St. Petersburg Times Online: News of Florida

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Deal ends suit alleging anti-Hispanic bias at INS

An agent said a photo of Elian Gonzalez bearing the words ''Kick me'' was taped to a box in the Miami district office.

©Associated Press

September 21, 2002

An agent said a photo of Elian Gonzalez bearing the words "Kick me" was taped to a box in the Miami district office.

MIAMI -- Immigration agents in Miami won't have Elian Gonzalez to kick around anymore, or they'll risk a contempt charge.

An immigration agent on Friday settled a lawsuit against Attorney General John Ashcroft in which the agent said an atmosphere of anti-Hispanic discrimination and retaliation pervaded the Miami district office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

The suit included allegations that a box bearing Elian's photo and the caption "Kick me" was placed in an INS hallway.

Most terms of the settlement are secret, but the court will monitor its enforcement, and violators can be charged with contempt of court.

INS agent Ricardo Ramirez became a whistle-blower when he said the office was rife with anti-Cuban bias during attempts to send Elian home to Cuba.

For example, he said, a picture of Elian bearing the words "Kick me" was taped to a box, encouraging passers-by to vent their frustration with the slow-moving tug of war between Elian's Miami relatives and his father in Cuba.

INS agents have testified that they also saw cup holders bearing a crossed-out image of a Cuban flag, as well as "banana republic" banners and swastikas on display at INS workplaces. Anti-Cuban remarks also were said to be an everyday occurrence.

The settlement avoids a trial that had been set for Monday before U.S. District Judge Paul Huck. At a hearing in May, he said he was troubled by "persuasive evidence" of anti-Cuban sentiment at the agency's local headquarters.

The settlement followed a 16-hour negotiating session Wednesday and Thursday supervised by U.S. Magistrate Judge William Turnoff.

Miami's newly appointed U.S. attorney, Marcos Jimenez, led the government team after Turnoff withdrew an order requiring Ashcroft's chief of staff to represent his boss in settlement talks.

"We're happy that this is over. We think it's a positive thing for our community," Jimenez said. "The government affirms its commitment to antidiscriminatory and antiretaliatory policies to all employees."

"I am very pleased. Everything went well," said Ramirez, who came to court with his wife and three young children.

He had asked for a transfer to Texas and the removal of items from his personnel file based on events tied to his bias and retaliation claims.

He and his attorney, Larry Klayman, would not say whether he will move or whether any financial settlement was involved, but the agreement calls for a file purge.

The lawsuit was filed by Judicial Watch, a conservative Washington-based group that pursues government corruption and abuse.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.