The INS runaround

The immigration service's new registration plan is supposed to help fight terrorism. It's also locking people up without explanation.

Published January 23, 2003 8:06PM (EST)

When the office computer at the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) crashed during Mohsen Hashemi's interview on the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2002 -- two days after he'd first heard of a new program that, he thought, required him to register with the agency -- he was annoyed but unconcerned. He'd been a taxpaying Texan for the past 10 years, and he was not afraid to register. He was here legally, on "humanitarian parole" from Iran, and contributing to his community. The Italian restaurant he owned in Round Rock was small but surviving, and his daughters, 2 1/2 and 5, had been learning to speak Southern from birth. His wife, a Russian immigrant, had started studying for the U.S. citizenship exam that year. It was a good life, he thought, and he was grateful to the government who had allowed him to escape harm in Iran.

So when the INS told him it had grown close to closing time that day and he would have to come back on Dec. 19, he didn't mind. He minded a little more when the computer connection to D.C. went down on that second visit too and he was again told to make the hour-and-a-half drive to return. For a routine process, this was taking a long time, he thought, but he willingly complied. And although on his third visit the computer did not crash, everything else in his world did.

On Dec. 23, the San Antonio INS office revoked his humanitarian parole visa without explanation and led him away in handcuffs. That was the last his family heard of him for three days. He's been shuffled between INS-rented Texas jails ever since, though no one will tell him or his family why.

"Our lives have been torture one day at a time," said his brother Hassan in an interview. "He's never even gotten a speeding ticket. We don't understand why they haven't set bail or released him. I've been here 23 years, and I've gone through all the channels I can think of, and still no one will tell me why he's being detained."

Hashemi had gotten caught in the dragnet of the INS's Special Registration program -- a new initiative requiring foreign nationals from certain countries to annually report their whereabouts. While the Bush administration contends that the program is an essential tool in the war on terrorism, it has ignited yet another civil rights firestorm for the Ashcroft Justice Department -- and critics argue it may not even be an effective anti-terrorism tactic.

According to Babak Sotoodeh, president of the Alliance of Iranian Americans (AIA) and co-counsel for a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of Iranian detainees, Hashemi should never have been held in the first place.

What's worse, one document on the INS Web site indicates that he may never even have had to register. Page 3 of "Questions and Answers (on Special Call-in Registration Procedures)" contains this passage: "What if I was paroled into the U.S.? Do I still have to register?" Response: "No. If your last entry into the U.S. was on or before September 10, 2002, for citizens or nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, and you were not inspected and admitted as a nonimmigrant, you are not subject to Special Registration."

There are hundreds of Hashemis, according to Sotoodeh, each detention a variation on the theme of confusion and fear. And if the U.S. government keeps adding new countries to the list requiring Special Registration -- as it did again last Thursday -- there may well be hundreds more.

While in principle Special Registration is a straightforward way of monitoring visitors from certain countries, in practice it has been plagued by controversy from the start. Civil rights groups cite bureaucratic snafus, lack of procedural standardization and poor public outreach as evidence of the program's failures.

Hashemi's nightmare began with a speech by Attorney General John Ashcroft on June 6, 2002. "In this new war, our enemy's platoons infiltrate our borders, quietly blending in with visiting tourists, students and workers. They move unnoticed through our cities, neighborhoods and public spaces ... Their tactics rely on evading recognition at the border and escaping detection within the United States."

To shore up these holes in national security, Ashcroft announced a new program that day: the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System. There are three elements to that system: The first two, consisting of entry controls (fingerprinting and photographing at the border) and exit controls (removing illegal aliens) began without protest on Sept. 11, 2002. By 2005, every visitor to the U.S. will be registered upon entry or exit. It is only the third element -- periodic registration of aliens who've stayed in the United States 30 days or more, otherwise known as Special Registration -- that has evoked such apprehension.

Special Registration applies to students, businessmen and individuals visiting family members for lengthy periods -- but only to "those individuals of elevated national security concern who stay in the country for more than thirty days," according to Ashcroft in his June 6 speech.

The first group of such individuals turned out to include nearly all male citizens or nationals of Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan and Syria, age 16 or older. The second was larger, consisting of men from 13 more countries. While deadlines for the first two groups have passed, another 14,000 men from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have until Feb. 21 to register. And on Thursday INS officials announced a fourth group: Foreign male visitors from Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait will have from Feb. 24 to March 28 to register. Thursday the INS also announced a grace period for men who did not register in the first two groups.

Observers of the first registration reported widespread chaos, and activist groups estimate that 700 people were detained in L.A. alone -- where the local INS boss had declared a policy of "zero tolerance" toward any infractions of INS rules. As the Dec. 16 registration deadline approached, one attorney for the AIA reported from L.A. that "I saw so many Iranians arrested that they ran out of handcuffs," Sotoodeh says.

"We've heard of a lot of abuses," says Kareem Shora, legal advisor for the Washington-based American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. "The L.A. folks were trapped at the last minute. They housed them with convicted criminals in city and county jails. They were not charged with and they definitely were not guilty of any crime. Yet they were treated as suspected criminals."

Many blame a lack of outreach for the last-minute rush. According to Sotoodeh, most Iranians hadn't even heard about Special Registration until days before the deadline. "If the INS went to the Iranian community to tell them what was happening, I don't know who they went to," he said. "We're a national organization, but nobody came to us. They say they went to the mosques, but Iranians are Jewish, Christian, Bahai and Zoroastrian -- not just Muslim. You can't even find an Iranian mosque. I don't know if there even is one around here."

But not every region had problems. While Amy Otten, INS spokesperson for the Eastern region, was unwilling to compare the differences between West and East Coast implementation, she did say, "I can tell you that for the most part, it's gone smoothly in the Eastern region offices. We didn't have any unusual problems."

Bill Strassberger, a spokesman from INS headquarters in Washington, speculates that the difference in regional detention ratios is based primarily on demographics. Where there are large numbers of immigrants who need to register, "I think we're going to continue to see that possibly take place," he said. "But we made some adjustments between the first and the second groups." Although those adjustments were made to improve regional inequity of human resources, he denies that the recently announced grace period is an admission of error in how the first two rounds were handled. "This is a chance to ensure that everyone who needs to register has that opportunity to register without repercussions," he said.

According to Shora, such statements are simply untrue. "The way the program is being implemented shows the inability of the INS as an agency -- it's not equipped to handle the deadlines. It's not equipped to handle these numbers." But he doesn't blame the INS for this -- instead he considers the Department of Justice to be at fault. "They told them to implement the program by a certain date, but they didn't give them the resources to do that."

Ashcroft has been getting a lot of criticism thus far. On Monday, Dec. 23, Sens. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wisc., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., sent a letter to the attorney general demanding that he suspend Special Registration. "It is imperative that you take steps to reassure Congress and the American people that this special registration program is not a detention program falling just short of widespread internment of Arabs and Muslims," they wrote. On Dec. 24 a coalition of Muslim-American rights groups filed a class-action lawsuit against the attorney general and the INS. Protesters and human rights monitors have watched the more recent registration closely for signs of abuse. Given the logistical problems and growing political opposition to the Special Registration program, why is the INS continuing to expand its reach?

According to As'ad AbuKhalil, author of "Bin Laden, Islam, and America's 'New War on Terrorism'" and professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, the registration program represents blatant racial profiling. "The Justice Department is really ruled by strong right-wing Christian fundamentalist elements who have genuinely bigoted views toward Muslims and Arabs," he says. Furthermore, he believes that the Justice Department has done everything in its power to create distrust, suspicion and fear among Muslims and Arabs. Another popular theory is that the Special Registration process is less interested in rounding up terrorists -- who are unlikely to voluntarily show up anyway -- than in coralling foreign nationals for immigration-rules violations. A third theory is that the registration is a warning to Arabs in the U.S. to not make waves, lest they be deported.

The INS dismisses such accusations as false and paranoid.

"It seems like in almost everything we do the INS gets accused of doing racial profiling," says Strassberger, "and given the nature of our customer, if I can call them customers, they come from a variety of ethnic groups, nationalities and races, so it's easy to say that." But it's not racial profiling, he says. "This is based on reaching national security objectives, to gather information on people who may present an elevated national security concern. This is not meant to create fear or anxiety. Rather, it's more of a temporary visitor's responsibility to comply with immigration law and to maintain their legal status while they're in the U.S."

But whether or not it's meant to create fear, according to Robert Chala, a volunteer human rights monitor with the San Francisco INS Watch during the second round of registration, people are scared. "They don't know what's going on. It's not a very orderly process, where if you go in with all your papers then you'll get out." He speculates that this may contribute to low turnout.

One side effect of such fear is that the detainees who've received the worst treatment may be too scared to talk about it. Many foreign nationals who have deportation hearings coming up fear retaliation from the INS if they say anything negative to the media. One Syrian man, who asked not to be named, said the whole thing has shaken his trust in the U.S. government. "I came here for a family wedding in 1995 and wasn't planning to live here, but there's such a big difference between here and the Middle East in terms of dignity, the way people are treated, that after a few months I did everything in my power to stay. I have a family visa application that was approved in May 2002 and I was just waiting for my green card."

But that didn't matter to the INS in San Francisco, he said. "After my first interview two officers came in, handcuffed me, and detained me without an arrest warrant. The INS said I'd overstayed my visa, even though I showed them a copy of my application approval." He spent the weekend in jail, because it took his family two days to scrape together the $5,000 for bond. "They took us to the federal jail at 3 a.m. and strip-searched us eight at a time. Told us to get out of our clothes, bend over and cough. It was really humiliating."

According to Mahvish Jafri, a Bay area Pakistani woman whose brother is active in Southern California protests, this is a common concern among the Arab American community right now. Although she was raised by activists and does not mind speaking out, "for a lot of people the idea is to keep your head down, don't attract attention to yourself."

Critics of Special Registration also argue that the program is simply ineffective as an anti-terrorism tactic. Says Shora of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, "Just from a national security standpoint, it's a dead argument. We're thinking retroactively instead of proactively in fighting this war. Our enemies are very evil, but unfortunately they're also very sophisticated and clever. They're not going to use the same kinds of people they used during the first attacks. Let's look at the suspects we do know about since then: Richard Reid, a British citizen, Moussaoui, a French citizen ... you could have a German citizen in a terrorist organization and we wouldn't even know."

Furthermore, we're angering our allies, says As'ad: "This is getting a lot of coverage in the Middle East. I am very worried. I feel less safe, and every American should feel less safe, because the actions of the government here and around the world have only increased the antipathy of many people." Pakistan, in particular, sees this as an affront, and has complained to Washington that as a partner in the war on terror, Pakistan should be removed from the registration list immediately.

If the INS Special Registration program continues to expand into the world of our allies, it can only provoke more ire around the world and at home. INS statements have tried to steer away from the question of whether there will be additional nations added to the program's list, or which nations they might be.

Asked directly whether the Special Registration program would add a fifth group of nations, Strassberger responds, "We've identified people that we have an interest in knowing something about, and more so just verifying that temporary visitors are here doing what they've said they've been doing."

But as the government has continued to add new countries to its list, at some point it may outstrip the limited focus Ashcroft originally outlined when he stated that Special Registration "will only apply to those individuals of elevated national security concern."

"Those who think that the violation of civil liberties and rights of Arabs and Muslims in America does not affect them should look carefully at the history of America," As'ad says. "Remember, it was Japanese Americans in the Second World War. Now it's Muslim Americans and Arab Americans. Who will it be in the future?"

By Laura McClure

Laura McClure is assistant news editor at Salon.

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Department Of Justice Immigration Immigration Reform