Hard-line INS under fire in `Deportland'

PORTLAND - In this City of Roses, civic leaders understandably take great pride in their gardens. The newest addition is the Classical Chinese Garden, a plum, bamboo and maple marvel resting behind white, windowed walls.

This jewel is a symbol to local officials of much that is right with the city, particularly its commitment to the Pacific Rim.

Which is why, at a time the city ought to be celebrating - the Chinese garden, 11 years in the making, will be unveiled next week - the treatment of Asian travelers by immigration officials has soured the mood.

The anger is directed at the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and its employees, dressed in their white shirts with Statue of Liberty patches on the sleeves. Critics charge the agency's inspectors have harassed Asians arriving at Portland International Airport, targeting them for detention and deportation.

In recent years, the percentage of foreign travelers refused entry into the U.S. at the Portland airport has been substantially higher than at other West Coast airports. At one time, INS inspectors there turned away travelers at a rate eight times that of Seattle.

Northwest officials ranging from Portland's mayor to Washington's U.S. senators have called for the head of the Portland INS office to resign. The Japanese consul general has complained that the stops are damaging bilateral relations. Some Asian newspapers have christened the city "Deportland."

The worst news came last week, when Delta Air Lines announced it will cancel its flights between Portland and Japan in April. The airline said the pullout was prompted by low ridership, but city officials think the controversy played a role.

"There has been a strong effort on our part and the private sector to establish strong ties with both Japan and China," said Phyllis Oster, Portland's director of international relations, preparing for this week's arrival of a delegation from a Chinese sister city, Suzhou, for the garden dedication.

"We have worked very hard to promote Portland as an international city," she continued. "We pride ourselves on our friendliness, on our livability - which is why it's been very difficult to see people treated in this way."

Problems at the airport are not new. INS officials, faced with a serious image problem, point out improvements have been made in the past two years.

"We understand it's about the image of Portland to foreigners and fixing that," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for the INS Western Region. "We're very concerned about seeing that image restored."

Delta's Japan-Portland flights, canceled Wednesday, were the airport's only international flights besides those from Canada.

The loss of the last remaining Asian flights could cost the state $900 million a year, said Port of Portland Executive Director Mike Thorne.

Delta's two nonstop flights from Tokyo and Nagoya, Japan, along with other related domestic flights that will be canceled, were no longer profitable, airline officials said. Delta lost more than $10 million on the flights in the past year.

But Delta officials said the treatment of passengers bound for Portland was also of concern for a company that prides itself on customer service.

A disappointed Portland Mayor Vera Katz said the loss of the flights would set the city back 15 years in terms of promoting it as an international destination.

City and port officials say they heard several complaints of harassment. And some local business owners say some Asians are wary of coming to the Portland airport.

"The INS gave us a black eye," said Sho Dezono of Azumano Travel in Portland. "We started hearing about people expressing concern about coming here."

One of Dezono's close friends, a permanent U.S. resident, complained that his son was refused entry at the Portland airport and returned to Japan.

"Such high rejection rates cannot be tolerated," said Toyojiro Soejima, the Japanese consul general in Portland. "This is very damaging to (the) bilateral relationship between Oregon and Japan."

In one of the most notorious cases, a South Korean computer technician was handcuffed and shackled in April and not allowed to meet with his lawyer.

Last month Guo Liming, 36, of China was jailed for two days after authorities suspected her passport might be fradulent because her passport photo was loose. Guo had no problems earlier when she entered Los Angeles International Airport. In Portland, she was strip-searched, handcuffed and jailed until authorities determined her documents were valid.

According to a news story in The Oregonian, INS District Director David Beebe remarked that authorities thought Guo "fit the profile" of an illegal immigrant because she was traveling with her fiance.

U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., who has been pushing the INS to revamp procedures in Portland for the past 13 months, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice calling the treatment of Guo inhumane. He demanded Beebe resign, saying the situation at the Portland airport was alarming.

Similar letters asking for Beebe's resignation were sent to INS Commissioner Doris Meissner by Katz, the Portland mayor; Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber; and the Port of Portland's Thorne. There was no such treatment at other West Coast airports, they said.

They stressed that in their efforts to maintain and expand international trade, a major shakeup of inspection procedures was necessary.

Beebe, who remains in his job, is not giving interviews. A regional INS team arrived last week to scrutinize practices at the airport, and the agency is investigating the Guo incident.

Beebe, said INS spokeswoman Kice, used "a bad choice of words" in defending his agents' behavior toward Guo. But she said there is legitimate reason to scrutinize Chinese travelers with questionable documents because of the increased trend of Chinese nationals entering the U.S. illegally.

Kice flew in recently from Southern California to try to convince the public that her agency is committed to change. INS inspectors are charged with a formidable job of keeping illegals out, but there is no reason, Kice said, that the job can't be performed in a friendly and professional manner.

"They need to be ambassadors but also officers without being intimidating or off-putting," she said.

It is unfortunate, Kice said, that the flurry of media reports about the Guo case has overshadowed improvements at Portland International Airport.

Refusal rates for May through July at the airport are within tenths of a point of those for Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, according to the INS. Figures for last month, Kice said, also "look very encouraging."

While the INS staff may ultimately be pared back at Portland, the agency will move forward on systemwide changes.

The INS plans seminars in Tokyo and Osaka to make sure executives are aware of the documentation required for visiting the U.S. INS employess will get cultural-sensitivity training. A telephone interpretation system has been installed at the Portland airport.

Meanwhile, the city opens its Classical Chinese Garden, modeled after the famous gardens of Suzhou, on Wednesday with zither and bamboo-flute music at a fund-raising gala. It is the largest garden of its kind in the U.S., taking up a full city block.

According to Mayor Katz, it will be a symbol of how the city honors and respects another culture.

Florangela Davila's phone message number is 206-464-2916. Her e-mail address is fdavila@seattletimes.com.