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INS Vows to Curb Its Overzealous Tactics in Portland

Immigration: Agency admits that officers have wrongly detained legitimate travelers arriving at the airport from abroad.

August 31, 2000|NORMAN KEMPSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The Immigration and Naturalization Service promised Wednesday to put a stop to what officials acknowledged is the far too frequent mistreatment of legitimate travelers from Asia who attempt to enter the United States through Portland International Airport in Oregon.

INS Commissioner Doris Meissner ordered a thorough investigation of practices at the airport one day after Oregon's senators, Republican Gordon H. Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden, complained that foreign travelers were losing confidence in Portland as a port of entry because of persistent abuse, an INS spokeswoman said.

"We take these concerns very seriously," said spokeswoman Maria Cardona. "The commissioner feels very strongly that while we have an obligation to enforce the nation's immigration laws, we also have a responsibility to recognize that the majority of travel that comes through the airport is legitimate."

In Portland, she said, INS officials seem to be far more suspicious of overseas travelers than officials in other airports along the Pacific Coast. The percentage of visitors detained there on suspicion of illegal immigration is far higher than at other airports, Cardona said.

"Portland only gets two international flights a day, as compared to Los Angeles, which has dozens," she said. "This gives more time to put people through inspections. This has led to the perception that Portland does things by the book."

In their letter, Smith and Wyden said the problems were prompting Delta Airlines, the only carrier linking Portland to Asia, to consider suspending its international flights into the airport, which is often referred to as "de-Portland" throughout Asia.

Although there have been complaints about the Portland INS office for years, the latest uproar began last week when a 36-year-old Chinese businesswoman, Guo Liming, was detained for two days and strip-searched, apparently because her passport was frayed, leading an immigration inspector to assume that it was fraudulent. The passport turned out to be legitimate, Cardona said Wednesday.

The incident prompted Smith and Wyden to send a blistering letter to Meissner. The senators said the alleged abuse of the woman "follows years of persistent problems and complaints involving the Portland INS office and international business travelers, which have undermined public confidence in Portland INS officials and international confidence in Portland as a U.S. port of entry for foreign travelers."

In a telephone interview Wednesday, Wyden said the arbitrary practices in Portland are especially shocking in Oregon, a state with a reputation for hospitality.

"Ours is a state that prides itself on fairness and thoughtful respect for the rights of all," he said. "That's why all of this has resonated in the community in such a strong fashion and such a negative fashion. Folks in our state aren't used to this kind of treatment from government."

In their letter, the lawmakers urged Meissner to remove David Beebe from his post as head of the Portland INS office.

"We believe that both Mr. Beebe and the community at large would benefit from a fresh start," Smith and Wyden wrote.

Meissner was not prepared to go quite that far, at least not yet.

"We hope that Mr. Beebe will be part of the solution," Cardona said. "He seems to be ready to do what needs to be done. But if we do not see results quickly, his future is uncertain."

Portland INS agents said Guo was detained because she fit the profile of an illegal immigrant since she was traveling with another person and was coming from China. In addition to being strip-searched, she was handcuffed during the two-hour drive to the jail, Smith and Wyden said.

They said Guo's fiance, who was her traveling companion and business partner, was not told where she was taken, why she was being held or how long she would be jailed. She was freed after her passport was determined to be valid.

Wyden and Smith, joined by Washington state's senators, Republican Slade Gorton and Democrat Patty Murray, have introduced legislation directing Atty. Gen. Janet Reno to make sure that the Portland INS office's enforcement practices are consistent with standards at other ports on the West Coast.

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