Sweet Release

Lulseged Dhine at Miami's Krome Detention Center, days before his release
Alisa Solomon

Nine years and 45 days. Lulseged Dhine's unconscionably long detention by the immigration and naturalization service finally came to an end on May 21. "I feel like I have just been born," said Dhine, 36, the day after his release from the INS's Krome Detention Center in Miami, Florida. "I'm in a state of disbelief."

Only days before, Dhine, an Ethiopian Jew who was put in deportation proceedings in 1990 because of some misdemeanor drug convictions in the '80s, was zipping across Krome's patios in his wheelchair with a fat accordion file in his lap, busily helping other detainees prepare legal papers and document complaints. Dressed in his prison-issue bright orange uniform, a black yarmulke nesting in his spray of coiling curls, Dhine halloed passing detainees to check in on their cases.

"Hey, Pedro, how you feeling today? Don't forget your meeting with the lawyer this afternoon," he called to a Mexican national with AIDS, who had been deteriorating ever since the INS took him into custody in April because of a 1984 drug possession conviction,whose three-month sentence he had long put behind him. Though Pedro has a green card and has maintained a clean record for the last 15 years, legislative fervor for emptying the U.S. of all "criminal aliens" made him deportable under the law. Once he was confined within Krome's glinting razor wire, he lost access to his medication; until Dhine noticed and hooked him up with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), which maintains an office at the facility, Pedro was quietly wasting away. "Dhine is our CEO," said Bernardo, a detainee from Cuba.

It wasn't just fellow captives who were stopping by to confer with Dhine, who entered the U.S. legally as a refugee in 1978 after his parents and brother were murdered by the Mengistu regime; INS guards, too, were bringing him answers. Why, Dhine wanted to know, was a group of detainees delayed in getting their hour of outdoor recreation? "I'm personally looking into it, Mr. Dhine," a guard replied, scurrying off to the men's dorm to find out. Even Miami journalists said that without Dhine around, they would have trouble getting their stories about Krome.

All this inside agitation may explain, in part, why Dhine was finally set free on parole while his case is still pending."He was getting a lot of publicity on conditions at Krome," says Dhine's Washington, D.C.­based attorney, Doug-las Baruch. "His documentation of unsanitary and substandard conditions led to the shutting down of the medical facility there, and he was getting a lot of stories out about detainees whose rights were not being upheld. He had become quite a thorn in the INS's side, and finally someone probably said, 'Do we really need this?' " Adds Cheryl Little, an FIAC lawyer who has applied on Dhine's behalf for relief from deportation under the UN Convention Against Torture, "Dhine really should have been on the INS payroll. He was doing more to get things in order at Krome than anyone."

Support for Dhine had been building for years, as those who met him were compelled by his case— how could the U.S. insist on returning a Jew to Ethiopia when persecution has continued against the Jews who have remained after the airlifts of a decade ago?— and impressed by his intelligence, activism, and knowledge of half a dozen languages. He saved two lives while in detention and helped break up a drug ring operating inside a facility. He even pressed for better pay and working conditions for INS guards. Demonstrations and grassroots letter-writing campaigns demanding Dhine's release began during the four years he languished at the INS detention center on Varick Street in Manhattan (where the windows don't open and detainees are not permitted to go outside). And the support grew as he was transferred to Florence, Arizona, in 1994. When Dhine was moved to Krome last year, Jewish organizations, Congress members, and others in Miami turned up the heat, holding a press conference outside Krome in March and working connections in Washington.

But Dhine might very well have remained penned up had it not been for a new INS policy, announced at the end of April by INS commissioner Doris M. Meissner, which calls for the prompt release and systematic review of all detainees who have been ordered deported but have not been removed after 90 days, typically because their countries of origin refuse to take them back. (According to INS spokesperson Russ Bergeron, there are some 3500 immigrants in this category, the vast majority of them Cuban.) Meissner issued the directive after visiting Miami this spring to quell a 47-day hunger strike conducted by the families of several indefinitely detained Cubans.

The new policy created an opening for Dhine's advocates to push through one more request for release, as he had likely been held longer than any detainee other than the Cuban "lifers." And this time, after years of hostile rejections insisting that Dhine posed a threat to the community, INS finally relented. Now that INS recognizes that he poses no danger, Dhine's Miami supporters, chiefly the American Jewish Congress, are pressing for him to be granted discretionary asylum. Currently, under the terms of his release, Dhine is authorized to work and must keep INS informed of his whereabouts.

How detainees who don't have members of Congress and community organizations going to bat for them will fare under the new policy remains to be seen. At the very least, in response to widespread complaints of inconsistency, and even capriciousness, in application of the law from one district of the country to another, Meissner ordered that the INS "put into place uniform, standardized and transparent procedures for the reviews."

In the New York area, cases are starting to be reviewed, says local INS spokesperson Mark Thorn, but no one has yet been let out under the new protocol. "Our primary interest is to ensure the safety of the community," Thorn says. The INS is still developing oversight mechanisms to assure that districts are carrying out the policy properly, says Bergeron.

In the meantime, however, outside pressures on draconian detention and deportation policies put into place by the 1996 revisions to immigration law are beginning to have some success. Several lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the 1996 provisions are in the works around the country, and favorable rulings have already been granted in Oregon and Colorado. According to Congress member Jerrold Nadler, who had lobbied for releasing Dhine since 1994, legal rulings are the only hope for change unless Congress acquires a Democratic majority. "It seems that the operating principle of the INS is to be as mean and vicious as possible," he says, "and the laws are insane. Yet I don't think there's any hope that this Congress will overturn them."

Even if constitutional challenges don't get litigated, bringing them can win release in particular cases, as Kenneth Durant was thrilled to learn last week, when he was let out of INS custody after six months, most of it spent at the Berks County prison in Pennsylvania. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit charging that detaining Durant, a legal immigrant from Barbados who had served out his time for drug possession, violated his right to due process. Rather than risk arguing it out in court, the INS made the question moot by setting Durant free.

Waiting to greet Durant upon his release from Varick Street on Wednesday, ACLU attorney Christopher Meade said he was delighted for Durant and would keep trying to chip away at the law with new cases. When Durant emerged onto the streets of Tribeca, he hugged Meade, then spread his long arms wide, as if to embrace all of civilian life. "It feels so good to stand on this sidewalk and breathe the air," he said, beaming. "I can't wait to see my mother and eat a good West Indian meal." He paused and added, "It just hurts me to know I'm leaving so many others behind."

Dhine, for his part, can't stop thinking about the hundreds of INS detainees still held at Krome, and of the 16,000 others throughout the U.S. Currently he is living in Tucson, with a family that befriended him while he was detained in Florence. He's getting medical treatment and adjusting to life on the outside but vows to continue the struggle. "My job is far from finished," he said.

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