MIAMI — A 47-day hunger strike staged outside a remote Florida detention center is being credited for spurring U.S. immigration officials to release five convicted felons and to order speedy case reviews for about 3,500 others--including hundreds of California residents--being held indefinitely.
The announcement from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service late Wednesday that five Cuban-born men would be freed was hailed by immigrant advocates Thursday as an effort by INS Commissioner Doris Meissner to address problems created by a 1996 law designed to rid the nation of foreign-born criminals.
Under the Immigration Reform Act, noncitizens convicted of certain felonies may be deported after serving criminal sentences. But natives of Cuba, as well as people born in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, cannot be deported because the United States has no diplomatic relations with those nations.
Thus, many felons, including about 1,200 in the Western region, chiefly in California, are trapped in what amounts to a legal limbo. The majority detained in the West are Southeast Asians.
The release of three of the men from the Krome detention center, on the edge of the Everglades 20 miles west of Miami, meant emotional reunions with family members who had refused solid food to protest their detention. "I am so happy, I can't stop crying," said Miriam Alonso, 44, before she collapsed into the arms of her son, Aniel Madrigal. Convicted of armed robbery, Madrigal, 29, spent 20 months in prison and another three months in INS custody before he was judged to be no threat to the community.
Another of the former detainees was freed from a Louisiana facility and flew to Miami to learn that his mother--who is diabetic and has cancer--had been hospitalized. The fifth man was to be released to a halfway house.
The detainees freed served time for various felonies, including drug trafficking, unarmed bank robbery and kidnapping.
Family members and attorneys insisted, however, that none of those released this week had a history of violence.
"This is a hopeful sign that a fair review process has been put in place," said immigration attorney Cheryl Little, adding that "this does not mean that everybody's going to be released. You still have to prove that you're not a danger to the community or a flight risk."
Six Cuban Americans, all with sons in indefinite detention, began their fast April 18. Two dropped out for health reasons. But three women and one man endured, ending their protest last week only after Meissner ordered INS district directors to review the cases of all so-called lifers, those who cannot be deported. The commissioner also made follow-up reviews mandatory at least every six months.
In California, frustration over the fate of long-term detainees has also been building. Disturbances have occurred recently inside crowded INS lockups in San Pedro and the Los Angeles County sheriff's Mira Loma facility in suburban Lancaster.
But with Southeast Asians wielding little of the political clout demonstrated by Cuban Americans in South Florida, there has been virtually no public pressure to speed up the process of reviews in California.
Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Los Angeles and researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.