by Mark Engler and Saurav
The Progressive magazine,
On January 10, hundreds of brown-skinned
men and boys filled Room 310 of 26 Federal Plaza in New York City.
The day marked the deadline for the second round of the INS's
Special Registration program, a new initiative requiring many
non-U.S. citizens from selected Muslim countries to appear for
fingerprinting, photographs, and interrogation under oath.
The men, who came before the INS of their
own accord, had already withstood the winter cold in a line that
extended around the block. In
Room 310, they waited hours more, not
knowing if a violation as minor as not reporting an address change
within ten days of moving would cause their lives to be uprooted
from the United States.
Immigrants waited in such rooms throughout
the country, not as the consequence of any new law debated publicly
and voted through Congress but by virtue of a policy imposed by
the Department of Justice.
For many people, the price of Attorney
General John Ashcroft's policy has been more than just waiting
in long lines. Special Registration first made headlines in December,
when the INS detained more than 500 men, most of them in Southern
California. The vast majority of those detained- an estimated
95 percent, according to some immigration lawyers-had applications
for legal permanent residence pending with the INS.
Special Registration, officially known
as "Special Call-In Registration," requires tens of
thousands of noncitizen men and boys, ages sixteen and older,
from twenty-six countries to appear at designated INS offices.
The vast majority of required registrants entered the United States
on tourist, work, or student visas. Green-card holders, people
granted asylum, and several other categories of noncitizens are
exempt from the requirement.
The program began in earnest on November
6, when Ashcroft issued the first federal notice calling for nationals
from five Muslim countries-Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Sudan
to register on or before December 16. The government subsequently
announced the second, third, and fourth rounds of the program,
with deadlines extending through March.
A world map of countries whose citizens
are affected by Special Registration now overlaps almost exactly
with the map of Muslim-majority countries, extending from Algeria
to Indonesia. The only non-Muslim country included is North Korea.
The government classifies Special Registration
as the domestic component of National Security Entry-Exit Registration
System, which tracks noncitizens through airports and other entries
into the United States. The Justice Department claims that the
Special Registration program has historical precedents that go
back to the 1940 Alien Registration Act and the 1952 Immigration
and Nationality Act. But its current implementation, particularly
the decisions about which countries' citizens or nationals would
be called before the INS, relies on post-9/11 rationales.
"With each case, a cost-benefit analysis
is made of the number of people that would be asked to come in,"
says Kris Kobach, counsel to the Attorney General. "The likelihood
of a terrorist or a person who's committed other crimes coming
in has to be weighed."
"Terrorists can come from anywhere,"
responds Sabiha Khan, Southern California spokesperson for the
Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Khan points to current
suspects from France, Jamaica, and the United States. Criminals
such as Timothy McVeigh also confound Ashcroft's Muslim-only focus.
What's more, the Bush Administration's
reasoning seems to rely on the peculiar belief that terrorists
and potential terrorists will walk into an INS office simply because
they are asked to. "By devoting an incredible amount of resources
to Special Registration, the INS may be adding to the size of
the haystack, but they're not getting any closer to the dangerous
needles," says Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of
the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "People are
being asked stupid questions, like 'Are you a terrorist?' She
Against accusations of profiling on the
basis of religion and ethnicity, the Department of Justice insists
that it intends to add a wide range of nationalities to its registration
list. However, the government quickly dropped Armenia from the
countries named in its third round. That decision partially reflected
an aggressive grassroots lobbying campaign by the Armenian National
Committee of America, which reports generating 10,000 faxes to
the White House within twenty-four hours. But many have suggested
that the prompt reversal shows that the Department of Justice
never prioritized Armenia, a predominantly Christian country,
and included it primarily to blunt domestic criticism.
"They keep saying that they will
add more non-Muslim countries," says Khan. "We'll see
what really happens."
Within days of the December 16 detentions,
thousands of Iranians and Iranian Americans gathered in Los Angeles
for the first of a series of protests and town hall meetings that
have taken place across the country. Demonstrators provided the
antidetention movement with the rallying cry, "What's Next?
Concentration Camps?" John Tateishi, executive director of
the Japanese American Citizens League, says the justification
for Special Registration is the same one the government used in
1942. "The current situation isn't all that different"
from the one that led to the internment of Japanese Americans
during World War II, Tateishi says.
The INS admitted on January 16 to detaining
1,169 people under Special Registration, and to issuing "orders
to appear" for deportation proceedings to twice that many-
approximately 10 percent of the 24,000 people who came to register
by mid-January. Lawsuits and public outrage have prompted the
INS to say it will lighten the heavy-handed response of its first
round of registration. "It does appear the process was not
as smooth as we would have liked it to have been," INS spokesperson
Francisco Arcuate told reporters. "If all is in order, they
are allowed to go on their merry way."
But despite such assurances, immigrants
continue to be harassed and detained for minor visa violations.
In January, the INS detained Khurram Ali, twenty-two, an engineering
student at Hunter College in New York, for not paying his college
fees, according to wire service reports. Another student in Colorado
was jailed in late December for being one credit hour short of
his visa requirement, having dropped a course earlier in the semester
with the college's permission. On January 28, Ejaz Haider, an
editor at one of Pakistan's most prominent newspapers and a visiting
scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, was pulled
off a D.C. street by two INS agents and temporarily held at the
INS detention center in Alexandria, Virginia, for allegedly missing
a deadline to report to the agency.
Such stories have sparked widespread consternation
and fear in affected communities. "In Little Pakistan, on
Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, the grocery stores, money changers,
restaurants, insurance offices, clothing and jewelry stores look
deserted," writes the Pakistan Post. "It's not just
a lack of customers; many of the shop owners themselves have fled
to Canada." Says one family head interviewed by the paper,
"We never thought we would flee America."
During a recent visit to the neighborhood,
we interviewed a man holding a green card. He said he had previously
saved $100,000 to put down on a new home in the area. Now, he
said, "I am saving it for when I get detained." He added
that he and others were worried that after the current targets,
the Bush Administration "would come after green-card holders
and then citizens." Another woman, a store owner in the neighborhood,
argued: "We should register so they can lock us up?"
Given that the INS's increasingly backlogged
caseloads already contain detailed information on most people
subject to Registration, the value of the data it has brought
in appears minimal compared with the program's chilling effect.
"In real honest-to-God police work,
where you want to catch bad guys, you better have intelligence
coming from the streets-people informing you about what's going
on," says law professor David Harris, author of Profiles
in Injustice. "Like other forms of racial profiling, the
Registration program is creating the type of distrust that stops
people from coming forward to the police with information."
"The government really hurt its relationship
with the American Muslim community," says CAIR's Khan. "We're
telling the world that we're friendly with Muslims and we want
to work with Muslim countries to fight terrorism. But when people
are jailed, that sends a much louder message."
For Muslim immigrants, Special Registration
is a kind of Catch-22: They- risk possible detention and deportation
if they come forward. And they face criminal penalties if they
"If your goal is to make tens of
thousands of Muslim males easily deportable, then you may be accomplishing
that," says Butterfield. "You don't have to round everyone
up and put them in internment camps if you can deport them all
or if you can set up policies so onerous that people vote with
their feet and stay away."
Mark Engler is a writer based in Brooklyn,
New York. He can be reached at email@example.com. Saurav Sarkar
is an organizer on 9/11 detention issues for the Asian American
Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City.