Lulseged Dhine suddenly interrupts our interview to flag down a passing guard. “What’s being done about the mental health ward?” Dhine demands. “When are they going to fix up the Kitchen there?” The guard assures Dhine it’s being looked into. Only then does Dhine return to our topic: his won looming deportation to Ethiopia, a country he fled over 20 years ago and where, he says, his Jewish faith will put his life in danger.
Dragonflies flit by our outdoor picnic table in the Immigration and Naturalization Service’s compound in the Florida swamplands outside Miami where Dhine, 36, is currently in his ninth year of incarceration. Wheelchair bound since a prison injury a few years ago, Dhine wears a leather yarmulke clipped to his chock of kinky hair, and breaks often into a broad, warm smile. He came to the United States in 1978 as a young refugee from Ethiopia, after government thugs killed his parents and brother. But because of four minor drug possession convictions, for which he served a total of about a year in jail in the 1980s, the INS ruled that he’d forfeited his refugee status and ordered him expelled. Locked up pending deportation, Dhine has been fighting that order ever since on the grounds that he will face persecution as a Jew in Ethiopia.
The INS accepts that Dhine is Jewish but doesn’t believe that will endanger him in Ethiopia; ironically, Israel, which is still evacuating Jews from Ethiopia, won’t take him in because it doesn’t believe that he’s a Jew. Dhine, meanwhile, has recently file what is probably his final what is probably his final appeal for clemency. He may be deported within months.
Dhine, like a growing number of aliens in the U.S. is caught in a vise––the federal government’s war on drugs on one side, anti immigrant backlash on the other. Recent measures have made it far easier to deport immigrants for crimes as minor as drunk driving. As a result, the number of legal immigrants deported annually has doubles since 1996, hitting 5,500 last year. Many have lived most of their lives in the United States. Most were convicted on drug charges, others were convicted of petty misdemeanors, such as a Washington- area mother of three currently facing deportation to Jamaica for shoplifting.
With the exception of some serious Cuban criminals who can’t be deported because the U.S. has no diplomatic relations with their country, Dhine has the unhappy distinction of being the longest-incarcerated INS detainee. During his confinement, he has become and outspoken activist not only for his own rights, but those of all INS detainees. He lobbied
Successfully for the right to receive kosher food and light candles on Shabbat. He works with Amnesty International, does legal research for other detainees and bombards INS officials and the media with letters about everything from substandard medical care to a recent hunger strike by parents of Cuban detainees. He showed up for our interview bearing a folder bulging with information on other detainees whose causes he is championing. Dhine even helps his jailers. He has received official commendations for helping to save the life of one guard during a chemical spill and is currently running a petition drive to support guards’ request for a longer lunch hour. “Judaism is based on justice,” says Dhine. “If you are a true Jew and see someone committing a crime, you have to stand up and fight it.
Charismatic and Intelligent, Dhine has built up a small but devoted community of support around the country. Members of Congress, journalist, rabbis, Jewish organizations and even low-level INS officials have all called for him to be allowed to stay in the country. He has several offers of employment and housing if he is ever released.
None of this however has so far impressed the INS, which has not even been willing to release him on bond while his appeals work through the courts. Dhine’s “criminal convictions are ample reason to withhold a favorable exercise of discretion, notwithstanding any positive behavior [he] may have exhibited while in custody,” wrote INS official Kenneth Elwood in a letter turning down release for Dhine. “He’s had a number of opportunities to have his case heard by immigration courts,” says Paul Virtue, a former general counsel for the INS who dealt with most of Dhine’s appeals. “Every time, he’s lost. This is not a case of Justice denied.”
Dhine’s troubles began in 1977 in his home village in Ethiopia’s Gondar province. On his way home from school one day, neighbors intercepted him to tell him that cadres of the Marxist regime had just killed his parents and brother. They were targeted, he says, because of their Jewish faith. Dhine fled, but was caught and tortured. He was released, he says with the threat that he would soon be killed. Terrified, he joined 13 other refugees fleeing to Sudan on foot. Only six survived the trek.
Sponsored by a Catholic humanitarian organization, Dhine gained admission to the U.S. as a refugee. He went to work on the group’s farm in South Carolina, but soon left, drifting up to Washington, D.C. “I was very depressed. My whole family was gone, and I was in a land where the food, the air, everything was strange,” he says. He spent much of the 1980s homeless in the U.S. capital, drifting in and out of odd jobs, sleeping in parks or occasionally at a Jewish-run homeless shelter. He also developed a taste for marijuana and cocaine, which several times landed him briefly in jail. After serving his fourth sentence in 1990, the INS caught up with him; he has been locked up ever since in a series of INS facilities. Due to his back injuries, he wound up in the Florida facility last year for medical care.
The question under American immigration law is whether, as a Jew, Dhine has “a well-founded fear of persecution” in Ethiopia. After a long series of appeals, the courts have finally decided that he does not, since the regime has changed and conditions for Jews have much improved in Ethiopia in recent years. “There have been incidents of local persecution of Jews,” says Barbara Ribakove Gordon, executive director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, “but nothing from the government. There’s no reason to think someone, who gets off a plane there and is known as a Jew, is going to be persecuted.” (NACOEJ takes no position on Dhine’s case, as it restricts its activities to Ethiopia and Israel.)
Dhine’s lawyers, however, argue that attacks on remote Jewish villages last year, and the fact that there are hardly any Jews left in the country, prove that he would be at risk. They are now pursuing two last-ditch options: a direct plea for relief from Attorney General Janet Reno, and legal appeal under a United Nations treaty forbidding signatory nations–from deporting people to countries where they face the risk of torture. “We’re at the highest level of appeal. There’s no one else to go to,” says Washington-based Doug Baruch, Dhine’s longtime pro bono lawyer.
Baruch is also trying to get Israel to take Dhine in. But Israeli immigration officials, unlike their American counterparts, don’t believe Dhine is Jewish. The question is a vexing one. No one denies he has been living as an observant Jew since he’s been locked up. He knew enough Hebrew and Judaism back in 1991 to convince two New York rabbis including one from Ethiopia, to vouch for his Jewishness in court. For the several years he spent in an INS lockup in Arizona, he prayed regularly with a local rabbi who still keeps in touch with him and confirms that Dhine keeps kosher and observes Shabbat. But for Israeli immigration authorities the crucial question is whether Dhine was born a Jew, a bloodline he has been unable to prove.
“Mr. Dhine may be persecuted as a Jew, he may have been living as an Orthodox Jew for many years, but…living as an American citizen without having been authorized by the correct authorities, even if you wave the flag every day, does not make one an American citizen,” wrote Washington based aliyah official Judi Widetzky to Baruch in rejecting Dhine’s application. Aliyah officials say they have circulated his petition among the Ethiopian Jewish leadership in Israel, and haven’t found anyone who has heard of Dhine or his family. “We’re constantly getting letters asking for help from people who say they’re Jews, but they’re not,” says an Israeli diplomatic official involved with the case. Even were Dhine to convert, Israeli immigration officials have told him, his criminal convictions might preclude his acceptance; they suggest he go back to Ethiopia and reapply from there.
Dhine offers a simpler explanation for Israel’s refusal to accept him: “This is racially motivated,” he says. “Hundreds of thousands of Russians are living in Israel who are not Jews. What question me?”
In any case, Dhine makes no bones about the fact that his interest in going to Israel is mainly as an alternative to being deported to Ethiopia. He didn’t even start applying until 1997. Nor does he mince words in describing the country: “It’s moving toward a fascist government.” The handful of Israelis he has met in INS lockups? “Racist pigs. They call me an ‘Arab lover’ because I fight for the rights of Arabs in here as well as the Jews.
“I still insist the U.S. is the greatest country in the world, despite what’s happened to me in the last nine years,” he says. “If I had the choice, I’d stay here.” But because of a handful of minor offenses committed over a decade ago, he may not get the chance.