Articles and Essays by Mark Engler

    Treated Like a Criminal

    How the INS Stole Three Days of My Life

    My name is Behrooz Arshadi. I am forty-eight years old, and I work in marketing for a minority publication in Los Angeles. My wife and I came to this country in 1987. We were running from the situation in Iran, looking for a better life. We have a seven-year-old daughter, who was born in the United States.

    We’ve been applying for a green card for years. We’re at the end of the process, waiting for our interview. This fall, my lawyer told me the INS had ordered Iranian immigrants like me who were not U.S. citizens to report in. I decided to go on the last day, Monday, December 16.

    I arrived at INS at about 10 a.m. There was a long line, and I had to wait and wait and wait. INS officers finally interviewed me about seven hours later for about twenty minutes. They asked me all the questions they already knew, basic questions that I had provided answers to long ago. They already had them in my file: “What is your mother’s name? Your father’s name? Where do they live?”

    One agent asked me to wait. After about half an hour, an officer came and said, “You will have to be detained.”


    “Although you are married to an American citizen, you are out of status.”

    I was shocked. I’m not married to an American. Obviously, the guy didn’t know what he was talking about. He didn’t know anything about my case.

    Though he didn’t charge me with any crime, he handcuffed me and took me downstairs. They put me in what they called a “tank,” and there were six such tanks. Inside, it was thirty-by-thirty, with eighty to ninety people inside. It was so crowded. The tank had two benches next to the wall and two open toilets. There wasn’t space even to sit.

    At one point, they took us out for fingerprinting and photos, and they made us put all our belongings in a bag–our ties, our watches, whatever we had. We kept only our clothes because they didn’t provide any.

    Other than that processing, they kept us in the tank until 5 a.m. They didn’t talk to us. They didn’t tell us what they were doing, why we were there, why they detained us. And they didn’t give us blankets or warm clothing or anything. It was very cold. I was wearing my regular suit. This is Southern California, so it’s a light suit. The air conditioning was going all the time. People were shivering. No one had a bed to sleep on. You couldn’t even sit.

    At about 5 a.m., they chained us all and took us by bus to the Pasadena jail about twenty minutes away. They put us in regular cells. We slept there, but only for a half hour. Then they woke us up for breakfast. I felt terrible. I hadn’t slept the whole night.

    Later, they took us back to the INS. To keep us busy, they moved us from tank to tank every few hours. Counting us and counting us and counting us. I imagine we were about 500, maybe 600, people. Some had come to the INS to register on Thursday or Friday of the previous week. And they were still waiting. Then there was collective punishment: If someone said something, the INS agents would make the whole group stand and wait for an extra hour.

    The tanks had phones, so I called my wife and my lawyer. They were working to get me out on bond. I had to make collect calls. Later on, I found out it was $4 or even $6 for a call. The officers wouldn’t say anything to us about our cases, about what we had to do, about what would happen next. Anything. It went on again until 5 a.m. the next day. It was very cold.

    This time, they took us to San Pedro prison. When we arrived, they gave us clothes and blankets. It was also the first time I’d had coffee in all this time. They let us sleep for one hour, then walked us around the yard.

    After that, we went back to the INS. It was 7 p.m. before they interviewed me again, this time for about five minutes. “What is your father’s name? What is your mother’s name? Where are you working?”

    At 5 a.m. on Thursday morning, they sent us to Lancaster County jail. They stripped us buck-naked. They looked under our testicles. Under our tongues. Butts. Wherever. Then they gave us t-shirts and jumpsuits and put us in cells. There were showers. It was the first time I had a shower in three days.

    They finally decided to release us without bail. But they told us we had to go back within one month to post bail. I don’t think they wanted to keep us longer than seventy-two hours because then they would have had to charge us. They never charged me with anything. They said I would receive a letter from the INS. They call it a notice to appear in court, in front of a judge. They made me sign for it.

    I received a letter in the middle of January saying that they had carefully reviewed my case. They canceled my bail and the notice to appear in court. I just had to appear for my regular green card interview. My case was back where it was before, and the INS had stolen three days of my life.

    What was the purpose? The people who are coming for these registrations are trying to comply with the law. They’re working people, good people, people with families. We were not criminals, but they treated us like that.

    I wish what happened to me will never happen to anyone else. They didn’t beat us up or anything like that. They didn’t need to beat us. Whatever they did was enough to crush us. I slept only four hours during that time. I felt total frustration.

    On Thursday, I was one of the last ones released. They finished processing me at about midnight. They released a group of us to the Metrolink station in Lancaster. We were waiting to go to the train and an officer said to us, “Are you citizens of the United States?”

    We laughed and said no.

    The officer said, “Then why don’t you go back to your fucking country?”

    I didn’t tell my daughter where I had been. I didn’t want her to worry about me being in jail–which she knows as a place for bad people, for criminals.

    I told her that I went to see a friend in San Diego.

    Behrooz Arshadi gave this account in an interview conducted by Mark Engler. Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus, is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the web site

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