. Guilherme Lourenco is a New Bedford fisherman, a sea scalloper. He was taken to Louisiana by the INS and detained for 15 months, after which his immigration case was decided in his favor, thanks to a lot of fancy footwork from his lawyer. He says his time away from home was especially hard on his two sons.

Guilherme Lourenco

They used to send me things that they'd drawn in school and stuff. And there was a lot of things that I notice about them, is they've changed, where they used to like-- you know, all kids used to like firemen, policemen. I'm going to be that when I grow up. And they had it different-- they would send me pictures of the cops getting killed. And I didn't really care too much for that. They lost some of the respect, I think, for authority. They knew I was being held for no crime, or a crime that I already had committed and paid for. So there was no reason for me being in jail. I think that's the way they looked at it.

Blue Chevigny

Lillian Rodericks is raising her three kids alone since her husband was deported a year ago. And they're not doing so well. While we're talking, Lillian's youngest child comes in, her eight-year-old son, Derek. He went with her to visit his father in Portugal the summer. She pulls his roller blades off for him.

Lillian Rodericks

The three of them are not participating in school. I just had a meeting with the principal from his school. They told me, since we came back from seeing his father, he's had a major attitude. The principal said he's acting out on them. Because he's a child. He doesn't know how to put his feelings, so this is where he's bringing out his feelings, at the school. And that's what's happening with my other two. So when they changed this law, they didn't punish them, they punished the family, the children.

Blue Chevigny

The '96 immigration law was passed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing and the World Trade Center bombing. Its sponsors hope to combat terrorists, and to stop what they thought were lenient immigration judges from allowing so many convicted felons to stay in the US. Immigration lawyer Fred Watt.

Fred Watt

I don't think that the average Republican or Democrat was aware of what this law was going to do. I'm not even sure the people who wrote it had a full understanding of it, because it took months for the immigration law community to understand it. I don't think that they necessarily meant it to affect the number of people it did. And I base that just because nobody seemed to get it, for the longest time. A good year. And the judges and the bar were all scratching their heads as the full impact of the law became clear.

Blue Chevigny

Here's one sign that Congress didn't intend for the law to work the way it has. There's a bill right now to soften some aspects of this law, backed by most of the original sponsors of the '96 law, and written by one of its key sponsors, Republican Bill McCollum of Florida. It passed the House and is awaiting a Senate vote right now. It would allow some people who have been deported retroactively to return. Fred Watts says it would help about a third of his clients. It won't affect any of the people we saw in the Bristol County jail, or Lillian Rodericks' husband, or Mario Fredas. It won't do the thing opponents of the '96 law want most-- put these deportation cases in front of judges again, as they were before 1996.

Fred Watt

And I think that it's time that people thought about deportation for what it is. I mean, really, it's almost like a little death penalty case, every time you do one. And that's maybe a little bit melodramatic, but when you see the families, particularly the mothers, this is about the worst thing that can happen to a family.

Blue Chevigny

I ask Mario Fredas, the guy who was nabbed with his bagel and coffee still sitting in his truck, for a tour of his house. After he and Maria had been married a couple of years, he bought this old two-story house that was completely run-down, condemned in fact, for a really cheap price.

Mario Fredas

This is a brand-new kitchen. It was an old one here. So I took it down. I did the floor tile. I take all the walls down. I put new electrical, plumbing, insulation.

Blue Chevigny

The house is beautiful, on a quiet street with other houses that look like it. He's got plans to fix the basement. He says sometimes he relaxes in the backyard, daydreams about what he'll do with his life. And then he remembers all of a sudden how tenuous his future is, that he's still waiting for a final decision from INS.

Mario Fredas

I'm just thinking, maybe next week I get deported. Who knows? I'm just thinking, if they come get me tomorrow-- I don't know. Always my mind stops me, and says, you know, why am I trying to do this? Because I don't know what's going to happen to me. It's like, I'm out of balance, you know?

Blue Chevigny

Mario shows me a panoramic photo of the island where he comes from in the Azores, lush green farmland in all directions. And he points to the spot where he'll move back to if he gets deported. He says it's a very small town with no industry other than farming. I ask him if he thinks of himself as an American, and he says no. He knows he's Portuguese. He says he's just built a life here, and had planned on living here forever, like a lot of other people do.

Ira Glass

Blue Chevigny. Coming up, a US Congressman calls the Congress stupid. That's right, stupid. An INS official says that they're asked to enforce a law that's unfair. And other examples of your government at work, in a minute, from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two: Whose Idea Was This Anyway?

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, an obscure law that you probably have not heard of that's deporting tens of thousands of people per year. We've arrived at Act Two of our show.

Act Two, Whose Idea Was This Anyway? Thus far, on our program, we've been hearing about 1996 changes to the immigration law. That law, of course, is enforced by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and at this point, the INS officially opposes certain parts of the '96 Immigration Act even while it uses them to kick people out of the country. Bill Strassberger is a spokesperson for the agency in Washington DC.

Bill Strassberger

I think it's safe to say the INS feels that the law went a little too far, although we were pleased with a number of the things that were included in the law. It's harsh. It was overreaching in many ways. It was probably the best compromise that was available at the time.

Ira Glass

In what ways did it go too far, in INS's view?

Bill Strassberger

The retroactivity of the law, reaching back, penalizing those who were convicted previously. I think the biggest problems, and what we really have advocated for the greatest change, is in the lack of discretion that we now have, that immigration judges now have. INS would like to see a return to that discretion, to allow immigration judges to review the totality of someone's life, not just the fact that they were convicted of a relatively minor offense 15 years ago, let's say.

Ira Glass

It strikes me that INS is an odd situation, of having to enforce a law it doesn't agree with right now.

Bill Strassberger

Well, that's quite often the case in law enforcement. The old phrase is, "I don't write the law. I just enforce them." And in many ways, that's true in this case. We give our input, but Congress does pass the law. The president signs the bill. And then we have to enforce it.

Ira Glass

Bill Strassberger of the INS. Meanwhile, legislators are hard at work backpedaling on the law. As you've heard, one of the original sponsors of the '96 act, Congressman Bill McCollum of Florida, has drafted a new bill that undoes some of the more controversial parts of his '96 law. The House of Representatives has approved the measure. It's still awaiting a vote by the Senate.

But as it waits, the question is, why did they pass the '96 law in the first place, this law that they now want to fix? What were they hoping to accomplish?

Barney Frank

It's a case of an outrageous law substantively being made in an outrageous way procedurally.

Ira Glass

This is Congressman Barney Frank. All of those Portuguese people from Fall River and New Bedford that we heard earlier in the program-- they're his constituents. They live in his district. And so he supports this new McCollum bill which reverses part of the '96 law. Back in 1996, he was on the House committee that handled the immigration bill, and he says that to understand how the most controversial parts of the bill became law, consider just one of the most contentious pieces of all this, retroactivity. He says the committee considered a proposal that would make tougher immigration standards retroactive.

Barney Frank

Now, when they offered that in the committee, we were able to defeat them. The Republicans win most things around here, but this was so bad that almost all the Democrats and a couple of Republicans rebelled.

Ira Glass

The bill, without retroactivity, went forward. The House and Senate approved it. And then comes the procedure that Barney Frank was just calling outrageous. A conference committee met. That's a committee with both members of the House and the Senate. Well, they didn't exactly meet in the normal way.

Barney Frank

The final bill was written by the Republicans in a conference committee which never met. Literally, the Democrats were excluded. The Republican leaderships of the two committees wrote the bill. They put in that provision that had been defeated by vote of committee, the provision that said, you will retroactively be deportable automatically for certain crimes that had not previously carried that penalty. And then they put it into the omnibus appropriation bill of that year.

Ira Glass

This is the bill that funds all of government activities?

Barney Frank

Exactly. Or most of them. Now, the immigration bill had been voted on, in the House at least, and maybe in the Senate, separately. But at that time, these obnoxious provisions about retroactivity weren't in it. They were added by the Republican congressional leadership in a last-minute secret meeting and incorporated into the overall bill so there was never any chance to vote on them.

Ira Glass

Were you following this closely enough yourself that you actually were aware that this thing had been put back in?

Barney Frank

Oh, yes. Yes, because I was a member of the House/Senate conference committee that never met. And we insisted, finally, the Democrats, on a meeting. But at the meeting, no motions were allowed. The rules of the House and the Senate allowed them to do this. And they explained that they were doing this. We complained about it and we objected very strenuously, but the problem was that, in the first place, other parts of the immigration bill seem attractive to people. But even worse, there was never any separate vote on this. It was just part of the one overall package.

Ira Glass

Now when this passed in '96, did legislators understand what they were passing?

Barney Frank

Most did not, unfortunately. Most members did not know that the ultimate bill they were voting for included this obnoxious provision. But the Republican leadership manipulated the procedures so that they were able to do it anyway.

Ira Glass

So you have this new bill which is now working its way through the legislative process.

Barney Frank

It's past the House, correct.

Ira Glass

What would it change?

Barney Frank

It undoes most of the bad effects but not all of the retroactivity. And it also says, very importantly, at my insistence, if you have already been deported because of this, and you can show that you would not have been deported had the law not been so changed, you can come home. So the nice thing is that we're doing away with retroactivity retroactively. Common sense will come back into the process.

Ira Glass

My understanding, though, is that what's going through in this current legislation is that it doesn't give judges discretion again for these cases since '96.

Barney Frank

Right. Since '96 it does not. As I said, it only repeals the retroactivity.

Ira Glass

Why doesn't Congress just let the immigration judges look at the cases--

Barney Frank

Well, why don't you ask the people who are doing that? I thought it was stupid and cruel then. I still think it is. And I oppose it. I can't tell you. I really am not a good explainer of other people's bad mistakes and evil intentions. I have enough trouble with my own.

Ira Glass

Congressman Barney Frank. We invited the key Republican legislators behind the '96 law to come onto our program and explain why they thought it was necessary in the first place. All four-- Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, Bill McCollum of Florida, Henry Hyde of Illinois, and Senator Spence Abraham of Michigan-- all declined our interview requests, saying they were too busy with the end of the legislative session and the fall elections. So to understand better why we as a nation might want these controversial parts of the law, we turn to an organization called FAIR, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which strongly supported the '96 law and still stands by it.

Jack Martin

We're talking about immigrants to this country who have not become US citizens, who are simply living here under our laws as, in effect, guests either invited or uninvited.

Ira Glass

This is Jack Martin, director for special projects at FAIR.

Jack Martin

We certainly have felt that it is fair that an active effort was undertaken for removing people who have abused the hospitality of our society.

Ira Glass

Let's talk about retroactivity a little bit. One of our producers met a man named Mario Fredas who was convicted of drug charges, served three years, got out in 1991. He was a green card holder. He cleaned up, has a family and kids now, works on the Big Dig in Boston. Didn't he already pay for his crime? What good does it do to deport him?

Jack Martin

There are many cases that have received publicity of people such as the one that you're referring to, who have committed what may seem a fairly minor offense. And even though they have paid a debt to society, under the law, if they had just come into the country after the '96 act, they would be deportable at the time that they had paid their service. In other words, we have judged that these people have abused their immigrant status and should be removed back to the country that they came from.

And I think that you can make a reasonable case for people in certain limited circumstances where they've demonstrated that they are responsible members of the society to continue to stay in this country. But the Attorney General's discretionary power, under the law, is amply sufficient for taking care of these exceptional cases.

Ira Glass

In other words, the Attorney General can overturn these cases and basically say, these people shouldn't be deported. It's not fair.

Jack Martin

That's correct.

Ira Glass

Why not just have judicial review? Why not just have immigration judges look at the cases, the way it was before? If somebody's going to have to weigh the merits of each case.

Jack Martin

Well, the main reason for that is because that lends itself to judicial shopping, which was a standard practice and one of the main abuses that the '96 act was intending to correct. A lot of immigration lawyers were in effect given free rein to shop around from judge to judge during a very lengthy and extensive appeal process that ended only when they were able to find the judge, finally, who would agree to forgive the offense and allow that person to stay in the country.

Ira Glass

Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He's exactly right, by the way, that the Attorney General has the power under current law to stop deportation of anybody who she thinks is deserving. Janet Reno could issue an order allowing Mario Fredas, or any other potential deportees, to stay in the US. In fact, the INS itself has the power to look the other way in any case and not deport somebody. But it's almost never done.

Presumably this is why. If Janet Reno or the INS pardon somebody who then went on to commit terrible crimes, the Attorney General and her party and its candidates-- they are the ones who would take the blame. Now, the Republicans say that is just fine. If something bad happens, politicians should take the heat for it. And Republican congressmen like Lamar Smith have been saying for years now that INS does not need a new law. It should just make exceptions for those cases that merit it. I asked Barney Frank what he thought about his colleague saying that.

Barney Frank

Oh, that's an outrageous cover-up of themselves. If you go back to the debates in '96, their argument was precisely that they had to take away the discretion from the INS. Then, when that law began to have outrageous results, they said, "Well, it's not our fault. The INS should have used its discretion." But the very purpose of the law was to take away the discretion.

You know what their argument is? Well, the INS in effect should ignore the law selectively. Even though the law says these people should automatically be deported, the INS should simply refuse to invoke it in these cases. Now, I think that's probably true in a lot of these cases, but don't pass a law and then blame the INS for carrying out the law that you passed, and say, well, it's their fault, they should have ignored me.

Ira Glass

One last political note with all this. We contacted the two presidential campaigns to find out where they stand on the '96 immigration law. Of course, in the scheme of presidential politics, this is not a very big issue. And, in fact, the Bush campaign does not have an official position on the law. The Gore campaign does, though. Candidate Gore believes that the '96 law went too far, and favors putting these cases back in the hands of judges.

[MUSIC -- "I'M JUST A BILL" BY SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK]

Act Three. Man Without A Country.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Man Without a Country. This next story is about another little-known part of US immigration policy. What happens if the INS wants to deport you but there is nowhere to deport you to? People awaiting deportation, by the way, are housed in county jails around the country. And they can be there for a long, long time. Alex Kotlowitz has this story about the unusual relationships that sometimes form between these deportees and their jailers.

Alex Kotlowitz

On a recent Friday night in Victoria, Texas, a blue-collar town of 60,000, I met up with Trung Tran. Trung is a Vietnamese immigrant and had driven the two hours from Houston where he works as a lab technician at a sleep disorder clinic. He's 33, broad-shouldered, handsome, and well-dressed in a sapphire blue shirt, khaki pants, and Tommy Hilfiger boots. Together we drove to the home of Virginia [? Escahito ?] and her husband, Lupe. Virginia had met Trung when she was a guard at the local jail and Trung was an inmate. Virginia, who is 45, is a short roundish woman with red hair and rosy cheeks. She feels somewhat maternal towards Trung, and when we arrived, she embraced him.

?] Hi, Tran. How are you doing, Tran?

Trung Tran

Pretty good.

Alex Kotlowitz

Virginia pulled on Trung's thick black hair.

?] I always look at Trung's hair--

Trung Tran

It's grayer.

?] --to see if it's any grayer. Because it was jet black in the jail went I met him. And he was so, so skinny, and I was kind of worried for him for a while. And now his cheeks are chunky, and he's got a little gray hair. Every time I see him, I see more. But he looks good. I'm glad to see him.

Alex Kotlowitz

This is the story of an unlikely friendship, friendship between captor and captured, a connection that pushed both an American and an immigrant to question their place in America. This tale begins in 1975, when Trung and his family fled Vietnam for America. Trung was seven at the time. His mother had worked for the US military. The Trans eventually settled in Houston, where Trung's parents bought and ran a convenience store.

Trung quickly adapted to his new country. In high school he ran track. On weekends, he attended Friday night football games and afterwards joined classmates at Kentucky Fried Chicken. His date for the prom was the homecoming queen. Those he hung out with, he says, were all Americans. He had no Vietnamese friends.

Trung Tran

I just lived since then like a typical American kid, grew up and played sports and went to school and did the whole nine yards. And I went through the procedure of even trying to apply for citizenship with my whole family. And I went through, took the test and everything. And the whole time, I graduated from high school, went and filled out my draft card, did the whole thing. And already, I filled out my financial aid paper and anything else-- I'd put down as a US citizen.

Alex Kotlowitz

Trung went on to college at Texas Southern University, and there he lost his footing. His grades slipped and his scholarship was rescinded. He began to sell crack cocaine, and he was pretty good at it, netting $500 to a $1,000 a week. On October 19, 1992, he was arrested and charged with drug trafficking and money laundering. He plead guilty to both counts and served 32 months in federal prison. But when his time was up, he wasn't released. Trung, in fact, was not a citizen, though he was a lawful permanent resident. While he had begun the application process, he never completed it. Given the serious nature of Trung's crime and the fact that he was not a citizen, an immigration judge could and did decide to deport him.

But there was a catch. Vietnam is one of a number of countries, including Cuba, Cambodia, and Laos, which won't accept deported individuals. And so Trung was without a homeland. Vietnam didn't want him, nor did the US. So what to do? The INS's policy has been to keep people like Trung incarcerated, even though they've completed their criminal sentences. The INS sent Trung to the county jail in New Braunfels, Texas.

Trung Tran

To tell you the truth, at first when I was in INS detention, it was like a cat and mouse game between the officers and the inmates. And they had a lot of officers that were veterans, because they went to the military and so forth. So they would make comments, calling me [UNINTELLIGIBLE PHRASE] VC, stuff like that. When they served us our meal time-- "Here, you little VC, get your food."

Alex Kotlowitz

Then, in May of 1997, Trung was transferred to the county jail in Victoria. Trung had no reason to expect he'd be treated any different there. The building itself is an imposing two-story cinder block structure, and like most county jails was built to hold inmates for only short stretches, anywhere from a few hours to a few months, while they awaited their trial or their sentencing. The jail doesn't allow television. The only outdoor facilities are two courtyards, each the size of a basketball court. Inmates are allowed outside for a total of three hours a week. Inmates have no privacy. There are no cells, just dormitory-style locked rooms which house anywhere from 4 to 24 prisoners in bunk beds.

It's jail facilities like this, designed for locking people up temporarily, to which the INS sends those like Trung whom it's detaining for indefinite periods. There are roughly 4,000 such detainees, which publicly the INS refers to as long-termers, and which internally the agency has called lifers, a suggestion that this could be their permanent home.

At Victoria, Trung shared a cell with Julio Martul. Julio, who was a legal permanent resident as well, emigrated from Cuba, committed a crime, served his six months, and was then ordered deported. But Cuba won't take him back, so he was placed in the Victoria county jail indefinitely.

Julio Martul

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

There are some people who were sentenced here to two years. Then they let them out. They've come back here, committed another crime. They served their time, they let them out, and now they're back a third time. And they'll come back here and they ask me, "When are you going to get out?" And they don't believe it.

Alex Kotlowitz

It's at the Victoria county jail where Trung met Virginia. Virginia was a jail guard responsible for the institution's educational program. Many of the detainees attended language classes, and they would tell her of their situation. "How could someone be in jail and not know when they were getting out?" She would ask of them. She was puzzled.

?] Because they had no date, no release date. There was no release date for them. And I'm going, everybody's got a release date here. Except INS. And it was just unreal. I couldn't comprehend that. I'd come home and tell my husband, I'm in the wrong job. I'm just in the wrong job, because it was just so frustrating sometimes. And I felt like I couldn't do enough for these people. I couldn't do enough.

Alex Kotlowitz

She began to call the INS to try to get some answers for Julio, Trung, and the others. I think, though, she was also trying to make sense of it herself.

?] I would ask, what was their status? They wanted to know, and we wanted to know also.

Alex Kotlowitz

And they would just tell you that they couldn't tell you anything.

?] Right. That they could not tell me anything.

Alex Kotlowitz

That must have driven you batty.

?] Well, I felt bad. Because what was I going to tell these guys? There they were, standing by me or sitting at the desk and waiting for an answer. And they were so happy that I was making a call for them. And then for me to tell them, well, they wouldn't even talk to me, you know?

Alex Kotlowitz

Other guards at Victoria, many of whom like Virginia are first- or second-generation Americans, were equally perplexed. And so they too found ways to make life just a bit more bearable for these INS detainees. The guards gave the lifers certain privileges and did so at some risk. A sergeant at a nearby jail was fired after she publicly questioned the policy of detaining immigrants indefinitely. The guards at Victoria made many of them trustees, which allowed them some freedom of movement in the jail. They were assigned to kitchen duties or to mopping floors, or in the case of Trung, to the GED program. Virginia looked out for Trung and the others.

?] Some of these inmates have not seen their families in so many years. And they would ask me, "Miss Virginia, my family hasn't seen me in so long. They don't even know how-- do you think you could take a picture of me?" And maybe I shouldn't have, but I did. I took pictures of these guys and sent them home. And I think somebody had warned me, "Virginia, you know you might get in trouble by doing that to these inmates, because they're incarcerated." And I'd go, "Yeah, but they've already done their time."

Alex Kotlowitz

They were small favors, but they showed a level of trust that doesn't ordinarily exist between guard and prisoner. Some deputies would bring back an extra hamburger or sandwich from lunch to give to the men. Teachers at the jail gave the lifers email accounts so they could communicate with their attorneys, and allowed them access to the internet so they could keep up with the changes in the immigration law. Trung, in fact, found an internet site in Spanish for Julio.

One detainee, Victor [? Altume, ?] who'd served 16 years for kidnapping and aggravated battery, charges stemming from a bar fight, became the chef at the jail. The deputy sheriffs were such fans of Victor's cooking that they'd bring Victor along to their Monday night softball games, where he'd grill for them their favorites-- fajitas, tacos, and hot dogs. Victor was so well-liked that when he went to a local hospital for emergency heart surgery, so many deputy sheriffs visited him the hospital staff thought he too was in law enforcement.

A jail officer allowed Trung and five other lifers, including Julio, to room together. And the guards found ways to get the INS detainees outside for more than their allotted three hours a week.

?] Well, one time we went out and painted that mural.

Trung Tran

And I was shocked when Miss Virginia said, well, you know your going out with us today, and we got approved from the INS. And please don't run on me.

?] And I was so scared when I first took Tran. I was going, "Tran, please don't run on me, Tran. Because I can't run that fast. And I'm not going to run after you." And it's going to be my job, because they told me, "If he runs, it'll be your job."

Alex Kotlowitz

For Trung and the others, there was a clear incentive to win over the guards. About a year and a half ago, under pressure from immigrants' rights groups, the INS began reviewing the cases of lifers. If the agency determined that the detainee was not a danger to society or a flight risk, they considered releasing them, and the only way Trung or the others could show that was by recommendations from those who knew them best, their captors.

And indeed, the jail guards wrote letters to the INS, urging them to release these men. One sergeant wrote on behalf of Victor, the cook, "When Victor leaves this jail, he will be missed by the employees. Many of us depend on him. The only complaint I might have of Victor is he's a little heavy on the garlic." A dozen other guards and jail staff wrote on behalf of other detainees, including Julio and Trung. And after two and a half years in indefinite detention, Victor, who's now 53, was released, and someone at the jail helped him get a job as chef at a small local seafood restaurant. Victor still volunteers his culinary skills at the guards' Monday night softball games.

In July of last year, the INS agreed to release Trung, after four years in indefinite detention. His family came up with the $15,000 bond. The INS determined he was no longer a danger or a flight risk. Trung had expected to get out on a Friday, but an INS agent came by two days early and told Trung to pack his stuff. He wasn't quite ready to leave, though. He first wanted to pass along some of the computerized records he'd been keeping for the jail's education programs.

Trung Tran

To tell you the truth, I told the officer, "Hey, I'm not even finished with my work here yet." At that time, I was so involved with the GED stuff up there, and I took care of a lot of the paperwork and stuff. And I wanted to show them everything before I go, so--

Alex Kotlowitz

Let me get this straight. So here they tell you you're free, and you say, "No, I want to stay in jail for a few extra days so I can help out the guards and the teachers here."

Trung Tran

Yeah. I want to go home, but then I also want to finish my job before I leave.

?] Tran and I got very close. We worked for a long time together.

Alex Kotlowitz

Again, Virginia [? Escahito. ?]

?] And still we see each other, and he tries to stop by once in a while. And I just-- I love him. And there's several other of the guys that write to me and send me letters. And I've kept every piece of mail from them. I've got it, too.

Alex Kotlowitz

Virginia goes into her bedroom and emerges rather excitedly bearing a shallow plastic bin. She kneels and spills the contents onto the floor. She's held onto everything. There are a pile of letters from former INS detainees and trinkets made by the Cubans.

?] All of these are nothing but handkerchiefs.

Alex Kotlowitz

Trung leans back on the couch, calmly smiling. Virginia's now a police officer in a nearby town, and she's still in uniform. She goes to sit next to him and pokes him in the ribs. "I'm glad you've put on some weight," she says, giggling. She teases him about the female inmates in the jail.

?] They would try to grab or something, and I'd go, don't you--

Alex Kotlowitz

Soon, another former guard, Mike Martinez, arrives. He and Virginia ask Trung about Julio, Trung's old cellmate. The day before, Julio had marked his fifth anniversary at the Victoria jail. It's possible he could be there for the rest of his life. In the eyes of the INS, if a detainee's crimes are serious enough that he seems like a threat to society, it doesn't matter how long he serves or what he does in jail. It's unlikely he'll be released.

Julio has submitted testimonials from jail staff but the INS has turned him down, possibly because his offenses are among the worst from the INS's point of view. He has five convictions for smuggling illegal aliens. Trung visits him on occasion, and recently sent him a gift, one which, intentional or not, bore a message of sorts.

Trung Tran

I bought Julio a big duffel bag so in case-- when he does get released, he'll have a bag to carry. Because I, myself, when I got released, I didn't have duffel bags. I had two boxes full of legal documents. And I was picked up from here by immigration and taken to San Antonio, and I had to catch a Greyhound back to Houston. And here I am, carrying two plastic container boxes walking around, with old clothing, you know? So I felt sorry for Julio, so I ended up buying a duffel bag and some other stuff for him.

Alex Kotlowitz

Trung himself is in a state of limbo. If he gets in any kind of legal trouble, the INS could send him back to prison, and if and when Vietnam reaches an expatriation agreement with the US, Trung would be deported. This experience has-- and perhaps it was inevitable-- altered Trung's perception of himself. He now considers himself Vietnamese, not American. He reads a weekly Vietnamese newspaper and listens to Vietnamese music. He only eats at Vietnamese restaurants. He sends money when he can to his grandmother who still lives in Saigon. With the exception of those he met at Victoria, he only hangs out with other Vietnamese immigrants, and for the first time, he's dating a Vietnamese woman.

Trung Tran

I do. I finally realized that I'm not that American kid that I once thought I was. That status has been taken away from me, that, hey, you're just a visitor here. And that this door can shut at any given time, so don't have too much fun and get adapted to it.

Alex Kotlowitz

Virginia's journey has been a quieter but no less profound one.

?] Before I worked back in the jail, I wouldn't question anything. I'd go along with, OK, this is right. This is the law. This is America. This is the way it should be. And now I'm going, uh-uh, there's something wrong here. Because it was just a shock to me, what they do to the INS inmates. Yes, they've made mistakes but they've paid for those mistakes already. Sometimes I think, who do we think we are? God? To keep these people up here, like this-- it's not right.

Alex Kotlowitz

Virginia is not alone. When I was at the Victoria jail visiting Julio and the other detainees, a deputy sheriff who looked to be about 50 came up to me. "Are you the one visiting the INS guys?" He asked, rather gruffly. I told him I was. He smiled. "I just wanted to shake your hand," he said, "and say thank you." Thank you from a guard for doing a story on his prisoners. "I do feel for these individuals," he told me. "After all," he said, "they've served their time."

Ira Glass

Alex Kotlowitz is the author of There Are No Children Here and other books. Just this month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases of these indefinite detainees, people who are in jail with no country to go back to.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced by Blue Chevigny and myself, with Alex Blumberg and Julie Snyder. Production help from Todd Bachmann and Hillary Frank.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia, who, from the beginning, felt this way about the fact that we quote him at the end of each and every show--

Barney Frank

I thought it was stupid and cruel then. I still think it is.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Annoucner

PRI. Public Radio International.