William Raspberry's Dec. 18 op-ed piece, "Another Cuba Dilemma," raised the question of what to do with the thousands of detainees from Cuba, Laos, Vietnam, the former Soviet Union and elsewhere who are held indefinitely by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), either because their home countries refuse to accept them or because they have no nationality. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is concerned about these individuals, many of whom initially entered the country as refugees.

Under the harsh immigration laws enacted in 1996, refugees and stateless persons who commit even minor offenses and who cannot be returned to their countries of origin are subject to mandatory "life sentences" after serving their criminal sentences. Some of these individuals who merit refugee protection and are not a threat to public safety should be released. While INS has tried to implement an internal process for reviewing indefinite detention cases, the process is marred by inconsistency in application and the inherent flaw of having the jailer -- in this case the INS -- decide who is released from jail.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' Guidelines on the Detention of Asylum-Seekers urge compliance with international standards regarding detention. Guideline 5 calls for any detention decision to be reviewed by "a judicial or administrative body independent of the detaining authorities." Such an independent body, in the form of the immigration court, already routinely conducts custody determinations. A change in Justice Department regulations could give the immigration court or other independent tribunal the authority to do so in the cases of indefinite detainees as well.

KAREN KONING ABUZAYD

Regional Representative

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Washington