Gimme shelter

Ethnic Albanians seeking asylum are snared in a battle between the INS and a determined lawyer

The scripture inscribed on his stationery offers some indication of just how sacredly immigration attorney John Wheat Gibson takes his calling:

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless, or the widow. -- Deuteronomy 27:19

It also should have been Immigration and Naturalization Service District Director William Harrington's first clue that he was not dealing with any ordinary advocate. For the past several months, they have been engaged in a pissing match of international proportions over the fate of seven Yugoslav immigrants -- six of them ethnic Albanians -- who are seeking political asylum in the United States.

Attorney John Wheat Gibson spares no rhetoric in his defense of seven Yugoslav immigrants who he claims are being detained illegally in the Dallas County jail.
Peter Calvin
Attorney John Wheat Gibson spares no rhetoric in his defense of seven Yugoslav immigrants who he claims are being detained illegally in the Dallas County jail.

Gibson claims his clients were first persecuted by Yugoslavian Serbs in their native Montenegro (a tiny republic that, together with Serbia, makes up what's left of Yugoslavia) and are now being persecuted by the U.S. government through their illegal detention in the Dallas County jail. Harrington claims the Yugoslavs entered this country illegally; he wants them deported.

Gibson, who has worked zealously on behalf of refugee groups since beginning his Dallas immigration practice in 1986, seems at times unrestrained by the normal professional courtesies attorneys extend one another. Though seemingly meek with graying hair and silver glasses, he has little compunction about blaspheming a judge, calling INS attorneys fascists, or whipping up the media and human-rights groups into an empathetic froth so they, too, will come to the defense of his clients.

During the Kosovo war, American bombs killed thousands of Yugoslavs, argues Gibson. "Because the bombing was in support of Pan-Albanian nationalism, my clients came here seeking asylum, and Bill Clinton puts them in jail," he says.

Gibson began his campaign to free them last November after customs officials at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport arrested the seven. Six ethnic Albanians (a man, his wife, their 3-year-old boy, and three women) and one female Serbo-Croatian -- all of them Muslim -- purchased bogus Slovenian passports in Montenegro from the "Albanian Mafia," Gibson says. Together they flew from Montenegro to Budapest to Paris to Mexico City, and then on November 8 attempted to enter this country in Dallas. Instead, they were "strapped in irons," Gibson says, and incarcerated in the Dallas County jail pending deportation hearings.

The INS took the 3-year-old boy "screaming" from his mother's side and placed him in a foster home. No one there spoke Albanian, and he was permitted to see his parents only once in court. "Otherwise he was treated well," Gibson says.

Instead of allowing the adults to apply for a full-blown asylum hearing, local INS agents tried to expedite their removal on November 15 by sending them through an abbreviated deportation procedure. "It's a Draconian proceeding established by fascist government lawyers under the 1996 Immigration Act," says Gibson. As part of that procedure, Dallas Immigration Judges Dietrick Sims and Cary Copeland conducted a "credible fear interview." But unlike an asylum hearing, Gibson was prohibited by law from doing anything other than monitoring the proceedings and consulting with his clients. He could offer no testimony, cross-examine no witnesses, make no arguments on his clients' behalf. Appeal rights were limited as well.

Both judges ruled that none of the Yugoslavs had a "credible fear" of being persecuted for their ethnicity or religion, and all were ordered deported back to Montenegro. Judge Copeland based his decision, in part, on his "understanding" that there were NATO troops in Montenegro, which is not the case. "He got it confused with Macedonia," Gibson says.

The judge, however, was more accurate in his assessment of the political climate in Montenegro. Although Serbia dominates Montenegro, stationing its troops there, Montenegro is more pro-Western than Serbia, and maintains better relations with the United States. "[The ethnic Albanians'] position would not be ideal," says Bogdan Ivanisevic, a researcher on Yugoslavia with Human Rights Watch, an international human-rights organization. "However, there is a significant level of ethnic tolerance in the republic, which is quite a unique case for the region."

On November 22, the day before the INS planned to deport the Yugoslavs, Gibson went to federal court and convinced Judge Jerry Buchmeyer to temporarily block their removal. In the meantime, Gibson convinced INS attorneys that the immigration service was wrong to expedite the removal of his clients and should have given them the right to apply for a full asylum hearing. The victory was an empty one: INS still refused to release them from custody.

That is, until Gibson shamed them into submission -- or so he says. He contacted Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, hoping they would, in turn, put pressure on the INS to release the Yugoslavs from jail. He drummed up media interest as well, particularly from reporter Bill Brown of WFAA-TV Channel 8 who, in mid-November, broadcast the saga of Mujo Mehovic, his wife, and their 3-year-old son.

According to Gibson, Mehovic had fled from Serbian soldiers who sought to draft him and other ethnic Albanians to fight against the Albanians in Kosovo. After being beaten for his refusal, Mehovic went into hiding, living in a cave for the next four months. Soldiers would eventually burn the inside of his home, rendering it uninhabitable. His wife and new baby were forced to hide in a barn on her parents' farm. By coming to America they hoped to find refuge, but instead were jailed and separated from their young son for nearly a month.

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