In the latest twist to the long-running "L.A. 8" case, a former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service district director in Los Angeles declared in a court document submitted Tuesday that the eight were "singled out for deportation" because of their alleged affiliation with a Palestinian organization.
The declaration by Ernest Gustafson--who, as INS district director in Los Angeles, signed deportation-related orders against the eight in 1987--portrayed the action as the result of pressure from FBI officials who had failed to gather sufficient evidence for a criminal case against the eight.
"Based on my years of experience as an INS district director and my involvement with this case, it is my opinion that the eight individual plaintiffs were singled out for deportation because of their alleged political affiliation with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine," stated Gustafson, referring to a group that is part of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
"Had it not been for those affiliations, the INS and the FBI probably would not have sought to deport these individuals," continued Gustafson, who retired in September, 1989.
The document was submitted by attorneys for the seven Palestinian men and one Kenyan woman being deported. The lawyers called the document a key indicator that U.S. authorities violated their clients' constitutional rights by selectively enforcing immigration laws against them.
"This evidence will ultimately be a linchpin in our claim of selective enforcement," said David Cole, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, a New York-based group that, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Lawyers Guild, is defending the eight.
Michael Lindemann, a Justice Department attorney handling the case, could not be reached for comment.
Prosecutors have never filed criminal charges against any of the eight, who were originally arrested in January, 1987, as part of a much-publicized anti-terrorism push. All eight deny involvement in terrorism. The case has long been a cause celebre among civil libertarians nationwide.
In the courtroom, the complex legal battle to fight deportation has evolved along several tracks.
One set of legal challenges involves cases against two Palestinian men who are permanent legal U.S. residents, or green-card holders. The other six facing deportation entered the United States on temporary visas. All eight are free and living in the Los Angeles area.
Because of their varying statuses, the government is pursuing different strategies in its deportation cases.
U.S. authorities are attempting to deport the six who entered the United States on temporary visas for technical visa violations. Among the allegations: taking too few credits as a student, working without authorization and overstaying a visa.
In his declaration, Gustafson said that such cases are seldom pursued by the Los Angeles INS office, which has one of the heaviest workloads of any immigration office.
"In this case, the reason our office devoted such resources and took such steps to deport these individuals is because of their affiliation with the PFLP," Gustafson said.
The statement, say lawyers for the eight, demonstrates that the visa-violation allegations were a pretext to seek deportation for political reasons.
The case against the other two is distinct because, as Gustafson noted, "there was no ground for their deportation other than their political affiliations and activities."
Gustafson's declaration provides new insights into the case's origins in Washington and the attendant tensions within the Department of Justice.
The case, Gustafson said, resulted in strained relations between the INS and the FBI. He cited an incident in September, 1987, in which the FBI sent, "with no clear authority," eight agents to his office seeking to remove the case documents from his office safe. Gustafson said he refused to allow the FBI agents to enter.