In 1996, the U.S. Congress passed a strict immigration law curtrailing the rights of legal immigrants and mandating forced deportation for those convicted of some crimes. While nearly 70,000 of these criminal aliens were deported last year, thousands still remain in prison in the United States because their homelands refuse to take them back. As VOA-TV?s Brian Padden reports, these ?lifers? as they are often called by the legal community, could remain in U.S. custody for the rest a long time.

Four years ago, Soutchay Pathoumsat was convicted of burglary in a U.S. court of law and completed a three and a half year sentence in state prison for his crime. But three months after his sentence ended, he is still a prisoner today, meeting with his lawyer in a Federal Detention Center in the Northwest part of the United States near Seattle, Washington. Soutchay, a refugee from Laos, remains in prison because he is not a U.S. citizen. SOUTCHAY PATHOUMSAT ?All I can say is, it's kind of long to be detained here. I mean, I understand, I commit my crime, you know. And I did time for it. Just as everybody else, you know, the American citizens they did, they committed crimes and yet still they're free.?

According to U.S. law, legal residents who commit a serious crime lose their legal status and must be immediately deported. But Soutchay is one of about 2,700 legal immigrants being held by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service because their country of origin will not take them back. Karen Kraushaar is a spokesperson for the INS.

KAREN KRAUSHAAR ?The government basically held the position that, until such time as someone can be removed from the U.S., they basically need to remain in INS custody.?

NHOTH PATHOUMSAT ?It is not fair at all. It's just like double jeopardy. I got, did my crime and did the time, and now I'm sitting here and the INS, because I'm not a U.S. citizen, that's just not right.?

NARRATOR Not all detainees awaiting deportation are currently being held in prison. Nhoth Pathoumsat, Soutchay?s brother, served a 30-month sentence for assault followed by another 17 months in a federal detention center. But Nhoth was finally able to convince the INS that he is not a threat to society and to release him to help support his child.

NHOTH PATHOUMSAT ?I report in every three months. Hand them a paper and they sign it and tell me when?s my next date. And that?s about it. In and out.?

NARRATOR Soutchay spends his days drawing and hopes that demonstrating this talent might help convince the INS that he could work on the outside as a tattoo artist. His lawyer, public defender Jay Stansell, says because the INS has no standardized evaluation process or any rehabilitation programming, it is extremely difficult for his clients to prove they are not a threat to society.

JAY STANSELL ?They're just saying you had a crime. You did prison time. We're going to keep you locked up because we think you?re dangerous and we'll keep you locked up until you prove that you?re not. And it's a near impossibility for some people to prove that they?re not.?

NARRATOR The power of the INS over the lives of these immigrants stems from the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. The act was passed in the wake of the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York City, which was carried out by terrorists from the Middle East. Concerns about terrorism and the growing number of illegal aliens in America prompted the U.S. Congress to greatly expand the grounds for deportation and removed the authority of judges to intervene in deportation cases.

CAROL WOLCHOCK ?The Congress also said that challenges to these laws could not be brought in the U.S. courts. And this was unprecedented because one of the fundamental principles of our justice system is that we can have a day in court to challenge the legalities of the law or the government actions.?

NARRATOR But Carol Wolchock of the American Bar Association and others lawyers did challenge the law. They took their case all the way to the Supreme Court, which in June ruled against the INS policy of indefinite detention.

CAROL WOLCHOCK ?The Supreme Court said that, just as in the case of citizens, the Congress can't pass laws that would keep immigrants detained beyond a reasonable period of time.?

NARRATOR For the INS, which is now amending its policy to comply with the Supreme court decision, the ruling indicates a shift in status of immigrants in the United States.

KAREN KRAUSHAAR ?This is a very interesting matter because these decisions do appear to show that the court is beginning to believe, or the court is beginning to hold the view, that the rights of American citizens should possibly be conferred upon all those who are within the boundaries of the United States, not just those who are U.S. citizens.?

NARRATOR Because of the Supreme Court decision, Soutchay Pathoumsat should soon be released from prison, and like his brother Nhoth, return to live in the community under INS supervision. But their ordeal is not over. The two brothers came to the U.S. as children and neither speaks the language nor has any memory of Laos. Despite this, the INS plans to deport them as soon as a diplomatic agreement with Laos can be reached.

SOUTCHAY PATHOUMSAT ?As far as I know, Laos is not accepting people back right now. So I'm just waiting to see what's going on.?

NARRATOR Brian Padden, VOA-TV, Seattle, Washington.

For more information, see: - U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service - - Supreme Court of the United States - - ruling - - American Bar Association - - 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act -!3A!27pl104208!27%5D/doc/%7B@14108%7D