Four such detentions have occurred in recent weeks involving people who have had brushes with the law in the past, but who have traveled back to Ireland without experiencing problems until now.
The individuals detained have for years been under the impression that their records — in some cases as a result of plea bargaining — would have no lasting negative effects on their immigration status.
The fear among immigrant advocates is that U.S. immigration officials are now applying portions of the 1996 immigration reform act retroactively, and that this is now affecting individuals whose troubles with the law predate the act.
“We have been getting calls from immigrants who are legal permanent residents but who have been detained at Logan Airport by agents of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” Kieran O’Sullivan of the Irish Immigration Center in Boston said.
The BICE is the newly formed federal agency, part of the Department of Homeland Security, that is charged with screening travelers at U.S. entry points, including pre-inspection facilities at Dublin and Shannon Airports.
“All of the individuals were long-time green card holders who have traveled in and out of the country without problems in the past,” O’Reilly said.
He added that all the individuals had been cleared to travel back to the U.S. at immigration pre-inspection in Ireland only to be detained at Logan.
After questioning and release, all the individuals were given notice to appear before an immigration judge.
O’Reilly fears that parts of the 1996 law, which stiffened penalties for legal immigrants who fall foul of the law, were now being applied retroactively.
“The 1996 act has always been applied to some degree but its enforcement is now being stepped up, no question,” O’Reilly said.
The green card holders who were detained, and who have been seeking advice from the Irish Immigration Center as a result, have records for offenses such as assault, assault and battery, violating a restraining order and solicitation.
Simple battery has limited potential effect on an individual’s immigration status, but assault and battery is a bar to U.S. citizenship.
In one case, said O’Reilly, the individual had long since turned his life around. He had married and had become a successful businessman but stepped up enforcement was posing a serious threat to his future.
“Retroactive application of the ’96 act is most heinous,” said Eoin Reilly, an immigration attorney and member of the Irish Immigration Center board of directors. “People pleaded guilty in part because they understood there would be no immigration consequences.”
The ’96 act expanded the grounds of inadmissibility in areas such as health, economic circumstances, security and criminal law.
While it would appear that detention at this stage for convictions going back a number of years might be a form of double jeopardy, Reilly explained that immigration enforcement was considered a separate civil matter. As such, there was no criminal penalty, so no double jeopardy in strict terms, but the civil penalty could amount to banishment.
Kieran O’Reilly said that there are signs that immigration enforcement at Logan is being stepped up at all levels and not just with regard to individuals with records.
“It’s clear that data is being passed from pre-inspection in Ireland to Logan about who is on the plane,” he said. “We are aware of individuals coming on summer visits being turned back and there has been an increase in the number of people who previously overstayed visa waivers being turned back.”
Since 9/11, the U.S. government has been moving toward a system of screening airline passengers traveling both into and out of the United States using newly developed computer data systems.
Plans call for dramatically expanded checking of all passengers, including U.S. citizens.
The spokeswoman for the Bureau of Customs and Immigration Enforcement in Boston could not be contacted by press time.