A Death Sentence for Ali Ali Bin

Ali Ali Bin faces a death sentence. And one of the few human beings standing between Ali and his fate is a chaplain named Rick Kienholz.

Kienholz makes his living as a counselor, but he met Ali while offering religious guidance at Martin Hall, a jail for juveniles in eastern Washington state. A number of local counties use Martin Hall to house accused thieves, robbers and murderers. But federal agencies like the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) also use Martin Hall to house innocent kids, like Ali, who languish in bureaucratic limbo, sometimes for years.

Kienholz first spotted Ali on a Sunday night at Martin Hall about a year ago. "I saw this very tall black kid, sitting by himself, and he was not interacting with anyone," Kienholz says. The staff said Ali had been there two days and didn't speak English.

"So I went and sat by him, and I started speaking Swahili. And I thought his jaw was going to drop on the table," Kienholz says. The chaplain knew a few words in the African language, but not many, so they couldn't communicate well. But they bonded.

And over the next few months, Kienholz would learn Ali's horrifying tale.

At age 14, Ali lived with his parents in Mombasa, Kenya. His grandfather had founded a political party, but the opposition was now in power. One day, forces from the party came to Ali's home. His mother opened the door.

"And they hacked her to death with machetes, while Ali, with his 11-year-old sister, was hiding in the rafters," Kienholz says.

Ali's sister went to live with their uncle, but Ali spent the next three years as a street kid. At age 16, Ali saw some political banners belonging to the party that killed his mother. He and his friends pulled down those banners and burned them. They were arrested.

"He was held without charges for six months in a Kenyan jail, where he was daily brutalized," Kienholz says. Ali was afraid he'd be killed. Then authorities placed Ali in a work release program. He used that opportunity to escape and stow away on a ship, a ship that would eventually dock in Seattle.

"He didn't commit a crime. He didn't sneak into the country. He came on a ship, and he immediately came to INS and requested asylum," Kienholz says. Ali was imprisoned at Martin Hall.

Martin Hall has been a lockup for dozens of children held by INS. One of the former case managers there is highly critical of how those young would-be immigrants were treated.

Randy Wenrich, who worked at Martin Hall for about three years, wrote a letter to Spokane County Superior Court Judge Neal Q. Rielly this February. Wenrich leveled serious complaints about the handling of INS juveniles. He was primarily concerned about the cases of Jin Rong Yiou and Xue Zhong Zhou, a brother and sister, ages 11 and 14, who tried to enter this country in October of 1999.

Wenrich said that Xue Zhong contracted hepatitis while at Martin Hall, possibly while he was locked up with four other Chinese boys in a small cell. "I don't think it is fair to send him back to a country with a disease he may have caught due to his treatment while here -- especially since he will not get the appropriate medical treatment there," Wenrich wrote.

He also complained that Jin, who was born as the second child in a country with a one-child policy, was the victim of discrimination in China. He said their defense against immigration charges was financed by the very smuggler who brought them into the country, and that the attorney failed to represent the best interests of the children.

Wenrich also leveled broader charges. "I left [Martin Hall] ... because of the continued prejudicial and discriminatory treatment of all the immigration juveniles and because I saw their situations progressively getting worse instead of better," he wrote.

He charges that the non-criminal, juvenile INS detainees are subjected to the following:

* Placed with violent criminal offenders who bully and control them.

* Locked up for months without getting the required hearing on placement in less restrictive housing, such as foster care.

* Not allowed case managers to help with legal or emotional issues.

* Confined in isolation if they act out.

* Not allowed the privilege of an initial phone call, and may not get to make calls for days or weeks.

* Not provided adequate translators or caseworkers.

* Given inadequate legal counsel so they often end up being deported back to life-threatening situations, even though they have valid asylum cases.

Wenrich fears that Jin Ron Yiou and Xue Zhong Zhou will be sent back to just such a situation. He says their mother borrowed $100,000 from a loan shark in order to ship the children to America. Wenrich believes that if the children are returned to China, they will end up in detention, or indentured servitude. Yet they languish in a holding facility, now in California, while the government argues that there is no credible fear of persecution upon their return to their homeland.

The possibilities facing Ali Ali Bin are even worse. On the final day of his recent INS hearing, his uncle sent an email from Kenya.

"[His attorney] had been trying to contact people in Africa to validate his story," says Kienholz. "And [his uncle] wrote a letter to Ali, informing him that two of his cousins were murdered while in prison, and that police who came looking for Ali when he didn't show up [from work release] told his uncle, 'When we find him we are going to bury him.'"

That did not sway the judge in Ali's INS case. After four hearings, he ruled the story was all a fabrication. He ordered Ali deported.

But Kienholz believes Ali.

"My profession is watching people. And I've watched him. I've watched him talk about his mother's death. I've watched him tell about being brutalized in jail, how he was beaten, had his teeth knocked out, his fingers broken. And I believe him. I believe him with all my heart," Kienholz says. "And Ali knows that if he gets deported to Africa he will get turned over to the very people who will kill him."

Kienholz, like Wenrich, sees an INS system of justice weighted against young people who need asylum. They see youths confronted with a ponderous legal system and a language they can't understand. In some cases, differences in dialects -- such as Ali faced with his Swahili -- make it impossible for translators to work accurately.

"I sat in three of the four court hearings, and in my personal opinion, I saw a judge who from the very beginning had his mind made up," Kienholz says.

Ali is lucky enough to have three attorneys in Seattle who have agreed to work on his case for free: Evans McMillion, Diana Tate and Sarah Tune. They will appeal the INS decision, which could take another year or more. He now sits in a detention facility for adults, because he has turned 18. Kienholz has offered to take Ali into his own home, if the government will release him. He observes that illegal immigrants who have worked in this country three years are being offered amnesty, but Ali can't seem to get out of jail.

"Are you afraid that he'll die if he returns to Kenya?" I ask Keinholz.

"I don't have a doubt in my mind," he says.

Of course, Keinholz may be wrong. Yet the price of his error is small: one more of the huddled masses striving to be free would find a home in this country. However, if the INS court is wrong, Ali Ali Bin will pay the ultimate price. And this country can wash its hands of him.

INS public affairs officials did not return our phone calls.

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