When Ciaran Ferry walked out the rusting gates of Northern Ireland's most notorious jail four years ago, he never expected to see the inside of a prison cell again.
Ferry, a member of the paramilitary Irish Republican Army, had served just over a third of his 22-year sentence for conspiracy to commit murder and arms offenses. Along with more than 400 other paramilitary prisoners, the 28-year-old was granted early release from the Maze prison as part of the Good Friday peace accord, the U.S.-brokered political agreement that ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Ciaran Ferry, shown with daughter Fiona, is battling deportation to his native Northern Ireland because of a conviction while part of a paramilitary group.
Ferry and his new wife, Heaven, an American who had written to him during his incarceration, decided to settle in the United States after police told them his name had been discovered on the hit list of a rival paramilitary group. On an immigration form filled out when he arrived, Ferry ticked the 'no' box in the section asking if he had ever been convicted of a crime.
Ferry's past caught up with him when he attended a green card interview in January 2003. Arrested by immigration officers, he has spent the past 21 months in two Colorado prisons fighting deportation. His legal team argues that he is a law-abiding family man who would face threats and harassment if forced to return to Northern Ireland.
But to the Department of Homeland Security, Ferry and several other former Irish paramilitaries facing deportation are convicted terrorists who lied about their criminal pasts to enter the United States. The issue has galvanized Irish American groups, many of whom believe the Bush administration is unfairly hounding people such as Ferry to demonstrate progress in the war on terrorism.
Their supporters contend that many of those now targeted by the Department of Homeland Security lived openly in this country for years before anti-terrorism laws were introduced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
"I think we're in a predicament, given the changes in the law since 9/11 and all that transpired out of 9/11," said Malachy McAllister, a former member of the paramilitary Irish National Liberation Army who served three years in prison in Northern Ireland for his involvement in a plot to kill two police officers. He fled to Canada and then the United States in the mid-1990s, after loyalist paramilitaries shot up his home in Belfast. Now living in New Jersey, McAllister will find out later this year whether his petition for asylum has been successful.
Irish paramilitaries have sought refuge in the United States for decades, long before the period of violence known as "the Troubles" erupted in the late 1960s. Some have slipped into the country undetected and live quietly as illegal immigrants. Others have married American citizens. A handful have been granted political asylum.
The current debate hinges on the role paramilitaries played in Northern Ireland's protracted conflict between loyalists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom and republicans fighting for a united, independent Ireland. Those facing deportation, for the most part former republican paramilitaries, justify their failure to declare previous convictions by insisting that they were soldiers in a war, not terrorists; political prisoners, not criminals -- the latter a distinction that can strengthen claims for asylum. Some contend they were unfairly convicted.
Immigration authorities, however, say it is up to the government to decide whether a conviction was criminal or political.
"The whole thing boils down to the ideological argument of whether they were political prisoners or terrorists. And 'terrorism' is a word that is full of subjectivity," said Karen McElrath, an associate professor of sociology at Queen's University in Northern Ireland and author of a book on the subject.
There is no doubt in Heaven Ferry's mind about how to categorize her husband.
"What Ciaran did was not terrorist-related," she said. "He was released from jail under a political agreement -- that makes it very obviously political. This is a guy who came here wanting peace, wanting a new quiet life with his family, and they go after him? They're just too afraid to go after the real terrorists."
The government cannot afford to make such distinctions, countered Robert S. Leiken, of the Immigration and National Security Programs at the Nixon Center, a Washington-based foreign policy research group.