Immigration courts open doors to some detainees' proceedings
By The Associated Press
NEWARK, N.J. Several immigration proceedings involving people detained in the Sept. 11 terrorism investigation were held in public yesterday, making them among the first such hearings not held in secret.
In past weeks, immigration judges across the nation closed hearings involving dozens of detainees.
In Newark, that meant uniformed and armed officers of the Immigration and Naturalization Service stood outside a closed courtroom door. News reporters and other members of the public were barred.
The doors now appear to be open for detainees who authorities determined have no connection to terrorism.
"We had a policy of requesting closure when there was an issue of national security that might be brought before the court," said Russ Bergeron, a Washington INS spokesman.
The requests were made on a case-by-case basis and were dropped when security questions were resolved, Bergeron said.
That has taken over a month in the case of Mehmet Aktas, a Turkish national and New Jersey boardwalk artisan who surrendered when he heard the FBI wanted to speak to him shortly after the attacks.
His two prior hearings this month before Immigration Judge Henry S. Dogin were closed, even though a South Brunswick woman had already been charged with falsely implicating Aktas in the attacks.
Yesterday, however, Dogin's door was open. With the INS unopposed, Dogin granted Aktas permission to voluntarily leave the country, a ruling that would allow Aktas to apply later to return. The decision is more favorable than being deported, but still bittersweet.
Aktas, 37, had conceded he jumped ship to enter the country illegally 10 years ago. He had hoped to marry a Long Island, N.Y., woman before returning to Turkey, but Dogin declined to set bail. So Aktas must remain in custody until he obtains a plane ticket at his own cost and leaves. Atkas and the New York woman now plan to marry in Turkey, said his lawyer, Judith E. Goldenberg.
The level of secrecy at immigration court is unprecedented in the 17 years she has been practicing, Goldenberg said.
Immigration lawyers said they had not seen the detainee hearings in Newark opened until late last week.
Bergeron and the agency that operates the immigration courts, the Executive Office for Immigration Review, said there had been no blanket closure.
EOIR spokesman Rick Kenney said, "We do these things all case by case."
About 185 people nationwide are in INS custody and facing immigration charges as a result of the terrorism investigation, Bergeron said. "Whether those individuals have any links to Sept. 11 attacks, or any terrorist activity, is determined on a case-by-case basis."
The INS would not provide a figure on how many Sept. 11 detainees are being held in New Jersey. Sohail Mohammed, an immigration lawyer representing two of the detainees, estimated the New Jersey total to exceed 200, noting that county jails in Bergen, Hudson and Essex have been tapped to handle the influx.
After weeks in jail, detainees are finally getting bails set, Mohammed said. "Everyone that is being released on a bond has been cleared by the FBI," he said. The INS is effectively blocking release for the others, even if judges are inclined to set bail, he and the other immigration lawyers said. Under a terrorism law signed Oct. 26 by President Bush, federal authorities must start deportation procedures immediately for foreign detainees, charge the person with a crime or release them in seven days.
The INS last week agreed to speed its processing of detainees in two important areas when possible: when a detainee had agreed to voluntary departure order, and by completing paperwork and administrative reviews for detainees before they have a hearing with an immigration judge. That way, if a judge grants them bail or issues a departure order, the release could come quicker.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 29 for information about Sept. 11 detainees.
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