It’s been less than a month since Haitian immigrant Enrico St. Cyr walked out of the Connecticut Correctional Facility but in this time, the 26-year-old says he cannot help but flash back to the time spent as a detainee of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
For almost two years, St. Cyr says he along with the other detainees had their self-control tested by other inmates—many of whom were hardened criminals—who often found the slightest reason to brawl.
Additionally, he had practically every action determined for him. He was told when to shower, when to eat and when to work. Every morning, St. Cyr says he and other prisoners were awakened at 6 a.m for breakfast, which often included a boiled egg, two slices of bread, some milk and a few grapes. If you missed breakfast, then you had to wait for lunch.
After breakfast, prisoners were given an option of working for 75 cents per day or basically spending the time watching television. There weren’t many other options, said St. Cyr, who sometimes choose the work because he just could not watch any more television.
Work involved mopping, cleaning, passing out food to other inmates, waxing the floors, or painting. Lunch—often a cold sandwich with some potato salad—was served usually at 11:30 a.m., according to the former detainee, and inmates were given 20 minutes to eat, before being ordered back to work.
Often times, said St. Cyr, many of the inmates retired after lunch to their cells, the basketball court or in front of the prison-owned television. As many jostled for position, fights often ensued. “They (the INS) put you with the criminal population who often come with an attitude,” said the Connecticut native. “Sometimes they push you and you really have to control yourself not to get into it with them.”
So to avoid confrontation, St. Cyr said he had his family send him money to buy his own television and stayed most of the time in his cell. He says he never ventured outside, sticking to the thought that “the day I go out it is the day they open this door to let me go home.”
Some of the time he would sit silently, pondering his fate and asking himself over and over again, “Why?,” as he reminisced on the good times with his family and friends. He had few possessions but to him they were very valuable. They included an envelope containing photos of his family and of a house his father is building in Barbados, as well as a copy of the GED he earned in January. He also had two Bibles, one in French and the other in English.
A call for dinner often interrupted his reverie at 4:30 p.m. and then it was back into the cell until 6 a.m. the next day. It was in those long hours that many, including his cellmate, contemplated suicide, says St. Cyr. But St. Cyr says he never did. He said he kept the faith and hope alive. And while the approximately 300 other detainees seemed resigned to their fate, St. Cyr got his parents to hire attorney Michael Moore to fight his deportation order.
On June 25th, St. Cyr not only won his case, but made history for immigrants in deportation proceedings in the United States. This followed a “habeas corpus” petition submitted and argued by attorney Moore of Massachusetts, along with attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of St. Cyr and three other immigrants. The attorneys basically stated that it was unconstitutional to deport immigrants who had committed crimes—even minor ones—prior to the 1996 law without allowing them to seek reprieve.
But federal government lawyers retorted that Congress had stripped the federal courts of jurisdiction to review the way in which the attorney general carried out the immigration laws.
The U.S. Supreme Court justices agreed. According to Lucas Guttenberg of the ACLU, the 5-to-4 decision will now give legal immigrants who are facing deportation the right to challenge their cases and it will grant reprieve to those who committed a crime before 1996 and were in deportation proceedings.
St. Cyr falls into the latter group since he committed a crime back in March 1996, for which he served his time. A high school dropout who worked as a house painter, he had pleaded guilty to selling cocaine in 1996 and served three years in prison for that.
Released into the custody of the INS and facing mandatory deportation for the drug crime, St. Cyr decided that he wanted to stay in the United States, where his family is.
“I wanted to fight,” St. Cyr said. “I was willing to spend a couple more years in jail to be able to legally be with my family.”
After his release, on April 10, 1997, the INS issued St. Cyr a Notice to Appear, charging him as removable under the new law, because he had been convicted of an aggravated felony. On January 12, 1998, an immigration judge found that St. Cyr was removable under Section 237 of the Immigration Naturalization Act. In the time between St. Cyr’s conviction and his receipt of a Notice to Appear, Congress enacted the AEDPA and IIRIRA.
These laws significantly limited the cases where discretionary relief from deportation could be sought and rendered an immigrant who was removable because of an aggravated felony conviction, statutorily ineligible to apply for relief from deportation.
At his hearing, St. Cyr’s lawyer Moore sought to prevent his client’s removal by applying for a discretionary waiver of deportation under the former law. The immigration judge denied the application. Moore then appealed St. Cyr’s removal order to the Board of Immigration Appeals, but because of the changes made by Congress to the immigration laws, the BIA dismissed the Haitian national’s appeal on November 10, 1998.
On April 27, 1999, St. Cyr filed a “habeas corpus” petition in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut. This subsequently led to the Supreme Court’s hearing and the June 25th decision.
Now St. Cyr is preparing for his court hearing in another six months. He hopes to secure a reprieve and be able to move on with his life and put the horrific experience behind. But for now, he has to abide by the restrictions still placed on him by the INS.
“I have to see the INS (officers) in Hartford on the first Tuesday of every month,” said St. Cyr in an exclusive interview from his mother’s home in Bridgeport. “And I cannot be out of the area for more than 48 hours without first giving them notice and getting their permission.”
But he’s still happy to be home. “The first thing I did when I got out was to hug and kiss my mother. Then I called my father in New England to thank him too. Without them I couldn’t have done it,” said St. Cyr.
The next item on his agenda is to get a work permit from the INS and try to get a job. He also wants to study and hopefully use the GED he obtained in prison to eventually get a college education. And he also has a word of advice for other young immigrant men. “Being free is the best thing in life.
“Don’t take it for granted and do listen to your parents.”
An estimated 10,000 immigrants have been deported under the law. Overall, the INS deports approximately 1,328 criminals per week. In fiscal 2000, a total of 181,500 illegal aliens were deported. Many of them are caught trying to enter the country in Texas and California.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed strong support today for new bipartisan legislation that would greatly limit the number of deportations, without a fair hearing and without review, of asylum-seekers with a valid need for refuge in the United States.
“The widespread use of what is known as ‘expedited removal’ by the INS has condemned many people who have fled persecution in their country of origin to an undeserved jail cell—or worse—back home,” said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “Lady Liberty should be opening her arms to refugees, not turning her back on them.”
Expedited removal, originally implemented in a series of 1996 immigration laws, was initially intended to ease the bureaucratic backlog at the INS and to streamline the process by which asylum-seekers are denied entry to the United States. It effectively gave rank-and-file INS agents at points of entry the ability to order the rapid deportation of individuals seeking entry without proper papers.
Several studies have shown, however, that many of the individuals put back on a plane or boat by expedited removal had valid claims to asylum in the United States and were forced back to harm or persecution in their home country. These life-altering decisions were made on the spot without an interview with an asylum officer, a fair hearing by an immigration judge, or review by the courts.
The “Refugee Protection Act of 2001,” introduced recently by Senators Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Patrick Leahy (D-VT) would limit the practice of expedited removal and end the current mandatory detention by the INS of prospective immigrants and asylum seekers who arrive without proper documentation.
“This legislation would restore the legal and procedural protections to refugees and immigrants that have long been judged their due by the nation’s courts,” Edgar said. “Without just cause, hundreds of people in desperate fear for their lives and welfare are being turned away from America’s traditionally compassionate and open borders. It’s time for the United States to once again grant the tired and the poor access to a new life.”