Deadline for alien registry approaches
Published: Wednesday, January 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 31, 2002 at 9:13 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Muslims, Arab-Americans, civil libertarians and others are urging federal officials to refrain from wholesale arrests if visitors from countries considered high risks for harboring terrorists fail to meet deadlines for registering with the U.S. government.
Hundreds of people were detained in southern California two weeks ago when the registration deadline arrived for the first group of visa holders. That prompted angry demonstrations and a lawsuit against the federal government.
An official of the American Civil Liberties Union said those arrests may dissuade others from coming forward.
"It seems unlikely that a hardened terrorist is going to voluntarily register with the government," said Dalia Hashad, the ACLU's Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate. "What is more likely is that law-abiding people who were planning to register will now be afraid to come in because of the arrests."
Justice Department spokesman Jorge Martinez said no changes are planned because of the incidents in southern California.
He blamed them on a large concentration of Iranians waiting until the last day of the monthlong registration period. Only a few people were detained elsewhere in the country, he said.
"We saw a very successful registration period throughout the 29 other days," Martinez said.
Under a program enacted in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, some 24,200 men 16 and older from 20 countries are required to visit local Immigration and Naturalization Service offices to be photographed, fingerprinted and show certain documents.
Around 3,000 visitors from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan and Syria were required to register by Dec. 16. Another 7,200 men from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen must register by Jan. 10. An estimated 14,000 visitors from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have until Feb. 21.
Groups representing Muslims and Arab-Americans have asked the federal courts to prevent a repeat of what happened in California when the first deadline arrived. About 400 people were arrested. The vast majority were released within three days, while 23 were held longer because their names showed up on government law enforcement databases.
Martinez did not immediately return phone calls Tuesday seeking information on the status of the 23.
The arrests prompted angry protests, especially by the large Iranian-American population. They charged many of those held were in the process of becoming legal residents and that the visa violations were due to slow paperwork processing by the INS. They also said the arrests were done without warrants and the people detained were denied access to legal help and held in cramped cells.
A lawsuit seeking to block future detentions was filed last week in Los Angeles by groups representing Muslims, Arab-Americans, Iranian-Americans and Pakistani-Americans. They say the registration plan singles out Arabs and Muslims.
"This is all part of the post-9/11 syndrome, which confuses immigration policy and national security policy," said Hussein Ibish, a spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.
"It's really, in the end, counterproductive," he said. "If they want to register foreign nationals, let them do it without discrimination on the basis of their ancestry. Let them do it without arresting people who are legally in the country."
Martinez said the countries selected for the program are known to house al-Qaida or other terrorist groups and were chosen based strictly on national security concerns. The government wants to track visitors from those nations to make sure they are following the terms of their visas.
At least three of the Sept. 11 hijackers remained in the United States after their visas expired.
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