LOS ANGELES, Calif. - The ACLU of Southern California today announced an immigration victory for Ahilan Nadarajah, an ethnic Tamil farmer who, after being tortured in his native Sri Lanka, sought asylum in the United States. He then suffered through a nearly seven-year ordeal as Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials held him first in immigration jail and later under electronic monitoring because of secret, fake evidence accusing him of being a terrorist.
The case reflects deplorable but all-too-common delays that unfortunately are typical of immigration courts in this country. Yet one of the key decisions in Nadarajah's case has also served as a precedent for other detained immigrants, setting a limit on the amount of time they can be detained pending resolution of their cases.
Nadarajah's bureaucratic nightmare ended when the U.S. Attorney General recently declined to review a decision by the Board of Immigration Appeals in his case. As a result, Nadarajah will soon receive refugee status. In a year, he will be eligible for a green card, and in five years, he can become a U.S. citizen. Also, he now can travel to visit his parents, who live as refugees in southern India after having escaped violence in Sri Lanka.
'My quest for freedom has ended happily, after almost seven years,' Nadarajah said. 'When I was in detention, I almost lost hope in this country, but today I can say freedom is no lie here. I thank the United States for giving me freedom.'
Ahilan Arulanantham, the ACLU/SC director for immigrants' rights and national security who represented Nadarajah, said this case shows how our anti-terrorism bureaucracy can destroy the lives of innocent people. 'This man came to the United States because he believed that this country would free him from the horrific mistreatment he suffered as a Tamil in Sri Lanka,' Arulanantham said. 'Instead, through no fault of his own, ICE officials subjected him to indefinite imprisonment based on secret evidence.'
Nadarajah's ordeal began in 1997, when Sri Lankan Army soldiers battling the insurgent group Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) arrested him and accused him of belonging to the group. They beat him, hung him upside down, pricked his toenails and burned him with cigarettes. A bribe from his family made possible his release four months later, but soldiers arrested him again in 2000 and 2001. Each time they tortured him further, holding his head inside a bag full of gasoline until he lost consciousness and beating him with plastic bags full of sand. After his third release, Nadarajah's family paid to have him smuggled out of Sri Lanka. He arrived in Mexico in October 2001, and U.S. immigration officials arrested him days later, when he tried to cross into the United States.
Even during Nadarajah's first interview, an immigration officer found that the Sri Lankan had reason to fear persecution. In April 2003, an immigration judge granted him asylum despite government claims from secret sources that he was a member of LTTE. But the government appealed that decision to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA), which sent the case back down for rehearing. The government presented more alleged evidence that Arulanantham successfully refuted, and on September 1, 2004, the judge again granted Nadarajah asylum. The government yet again appealed to the BIA, which ruled in Nadarajah's favor a second time. But in a highly unusual move, the BIA referred the case to the U.S. Attorney General's office.
While the immigration case was proceeding, the ACLU/SC sued the government, alleging that its detention of Nadarajah violated federal law and the Constitution. In a decision that set a precedent for limits on detention of those awaiting resolution of their immigration cases, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Nadarajah's immediate release in March 2006, calling the government's case against him implausible. Still, ICE officials forced him to wear an electronic monitoring bracelet and obey a strict curfew that at first left him only one hour a week to leave his home to run errands. After the ACLU/SC sued again, ICE agreed to remove the bracelet and modify the curfew.
However, it took almost two-and-a-half more years for the Attorney General's office to affirm -- without comment or analysis -- the BIA decisions in Nadarajah's case, bringing his wait for justice to an end after six years and 11 months.
'No one should be subjected to indefinite imprisonment and years of delay when they seek asylum in this country, especially after a court of law has ruled in their favor,' said Arulanantham. 'Those who come here seeking asylum often have suffered grave injustice and abuse. Our government should not add to that suffering.'