Metropolis: Wednesday, July 11, 2002
Prisoners? What Prisoners?

INS detainees in Denton have disappearedfrom the files.


A former Arlington man’s Kafkaesque sojourn though the U.S. justice system ended late last month when he returned, compliments of U.S. immigration officials, to Saudi Arabia. Anwar Al-Mirabi eventually spent more than nine months behind bars in a succession of jails stretching from Denton to Chicago. But finding a record of his incarceration today is virtually impossible.

As the war on terror grows increasingly secretive, records that once publicly documented Al-Mirabi’s detention — as well as the jailing of an unknown number of other foreigners — have been removed from public view.

In Denton, where Al-Mirabi spent almost two months in jail, a spokesman said the sheriff’s department was forced by the immigration officials to “filter” out records documenting prisoners held on immigration charges.

“We just house the prisoners for the INS and pretty much have to go by their rules,” said Kevin Patton, a spokesman for Denton County Sheriff Weldon Lucas. “We had to put a filter on that due to the federal law.”

The Immigration and Naturalization Service announced in April that it would begin requiring officials at local jails and detention centers to refer all questions about immigration prisoners to federal officials. Word of the new rule, however, has been slow to spread. A spokesman for the Tarrant County jail, for example, said this week he knew nothing about the change.

On any given day, the INS has about 19,000 persons behind bars — about half of them in non-federal facilities where the agency merely rents bed space. It’s an accommodation of mutual convenience — INS is spared the cost of building prisons for its burgeoning population of “detainees,’’ and local governments can turn empty jail cells into cash.

An agency news release said the new rule was designed to ensure “that all detainee information will be handled in accordance with federal law ... regardless of whether the detainee is housed at a federal, state or local facility.

“As recent events have made clear, information regarding certain federal detainees is extremely sensitive; disclosure of that information could provide terrorist organizations important information that could threaten the national security and the lives of American citizens.”

Only a minuscule fraction of those in INS custody are being held for anything remotely connected to the terror probe. And in Al-Mirabi’s case, it’s difficult to see how releasing information about his detention would do anything other than call into question the government’s detention policies.

Al-Mirabi was among hundreds of Arab and Muslim men picked up after the Sept. 11 attacks. Like many others, he was never accused of anything more serious than minor immigration violations. Arrested Sept. 13 at his home in Arlington, Al-Mirabi was initially detained by federal officials for overstaying his visa. (Al-Mirabi had chosen to remain in the United States after his visa expired when his wife had difficulties with her pregnancy.)

While they had him behind bars, federal investigators became interested in the Saudi’s travels through New York and Boston, his interest in a toy flight simulator, and the time he spent in Afghanistan as a young man.

After Al-Mirabi made several appearances before a federal grand jury in Chicago, however, officials apparently decided that he was guilty of only the immigration infraction. They declined to indict him and eventually cleared the way for his deportation.

Al-Mirabi’s last grand jury appearance was in January. It is not clear why the government continued to keep him behind bars once the decision was made that he would not be indicted. After several delays, he was finally deported late last month. Upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia, Al-Mirabi telephoned a reporter who had been following his case, to say he had been released — and was trying to put his ordeal behind him.

“I just arrived,” he said in a brief telephone call on June 27 from the port city of Jeddah. “I am looking for an apartment to start my life over again — and to find a job.”

Al-Mirabi’s case came to light through the work of a group of graduate journalism students at the University of North Texas. (That class was taught by Dan Malone, who helped report this story.) As a class project, the students used the Denton County Sheriff’s Department jail web site to identify 58 persons who were arrested after Sept. 11 on “INS holds.” Details of Al-Mirabi’s case became public after he responded to a letter that the class mailed to the prisoners it had identified.

Denton County is rightfully proud of its award-winning web site, providing information for free that many other counties restrict or charge to access over the internet. Prior to the INS rule change, browsing through the site was a virtual stroll through the cellblock. You could see who was locked up; the date, hour, and minute they were booked in; whether they remained in custody; and if not, the date, hour, and minute they were released. The site gave each prisoner’s home address, race, sex, height, birth date, hair and eye color, and driver’s license number.

The doings of garden-variety ne’er-do-wells remains a matter of easily accessible public record. Immigration prisoners like Al-Mirabi are another story, though. Fort Worth Weekly checked last week to see how much information on the 58 prisoners identified by the UNT class remained obtainable — only to learn that the site had been scrubbed clean of any reference to them. It was as if they had never been arrested.

Lynn Ligon, the spokesman for the Dallas INS office, said the agency will still provide some information on some INS prisoners but only if the person requesting the information has the prisoner’s name.

“We don’t do a fishing trip,’’ Ligon said. “Only on a by-name basis.”

Before the rule change, web sites like Denton County’s made it possible to go fishing for the identities of INS prisoners. In Denton, at least, that’s no longer possible — and the INS refuses to release a list of its own. For the public, the records have disappeared.

Many of those prisoners who were in the Denton County jail on INS holds last fall have likely been released, as Al-Mirabi has. Whether they’ve been deported, shipped to another facility, or freed is not known. And the INS has no doubt placed other prisoners in the jail since last fall. Their identities also are not publicly known.

Asked how the public can check on the prisoners INS is holding if no agency of the government will reveal their names, Ligon said, “I honestly don’t know how one finds that out.”

“It’s a good question and I don’t know the answer to it,” he said. “I think 9-11 changed a lot of the rules.”

A final irony: The Denton County sheriff’s site also has a link to a U.S. Justice Department list of “most-wanted terrorists.” That list provides biographical details on 22 men federal agents would like to arrest — with Osama bin Laden at the top. Uncle Sam, it seems, doesn’t mind letting us know who he wants to lock up — just don’t ask him who he already has behind bars.

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