Ashcroft's Quiet Prisoner

By BOB HERBERT

The New York Times

August 13, 2004

Miami — David Joseph is a little guy, about 5-foot-5, maybe 115 pounds. He's 20 years old, looks younger, and has the sluggish demeanor and sad expression of one who is deeply depressed. He has nightmares and headaches. He spends his days dressed in the blue fatigues of detainees at the federal Krome Detention Center, washing dishes at mealtimes, staring listlessly at television images broadcast in a language he doesn't understand, and praying.

"I thought I would come here for a few days and be released," he told me in a soft voice, his words translated by an interpreter. "But I watch the other people come and go, and I am stuck here."

Mr. Joseph is a refugee from Haiti who is seeking asylum in the United States. He is not a terrorist, and no one has even suggested that he is a threat to anyone. And yet he's been in federal custody for nearly two years.

An immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals have ruled that he should be freed on bond, pending a final ruling on his asylum request. But the attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft, won't let him go.

Playing his ever-present, all-encompassing terrorism card, Mr. Ashcroft personally intervened in Mr. Joseph's case, summarily blocking his release. According to the attorney general, releasing this young Haitian would tend to encourage mass migration from Haiti, and might exacerbate the potential danger to national security of nefarious aliens from Pakistan and elsewhere who might be inclined to use Haiti as a staging area for migration to the U.S.

Mr. Ashcroft has been out in the Washington sun too long. Terrorism is not an issue here. Mr. Joseph is a nervous, nail-biting young man who has an uncle in Brooklyn who's a U.S. citizen and would be only too happy to take in his nephew. Keeping Mr. Joseph imprisoned for years is inhumane.

What's really at work here is the Bush administration's unwillingness to budge even an inch from its unfair and frequently cruel treatment of Haitians seeking refuge in the United States.

Mr. Joseph and a younger brother, Daniel, were among more than 200 Haitians aboard a boat that landed at Key Biscayne, Fla., in October 2002. The boys' immediate family had been viciously attacked in the political turmoil that wracked their homeland, and David Joseph still does not know whether the mother and father he left behind are alive. (Daniel, a teenager, is reportedly in foster care in New York.)

The United States may be a beacon of liberty, but when someone like David Joseph sails toward that beacon he can find himself perversely embraced in the barbed wire of a place like Krome.

"He was fleeing persecution,'' said Selena Mendy Singleton, a vice president of TransAfrica Forum, a research and policy group that is among several organizations supporting Mr. Joseph's request for asylum. "He is not a threat to the community. He is not a terrorist. And he meets the criteria to be released on bond. David needs to be let out."

Mr. Ashcroft was pointedly questioned about the Joseph case by Senator Arlen Specter during an appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June.

"On April 17 of last year," said Mr. Specter, "an issue came before you where there was a young Haitian refugee where there had not been any showing of a problem with respect to terrorism. And you overruled both the immigration judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals. And then the inspector general of the Department of Justice criticized the department for the failure to distinguish between immigration detainees who are connected to terrorism and those who don't have any reason for detention.''

Senator Specter urged Mr. Ashcroft to consider a policy in which the Justice Department would address cases like Mr. Joseph's on a less sweeping, "more individual" basis, which would enable officials to determine whether there was any real basis for concern about terrorism.

Mr. Ashcroft was unmoved. He told Senator Specter: "Sometimes individual treatment is important. Sometimes it's important to make a statement about groups of people that come."

So David Joseph, a threat to no one, sits and waits and prays at Krome.