Sunday, July 25, 2004 | 07/25/2004 | Immigrants offered house arrest amid deportation hearings | 07/25/2004 | Immigrants offered house arrest amid deportation hearings
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Posted on Sun, Jul. 25, 2004

Immigrants offered house arrest amid deportation hearings


By Jessie Mangaliman

Mercury News

Every night after 6 p.m. when his curfew begins, Gerardo Gonzaga stands close to the telephone in his Vallejo home.

He waits for a minute while the small electronic gadget strapped to his right ankle transmits a signal to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Francisco.

The inaudible signal lets immigration officials know whether Gonzaga, 23, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who is facing deportation, is in fact at home, under house arrest.

Gonzaga is one of the Bay Area's first participants in a national pilot program that allows certain immigrants who have been arrested and detained to live at home while awaiting deportation. San Francisco is one of eight U.S. immigration bureaus that in the coming months will release as many as 200 immigrants who are not convicted felons and do not pose a threat to national security.

``I couldn't stand it in jail,'' said Gonzaga, 23, who was arrested by immigration agents last month at San Francisco International Airport, where he worked as a cook at a Mexican restaurant.

`I feel good'

Gonzaga spent three nights in jail, a relatively short stay compared with many others in his situation who have sat in cells for months and even years as they awaited resolution of their cases. If it weren't for the pilot program, he knows he'd still be in jail rather than at home with his wife, Lilian, and two infant daughters, all U.S. citizens.

Under the program, Gonzaga is allowed to leave his home from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., but he is not allowed to work. These days he is taking care of his two young children while his wife works as a cook at a restaurant at San Francisco Airport. Three times a week, he must report to an immigration agent in San Francisco.

``I feel good to be at home because I can be with my wife and children,'' said Gonzaga, who came to the United States illegally six years ago from Puebla, Mexico.

The pilot project, called Intensive Supervision Appearance Program, or ISAP, relies on the same system and tools in place for non-violent criminal parolees: electronic monitoring devices, random visits and regular meetings with immigration agents.

So far, 25 of the more than 400 detainees being held in San Francisco have qualified to participate in the month-old program, more than any other pilot city, immigration officials said. The agency will evaluate the program after a year to determine whether to continue.

``It's very good,'' said Nancy Alcantar, field office director for detention and removal with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Francisco. ``It's a way for people whom we don't have to hold in custody to be with their families instead.''

Immigration officials said the extensive monitoring procedure also is a way to ensure that immigrants such as Gonzaga don't skip out on their scheduled hearings.

`Just a Band-Aid'

Many immigrant advocates who have been lobbying the Department of Homeland Security -- the agency that oversees immigration enforcement -- to reduce the number of detentions, praised the new program.

But some cautioned that it provides limited relief, ignoring thousands of other immigrants awaiting hearings and deportation proceedings while in detention.

``This is a step in a more positive direction. But in a way it's just a Band-Aid,'' said Amy Reinhorn, a spokeswoman for the Northern California chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. ``What really needs to be addressed is why so many people need to be detained.''

Since the former Immigration and Naturalization Service was split into three agencies -- a result of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- the federal government has enforced mandatory detention of visa violators, undocumented immigrants, non-citizen immigrants convicted of felonies, and others considered a threat to national security.

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national group that advocates for immigration limits, said it's too early to tell how well the pilot program is going to work.

``There's a difference between theory and practice,'' Mehlman said. ``It probably could be viable if it's actually enforced and they're actually proceeding with deportation.''

`Nice to see her free'

Rosario Maria Hernandez, a San Francisco attorney, said one of her clients spent more than 10 months in Yuba County Jail before the new program came along. Her client, a legal permanent resident from South Korea and the widow of a Gulf War veteran, is facing deportation because of two misdemeanor convictions for which she has already served time.

Hernandez declined to discuss specifics of the convictions.

``After being detained for a long time, this is better,'' Hernandez said. ``She can breathe fresh air, she can go for walks, she can work. It's nice to see her free again.''

The outcome of Gonzaga's deportation proceeding is unknown, but he and his wife are grateful for the time they have at home.

``It's difficult for us that he's not working,'' said Lilian Gonzaga, 23, an immigrant from El Salvador who became a U.S. citizen in January. ``But it's still better than jail. He's with me and my children.''


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