Ashcroft's Roundup

by Mark Engler and Saurav Sarkar

The Progressive magazine, March 2003


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 pauses: "Hello!?"

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 don't.

"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 Saurav Sarkar is an organizer on 9/11 detention issues for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City.

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