Mary Anne Gehris was brought to this country from Germany when she was a year old. She grew up in the South and sounds it. But she never did anything about becoming an American citizen until she was 33, in 1999. She filled out the forms, and in October she got an envelope from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) in the mail.

She expected that it was a notice telling her when and where she would be sworn in. Instead, the letter told her that she was targeted for deportation. The lesson, I think, is that describing immigration legislation in the abstract—without providing human examples of its consequences—does not excite either readers or editors.Why? In 1988, she pulled a woman’s hair in a quarrel over a man. Georgia prosecutors charged her with battery, a misdemeanor. On the advice of a public defender, she pleaded guilty. She received a one-year sentence, suspended for a year’s probation.

Such a guilty plea was not a ground for deportation at the time. But eight years later, in the Immigration Act of 1996, Congress defined such trivial misdemeanors, with a one-year sentence, as “aggravated felonies” requiring deportation of the offender. And the statute was applied retroactively.

I wrote a column for The New York Times about the case of Mary Anne Gehris. It embarrassed the INS, whose top officials really understood that such outrageous deportation cases should not be brought. But in the end the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles saved Gehris. It pardoned her for her hair-pulling crime, commenting that it wished Washington would find ways to “bring some measure of justice” to such cases and use “the nation’s resources more appropriately.”

Why Write About Immigration?

During a five-year period I wrote several dozen columns about the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act and its consequences. Nieman Reports asked me to try to explain why, as a columnist, I did this—and to say whether, in my judgment, what I reported and wrote had any effect.

While the legislation was going through Congress in 1996, I wrote about its harsh provisions. I was critical of the Congressional draftsmen and of President Bill Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno, who hardly objected to the cruelest clauses.

The effect of those early columns was nil, so far as I could tell. Politicking against immigrants was the fashion, and that was the spirit that prevailed in what Congress passed and the President signed. The press took almost no interest in the legislation, scarcely covering it and certainly not explaining the drastic changes it was going to make.

The lesson, I think, is that describing immigration legislation in the abstract—without providing human examples of its consequences—does not excite either readers or editors. That was so in this case, even though the law was so harsh on its face.

My first encounter with an individual result of the 1996 act came when I was telephoned in 1997 by John Psaropoulos, a British subject who worked for CNN in Atlanta. He had taken a two-week vacation in Greece. When he flew back to Atlanta, he was told to go to an INS office because his work visa had expired, and the necessary papers for its renewal were filed late.

When he went to that office, two men put him in handcuffs. He was held in a detention center overnight, then put on a plane to Greece and told he was barred from re-entering the United States for five years. The “expedited removal” and five-year ban were under provisions of the 1996 act.

The punitive treatment for what was at worst a filing lapse was made worse by bureaucratic tyrants who over months promised to let Psaropoulos back in and then changed their minds. He was in the more acute anguish because he and his American fiancée were about to get married—if they could. I wrote a column.

The column brought a phone call about another victim, Martina Diederich. She was in a German tour group when she met Baxter Thompson of Alexandria, Louisiana. They fell in love and married. Martina was back in Louisiana when she ran afoul of INS officials who said she had the wrong kind of visa. She was held in the Orleans Parish Prison for eight days, then taken to a plane in handcuffs and sent back to Germany. (The 1996 act called for such mandatory detention.) I wrote a column.

“The Oregonian Investigates Mistreatment of Foreigners”
– Richard Read
Gradually, the public unveiling of cases like those began to evoke outrage in local communities around the country. Newspapers began to publish stories about them: The Oregonian in Portland, notably so. The INS became increasingly sensitive to being portrayed as the bully it often was.

Doris Meissner, INS commissioner in the Clinton administration, moved to try to bring some humanity—and common sense—into the agency’s practice. She promulgated guidelines for the exercise of “prosecutorial discretion,” in an attempt not to bring trivial, abusive deportation cases. Even Congressional sponsors of the 1996 act urged Meissner to take that step. The House then passed a bill to let aliens targeted for deportation seek discretionary mercy, but that effort died in the Senate.

Why did I write about the 1996 Immigration Act and its consequences? Because I believe in American justice, and I thought the 1996 law and its applications violated that ideal. It was that simple.

The Impact Reporting Has on Individuals and the INS

Did the columns make a difference? I think they helped to create understanding of how harsh immigration procedures could be. During the time I was writing these columns, the INS did try to moderate the most senseless actions.

Many individuals about whom I wrote were not helped: They remain expelled and excluded. But some were. John Psaropoulos returned to the United States and was married. Mary Anne Gehris took the oath of citizenship on February 9, 2001. Martina Diederich Thompson came back to Baxter in Louisiana. And every Christmas her mother-in-law, Cynthia Thompson, sends me a box of their homegrown pecans.

Anthony Lewis, a 1957 Nieman Fellow, was a columnist for The New York Times from 1969 to 2001.

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