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.

On December 2, the INS reversed itself, and District Director Harrington granted the Mehovics "humanitarian parole." They were released from jail, reunited with their son, and allowed to fly to New York, where they would live with relatives and pursue their asylum claims.

Four Yugoslav women, however, remained behind bars, their case for asylum not as compelling as the Mehovics', but their right to apply for it equally limited. At the time, Gibson had been retained only to represent two of the women -- Hurije and Sabahete Arucevic, the wife and sister of an ethnic Albanian who had already been granted refugee status in New York. Gibson quickly went on the attack, seeking to remove Judge Sims from their case. "[The judge] either lacks the ordinary intelligence to understand and apply the law, or he is willing to pervert the law to indulge some personal psychopathology," claimed Gibson in his motion to change venue. "He has no business sitting in judgment on anybody."

Gibson also petitioned District Director Harrington to release the Arucevics on parole. But nearly two months passed before Gibson heard from Harrington, and when he did it was only by coincidence. He ran into Harrington at the INS office on Stemmons Freeway "with a mug of coffee and an agreeable mood," Gibson says. Harrington said he was concerned about the welfare of the women, if they were "turned on the streets," as none of them spoke English. But if Harrington were to receive assurances that they would be cared for by their families, he would release them. "He said that unequivocally," claims Gibson.

Three days later, Harrington had his assurances, at least from the Arucevics: They would travel to New York, where family would provide them with housing and lawyers would pursue their asylum applications.

"Harrington reneged on the deal," says Gibson. "He promised me he would release them, and then he refused."

Harrington claims he never made any promises to Gibson, whom he considers an unscrupulous "goofball." "Anyone against Gibson's clients are Nazis or storm troopers," he says. Harrington does admit he agreed to look into the matter, which he did.

"I know we are talking about ladies here, but they have a weak claim for asylum," Harrington says. "It didn't seem feasible to release them to relatives in another jurisdiction when their situation will apply to decisions made here in Dallas."

Gibson says that Harrington wanted to keep his promise but listened to "those sadistic perverts who work for him -- his idiotic trial attorneys...Unfortunately next time, I won't be able to take Harrington at his word."

For Harrington, that won't be a problem. He has no intention of dealing with Gibson anymore. "He can just speak with our lawyers. I am not going to be part of his tactics again."

But Gibson says his tactics were aimed only at getting his clients out of jail and to New York, insisting "they won't get a fair trial here." If that meant going to the media, filing motions challenging the mental health of a judge, or getting human-rights organizations involved, he was only too willing.

In late December, Gibson contacted Diana Paul, a Human Rights Watch consultant based out of Spokane, Washington, who is well-versed in Yugoslavian affairs. Harrington may not have wanted to deal with Gibson, but he agreed to speak with Paul. After their conversation on Monday, according to Gibson, Harrington agreed to free all four Yugoslavs. "Harrington told her that he couldn't make any promises, but for their relatives to buy airline tickets to New York on Wednesday," Gibson says. The women's relatives immediately responded by purchasing four airline tickets for a 5:30 p.m. flight to New York on February 10 and faxing Gibson the itinerary so he could present it to Harrington.

Gibson believes Harrington was again responding to media pressure; Paul's involvement just gave the director the face-saving he needed to release the Yugoslavs without making it appear that Gibson had anything to do with it.

But what if Harrington doesn't follow through like before?

"What can I say?" Gibson says. "If this is another trick, I will look like twice the asshole."

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