The ACLU of Rhode Island today entered an appearance in federal court on behalf of Sirak Gebremichael, an Ethiopian immigrant who has been imprisoned for three years by the federal immigration service (“BICE”) solely because he overstayed his visa. The ACLU called Gebremichael’s case the latest example of the federal government’s “low regard” for the rights of immigrants.

Gebremichael was first taken into custody in May, 2001, a year after his three-year visa to be in the country expired. He agreed to his deportation, but an immigration court held that he could be imprisoned pending that action because he presented “a danger to the community.” That finding was based on a Massachusetts warrant charging him with “annoying a person of the opposite sex,” a misdemeanor, even though he had never been convicted of any crime. However, for over 15 months, BICE did nothing to either deport him or to reconsider his jailed status. It was only after Gebremichael filed a habeas corpus petition in January of this year that BICE finally got back in touch with the Ethiopian embassy to try to arrange for his deportation. But in April, with still no change in Gebremichael’s status, U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Lovegreen granted his petition for release, calling the case “nothing short of Kafkaesque.” In his written opinion, Lovegreen noted: “To have a man without a criminal history … languishing in jail in a foreign country, imprisoned by a system he does not understand, disadvantaged by language difficulties, and apparently guilty of nothing more than overstaying his visa, is unconscionable.”

The government appealed Lovegreen’s ruling, filing an April 20th declaration that proper papers to deport Gebremichael would be available “in two weeks.” But on June 3, with Gebremichael still in jail, U.S. District Court Judge Ernest Torres affirmed Lovegreen’s ruling, and gave the government until June 10th to deport him before authorizing his release. That apparently has not happened, so a hearing is scheduled tomorrow on bail conditions for his release. After learning about his case last month, the ACLU agreed to assist Gebremichael in obtaining his freedom.

RI ACLU volunteer attorney Randy Olen said today: “While Mr. Gebremichael’s situation is indeed Kafkaesque, it is hardly unprecedented. In this case, the Government’s recent belated attempts to convince the Court that it can now deport him – assurances that to this very day have proven unfounded – only serve to highlight its shameful conduct over the preceding 15 months, in which it violated its legal obligations by simply ignoring Mr. Gebremichael while he languished in BICE custody. The low regard in which BICE appears to hold immigrants’ fundamental interest in personal liberty is at odds with this nation’s most cherished ideals.” Echoing those comments, RI ACLU executive director Steven Brown noted that Gebremichael is at least the third immigrant detainee the Affiliate has represented under similar circumstances of indefinite confinement.