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Christmas behind bars
Ciarán Ferry’s deportation case drags on, as judge denies him amnesty

by Pamela White

It’s not the first Christmas Ciarán Ferry has spent behind bars, but it’s likely to be the toughest. Ciarán wasn’t married during the 7 1/2 years he spent locked up in Northern Ireland’s infamous Long Kesh prison, nor was he a father.

Now he’s faced with spending the holiday in Jefferson County Jail, separated from his American wife, Heaven Ferry, and their 2-year-old daughter, Fiona. Ciarán has been in jail since Jan. 30, when he was taken into custody by immigration officials for allegedly overstaying his visa.

"[Christmas] is such a special, magic time for children and by reflection for the parents also," Ciarán writes from his jail cell. "In the past 11 months I have missed many special family occasions, but none compare to Christmas. For me to miss this would be a devastating blow to my morale. To suggest otherwise would be a delusion of my emotions. I live in hope."

But Ciarán is unlikely to see his wish come true. Last month, he lost his bid for amnesty and is now one step closer to being sent back to Northern Ireland, where his name appears on loyalist death lists. He fears that if he is forced to return to Belfast, his life–and those of his wife and daughter–will be in danger.

Ciarán was taken into custody on Jan. 30, when he and his wife met with immigration officials for a routine green card interview. U.S. immigration officials claimed he had overstayed his visa but also pointed to his association with the Irish Republican Army, suggesting he might be a danger to the public.

However, the day after Ciarán was taken into custody, FBI agents offered to set him free–provided he agreed to help them keep tabs on an IRA splinter group operating on the East Coast. Ciarán, who says he came to the United States to get away from death threats and violence, refused.

"It’s really caught me off guard that they can hold him this way," says Heaven Ferry, who got to know her husband by writing him supportive letters while he was in jail in Ireland.

His plight has captured the attention of Irish-Americans across the country, as well as the Irish and English media. He is one of several Irish republicans facing deportation as a result of an apparent shift in policy following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States. Several Irish families, some of whom have lived in the United States for years, are suddenly facing orders for immediate deportation because of past membership in Irish republican paramilitary organizations.

In a very similar case, Malachy McAllister was released after being locked up by immigration officials after Congressman Steve Rothman, D-NJ, intervened on his behalf. McAllister was a member of the Irish National Liberation Army as a young man and served three years in an British prison after plotting to kill two officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. One officer was wounded, but the attack on the other was never carried out. McAllister and his family moved to the United States seeking asylum after surviving an attack by masked gunmen, who fired 26 shots into their home one night. McAllister still faces deportation, but he will remain free until his case is decided.

Currently, a letter is circulating in Congress that could help Ciarán win his freedom, as well.

Deanna Turner of the Irish Deportees of America Committee said, "We are very hopeful with the recent developments on the McAllister family case and with a Congressional letter currently circulating on behalf of Ciarán Ferry that a positive outcome will take place."

Ciarán’s attorney filed a habeas corpus in U.S. District Court, demanding government officials show just cause for keeping Ferry in jail, but the judge in that case was awaiting the outcome of Ciarán’s application for political and religious amnesty.

On Nov. 4, Immigration Judge James P. Vandello ruled that Ciarán was ineligible for amnesty.

"I find that the respondent’s offense constitutes a serious non-political crime," Vandello said in his ruling. "I further find that having been convicted of this offense, he has participated in the persecution of others… I further find that if the respondent were not barred from receiving relief, he has the ability to relocate to another part of the British Isles in order to avoid any problems he might face in Northern Ireland."

Heaven says the judge’s comments indicate to her that he doesn’t understand the political situation in Ireland. The family won’t be any safer in Dublin or London than they would be in Belfast, she says.

Heaven says they are in the process of appealing the amnesty ruling, a process that could take years, during which time Ciarán could remain behind bars. In the meantime, she hopes the court will rule on the habeas corpus, release her husband and allow him to await the final outcome of his deportation case in the comfort of the family’s home.

"It almost seems like they’re trying to discourage him from appealing by keeping him in jail," she says.

Ciarán was arrested when he was 19, after police pulled over the car he and two friends were traveling in and discovered two guns and ammunition. He was tried under the British no-jury system, convicted and sentenced to 22 years in prison. Authorities alleged Ciarán and the others had planned to kill loyalists.

British officials released Ciarán under the Good Friday Peace Accords after authorities determined he had no further ties to the IRA and did not pose a threat to the public. He had been out of prison only long enough to get married, when officials informed him they had discovered his name on two separate loyalist death lists. Ciarán decided to relocate to the United States with Heaven, who was then pregnant, in order to protect his family. He had lived in the United States for two years before immigration officials took him into custody.

"Irish immigrants have never posed a threat to the United States in any way," Turner says. "In fact, they helped build this country into the wonderful place it is today and continue to make great strides within the political system."

The United States has traditionally been the biggest financial supporter of Irish republican groups, including the IRA.

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