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INS Accused of Health Violations; Immigrant Center Closed

February 10, 1989

HARLINGEN, Texas (AP) _ City officials Friday evicted the Immigration and Naturalization Service from the building where thousands of Central Americans apply for asylum each week, accusing the INS of failing to follow fire codes or clean up litter and human waste around the building.

″We are finally forced to take this drastic action,″ said Mayor Bill Card. ″It’s a situation where we have not been able to get the cooperation and the attention of the federal government.″

The fire marshal and police cleared the building at 10 a.m., then locked the two main entrances and sealed a third with duct tape. A notice was put on the door saying it was not safe for habitation.

State District Judge Robert Garza later granted the city a temporary restraining order, forbidding the INS to reopen the application center or any other facility in Harlingen ″in such a manner as to constitute a nuisance and threat to public health and safety.″

About 100 Central Americans and some INS employees stood outside the padlocked building while police turned away arriving immigrants.

″We don’t know what is happening,″ said Juan Francisco Mayrena, a Nicaraguan who was waiting in a van with about 15 other Central Americans.

On some nights, scores of Central Americans sleep outside the building to secure places in line the next morning.

Four portable toilets at the side of the building have been allowed to overflow, according to the city’s lawsuit, and the parking lot and nearby vacant lots are littered with trash, rotting food and human waste.

The INS kept a fire exit at the center locked and had seating for 450 people in a building where the maximum occupancy under the fire code is 196, according to the lawsuit.

The INS hasn’t performed any health screening of the asylum refugees for communicable diseases, the lawsuit said. Local health officials have reported an increase in hepatitis cases.

The city commission voted unanimously Friday to close the center, a former furniture store on the edge of town. The INS leases it from Wolfgang Benner of Lewisville, who is also listed as a defendant. There was no answer Friday at Benner’s home in suburban Dallas.

INS officials say they have been working to improve the center.

The agency has resolved two of the three fire code violations brought to its attention, including recharging fire extinguishers and leaving a side door unlocked as a fire escape, said INS attorney David Ayala.

The INS also was reducing the seating capacity, he said.

Omer ″Jerry″ Sewell, director of the INS Harlingen district, said he was shocked by the city’s action.

INS officials did not say when or how they’ll resume processing asylum applications in the area.

The state judge set a Feb. 17 hearing on the eviction case.

On Feb. 20, U.S. District Judge Felemon Vela is to rule on an INS policy that could bar asylum-seekers from leaving southern Texas until their applications are decided.

Refugee advocates sued the INS on Jan. 6 and Vela ordered the INS policy put on temporary hold, allowing the people to travel again. But Vela has said he probably will allow the INS to resume its travel restriction policy.

Local officials have said they were planning something to get federal attention. They complain the federal government has dumped responsibility for the immigrants onto residents of the lower Rio Grande Valley, one of the poorest areas in the country.

The influx of immigrants into the border city of Brownsville and Harlingen, 25 miles north, swelled last spring and reached a crisis point after the INS adopted its travel restriction Dec. 16.

Shelters filled up and hundreds, possibly thousands, of people were forced to stayed in run-down buildings and squalid camps around Brownsville.

Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, D-Texas, and Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas, have introduced bills that would provide federal assistance to people while their asylum applications are pending.

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