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BORDER TROUBLE

No judge. No jury. No hearing. No trial.

Without criminal charges or court proceedings, agents of the U.S. Immigration & Naturalization Service can now unilaterally ban people from the United States for five years.

About 200 such bans have been issued at the Peace Bridge and the three bridges near Niagara Falls since an aggressive new immigration law took effect last April.

Critics say the five-year ban is one of several recent pieces of legislation that threaten to tarnish the reputation of the U.S.-Canada border as the world's friendliest international crossing.

"To me, it's an incredible situation," said Michael E. Marszalkowski, a Buffalo immigration attorney. "Now, government agents not only can refuse you permission to enter the country, they can ban you for five years, right there at the bridge."

But INS officials said they are careful and judicious in their use of this new authority. They say they have issued the bans against people who have given false or misleading information while trying to enter the United States.

"The new law does give us the power for expedited removal, and to ban people. But it is not a law that is directed at people who are honest," said Winston Barrus, deputy director of the Buffalo INS district. "We've only taken this action against 200 people out of about 25 million who we've screened at the local bridges. It has been used sparingly."

On Wednesday, Barrus said, the INS issued a five-year ban against an Australian man who was caught hiding in the trunk of a car crossing the Peace Bridge. In other cases, he said,
it has been used against people caught using false documents at the border. But critics claim the law has been used in recent months to harass law-abiding citizens, including some Canadians.

"I wasn't banned, but I was questioned for five hours. I was threatened, and it was very intimidating," said an Ontario woman who attends the University at Buffalo.

The woman said she was stopped at the Peace Bridge while entering the United States several months ago.

"I told the (INS) I went to UB and I showed them my student papers. The (agent) took me to a room and kept demanding to know who my employer was in America. I kept saying, 'I'm a student. I don't have an employer.'

"The agent threatened to seize my car. She put her finger up to my face and told me, 'I can ban you from this country. I can do anything I want.' She finally sent me back to Canada. They haven't stopped me since, but I almost get anxiety attacks every time I come back to the U.S."

There have been some abuses by INS agents, said Michael I. Serrotte, another immigration lawyer from Buffalo. He said INS and Customs agents have always had the power to turn away people at the border. But now, they can ban someone for five years with no judicial authority.

Serrotte said one of his clients is a computer systems analyst, a man from India who is currently a Canadian citizen living in Toronto. He was banned for five years last summer after immigration agents at the Rainbow Bridge questioned his reasons for entering the United States.

"The man committed no crime. He and his 6-year-old son say they were held in a room for hours, with no food and water," Serrotte said. "He wanted to enter the U.S. to check on a possible job offer in Baltimore.

"They summarily banned him for five years. The agents said he should have told them he was going to apply for a job. Perhaps he should have mentioned the job. But was this sufficient to ban this guy from our country for five years?"

Agents also seized the car the man was driving, which belonged to a relative.

In another case last summer, Randy Peck, a world-class softball player from Ottawa, was banned for five years after INS agents stopped him at the airport in Pittsburgh, where he had arrived to play in a tournament. Serrotte said Peck has often traveled through Buffalo and Niagara Falls on his way to competitions in the states.

INS agents accused Peck of failing to report that he receives expense money for softball games he plays in the United States, Serrotte said.

"Again, the worst thing the man did was not having a full understanding of the law," Serrotte said. "For that, he's treated like a criminal and banned from our country for five years."

Before the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act took effect last year, Serrotte said, his clients would have been refused admittance to the United States and told to give more accurate information the next time they tried to cross.

According to Barrus, the tough new law is intended to be used against people who try to enter the United States under false pretenses, or "assume an illegal residence" in the United States.

Barrus said agents do not need to file criminal charges or hold a hearing, but they cannot order the five-year bans on their own. They must first consult with a supervisor. The process usually takes several hours.

"It's for people who are clearly committing fraud," Barrus said. "Congress makes immigration law. We only enforce it."

The new procedures are upsetting to the Rev. John R. Long, a Presbyterian minister who is executive director of VIVE La Casa, a shelter for refugees on Wyoming Avenue. Long said there also has been another recent change in immigration policies at the Buffalo and Niagara Falls bridges.

For 14 years, Mr. Long has had extensive dealings with the immigration agency while running the not-for-profit shelter. VIVE tries to help foreigners who come through Buffalo apply for refugee status in Canada.

"Over the past two weeks," Mr. Long said, "the INS has begun doing something we've never seen before. They have been arresting some people right after they've gone to Canada to apply for asylum."

Two men from the war-torn African nation of Chad, and a third man from Iran, were arrested by American immigration agents after crossing the Peace Bridge to Fort Erie and obtaining applications for asylum in Canada.

"Instead of letting them stay in our shelter while they wait for a decision from the Canadians, they've taken these three men to Jersey and locked them up like criminals," Mr. Long said. "It seems a very harsh thing to do. In the past, they've always allowed the applicants to stay with us at VIVE. We give them a place to stay and help with their paperwork."

Over the same two-week period, several women who sought Canadian asylum at the Peace Bridge were allowed to go to VIVE, Mr. Long said.

Barrus said the INS detained the three men because agents believe they illegally entered the country in New York City before coming to Buffalo.

Over the years, he said, the agency has arrested a few people in similar situations, rather than allowing them to stay at VIVE When jail space is available, the INS will arrest some of the people, Barrus said.

"Decisions are made depending on all the circumstances of a particular case," Barrus said. "We have a clear directive from Congress. There is an increased emphasis on removing people who are here illegally."

Mr. Long is outraged. He said it will be much harder for the three men to pursue their Canadian asylum requests from a New Jersey jail cell.

"Are we now making decisions to lock someone up because there is a cell available?" the minister said. "The INS is opening up a new jail in Batavia. Does that mean they'll be locking up more and more people? By proceeding in this way, the INS could send thousands of people back to persecution, torture and even death that they have come thousands of miles to escape."

"Now government agents not only can refuse you Permission to enter the country, they can ban you for five years, right there at the bridge." Michael E. Marszalkowski, a Buffalo Immigration Attorney. "We've only taken this action against 200 people out of about 25 million who we've screened at the local bridges, It has been used sparingly." Winston Barrus, deputy director of the Buffalo INS district.

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