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A favorable ruling may be years too late

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN

© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 1, 2001


HOLIDAY -- On Wednesday, three generations of Hadi Alyasin's family will gather to watch the July Fourth fireworks and celebrate the many good things about America that drew them here from their native Middle East.

But they won't forget for a moment that Hadi, 23, isn't with them. Wednesday will be just another day for Alyasin, walking the dusty streets of a town in Syria, broke, depressed, 7,000 miles from home. And wondering, for the millionth time, how he could have been banished from the United States for 20 years for a crime that wasn't even deportable at the time he committed it.

"I didn't do anything worse than a lot of people do," he recently told his brother, the only relative who has seen him in almost two years. "A lot of people do more things than me and they are still in the U.S. Why me?"

In 1996, when he was 18 and living in Pasco County, Alyasin had sex with a 12-year-old girl he says he thought was older. He pleaded guilty to a lewd and lascivious act, and was sentenced to two years as a juvenile offender.

Although Alyasin was a model inmate with no other offenses, his crime was enough to run him afoul of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act passed later that year. The law said any non-citizen who had been convicted of an "aggravated felony" could be deported regardless of when the crime had been committed. And it expanded the definition of aggravated felonies to include many previously non-deportable crimes, like lewd and lascivious acts.

Since the day it became law, critics have blasted the 1996 act as harsh, unfair and unconstitutional. Last week, the United States Supreme Court agreed, at least in part.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that non-citizens who pleaded guilty to crimes committed before the act took effect do not face automatic deportation, but can still seek exemptions.

Monday's decision cheered thousands of immigrants waiting to be deported. But it is not clear what, if any, impact it will have on those who already have left the country.

"People who had the resources and connections and wherewithal to stay (in the United States) through all these levels of appellate review ended up benefitting," says Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "People who did not have that access ended up deported. It's not fair."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service does not keep statistics on deportees whose crimes were committed before the law changed. But it's a good bet there are hundreds of families like the Alyasins who wonder if their ordeal will soon be over or, if, as they fear, their relatives will never return.

"I not eat good, I not sleep good, not seeing my son," says Alyasin's 63-year-old father, Khaled, sitting in the living room of their small, tidy home in southern Pasco. "There is nobody to take care of him, no mom, no dad, nobody to wash his clothes."

Hadi Alyasin was born in Lebanon but moved to the United States with his parents in 1990. At the time of his arrest six years later, he was a legal permanent resident though not yet a U.S. citizen. That made him subject to the part of the 1996 act requiring the mandatory deportation of anyone convicted of an aggravated felony, regardless of how long the person had lived in this country.

Even after Alyasin served his time, he was jailed several more months while the INS tried to find a country to which it could deport him. Lebanon, where he had lived until 12, refused to take him because he wasn't a Lebanese citizen. Syria, where his father was born, finally agreed to accept him although he had been in the country only once.

In the fall of 1999, two INS officials accompanied Alyasin, in handcuffs, aboard a windowless cargo plane that flew them from Orlando to the Middle East. Because military service is required of all Syrian men, Alyasin expected to be conscripted into the Syrian army. Instead, he was thrown in jail.

The reason? In translating Alyasin's criminal records from English to Arabic, someone mistakenly changed the victim's sex from female to male. The Syrians thought Alyasin had had sex with a boy, an extremely serious crime in a conservative Muslim society such as Syria's.

Alyasin's older brother, Fadi, then living in Lebanon but about to move to the United States, visited him in jail. He looked filthy; for 30 days he did not have a shower, shave or change of clothes.

"If I had known that my brother was going to be sent to Syria, I never would have come here," says Fadi Alyasin, 33. "The same time they give me my visa, they send him back."

After a flurry of correspondence, the Alyasins managed to straighten out the error in Hadi's records. He was released from jail and went straight into the army, where he spent the next year and a half working as a telephone operator.

Four months ago, Alyasin completed his military service. He moved in with a family acquaintance in a decrepit old house in Hama, north of Damascus. Like many of Syria's 16-million residents, he is struggling to get by in one of the Middle East's poorer nations.

Syria is not the worst place to be sent for 20 years, but it is not a country many people would willingly choose. After last June's death of long-time dictator Hafez Assad, hopes rose that his son and successor, a British-trained eye doctor, might start to modernize and democratize Syrian society. But Bashar Assad quickly clamped down on opposition and stunned even other Arab nations when he said Israel was "more racist than the Nazis."

With a soaring birth rate, high unemployment and a stagnant economy, Syria offers few opportunities for a native Syrian, much less an outsider like Alyasin. His family says most Syrians regard him as American -- not a popular nationality in the Arab world -- and he has been unable to make many friends.

Nor has he been able to make money. He was paid $1.50 a month while in the army. His brother Fadi, who visited him a few weeks ago bearing jeans and Tommy Hilfiger shirts, says Alyasin claimed to be working although Fadi saw no evidence of a job. Even if he is employed, he often calls home -- collect -- to ask for money his family can barely afford to send.

"He'd like to come back because he can't live by himself," says his father, a groundskeeper at the Westin Innisbrook Resort. "If he can't come back, he wants us to move over there. He cries, he says, 'Maybe you die before I see you again.' "

The family has scraped together enough money for Hadi's 63-year-old mother and another relative to make the long trip to Syria next month. Even though they have photos showing how much weight Hadi has lost, they are apt to be stunned by what they find in person, Fadi Alyasin says.

"Hadi is not the same guy I knew before. He is a 100 percent different guy. This has put 10, 15 years or more on his age. He's very quiet now and likes to be by himself."

U.S. Sens. Bob Graham of Florida and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts have introduced a bill that would eliminate the retroactive provisions of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act. But, as with the Supreme Court ruling, it is unclear what impact that would have on immigrants already deported.

"The stressful part for all of us whose clients were affected is what we do now, whether or not we could go back and make a motion to reopen a case," says Ramon Carrion, a Clearwater immigration lawyer who represented Alyasin. "Normally that kind of process is not looked upon favorably after a client has been deported. But Hadi, if he were here in the United States, would be a classic example of somebody whose case deserves to be reopened."

Despite what they have been through, the Alyasins say they still love America. On Wednesday, they will all go to Innisbrook, where Hadi's mother and brother also work, to attend a July Fourth party and watch the fireworks.

Among the group will be Hadi Alyasin's 8-year-old nephew.

"My little boy has never seen him," Fadi Alyasin says. "He only knows him by photographs."

- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

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