Special Registration represents the most recent of the Federal Government’s escalating attacks on immigrant communities.
Published in the March 2003 edition of The Progressive.
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. Behrooz Arshadi, a 48 year-old husband and father whose seven year-old daughter was born in the United States, was among those arrested. Arshadi spent much of the three days that he was detained crammed into frigid holding “tanks” with as many as 90 other men. “There wasn’t space even to sit,” he says. At various points, the detainees were shackled, strip searched, and shuffled between different prisons in the Los Angeles area. “I slept only four hours during that time,” says Arshadi. “I was devastated.”
Like the vast majority of those detained—an estimated 95% according to some immigration lawyers — Mr. Arshadi had an application for legal permanent residence pending with the INS. He was never charged with any crime and still awaits the interview that will allow him to receive the green card that he has sought throughout his stay as a visa-holder in the country.
“I’m here for more than ten years, and then I’m supposedly a threat to the United States?” he asks. “It’s not logical. It’s not right.”
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 Registry System (NSEERS), 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 in Islamic-American 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 Foundation (AILF). “People are being asked stupid questions, like ‘Are you a terrorist?'” She pauses: “Hello!?”
“The people who are coming for these registrations are trying to comply with the law. They’re working people, good people, people with families,” says Behrooz Arshadi. “But the INS is treating us like criminals.”
Against accusations of profiling on the basis or 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 Sabiha Khan. “We’ll see what really happens.”
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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 anti-detention movement with the rallying cry, “What’s Next? Concentration Camps?” John Tateishi, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), 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 Two, Tateishi says.
The INS admits to detaining 1,169 people under Special Registration, and it issued “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 soften 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 dues, 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 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?”
These examples show how registration carries the cost of alienating entire communities which, rightly or wrongly, the Justice Department regards as having insider knowledge of terrorist activities in the United States. “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.”
* * * * *
The Special Registration program is not unique in targeting communities with large numbers of Muslim noncitizens, particularly those from the Middle East and South Asia. Under John Ashcroft, the Department of Justice has instituted several domestic initiatives that rely primarily on the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, both dating from 1996, and its own creative interpretations of what is legal and what is not.
Granting itself wide discretion in so-called “Special Interest” cases, the Bush Administration has secretly rounded up, detained, tried, and possibly deported hundreds if not thousands of immigrants from targeted countries since 9/11. Additionally, through its “Voluntary Interview” program, it has interrogated thousands of young men, who were not suspected of any crimes but who were from the Middle East, almost always without the presence of an attorney.
“Holding people without presenting the charges against them— without allowing them to confront the evidence—strikes against the bedrock of American values,” says David Harris. “It’s being used almost exclusively against Muslims.”
Similarly problematic selectivity has guided the Alien Absconder Initiative, whose stated purpose is to find the 300,000 people who have outstanding orders of deportation. The approximately 6,000 people prioritized by the Bush Administration mirror those subject to Special Registration, with the one exception of Filipinos. For some reason, the Administration’s understanding of “al Qaeda-harboring countries” used to justify selective enforcement of the Absconder Initiative has not covered individuals from countries like U.K., Germany, and Spain, all of which were home to 9/11 terrorists.
These and other immigration programs implemented since 9/11 share several common traits: Each was created by Bush Administration fiat, not by new laws, with little public discussion of their impact on national security or immigrant communities. And each is predicated on the idea that national security is best improved by enforcing the tangled web of U.S. immigration law rigidly and in a selective manner, without regard to fairness or due process.
AILF director Jeanne Butterfield argues that the policies “illustrate a paradigm shift that we have undergone since 9/11 where—despite some lip service to contrary—immigration is being viewed first and foremost as a matter of national security, rather than as a positive force.”
Ironically, by diverting significant resources to programs like Special Registration, the Department of Justice has greatly exacerbated the backlog of applications before the INS. Many of the same people harassed or held during Registration fell out of status while waiting-often for years-for the government to respond to their cases. As Peter Schey, President of the Center for Human and Constitutional Law explains, “The INS already knew these people’s backgrounds, where they were living, where they work.”
“The program accomplishes absolutely nothing,” he states.
But if Special Registration fails to collect useful information, it does create a Catch-22 for immigrants. Those who voluntarily comply with the program risk INS agents finding minor violations that could send them to deportation proceedings. Those who choose not to register—including a growing number of people who have been frightened by the news of past mass arrests—face possible criminal proceedings and exile if they are ever apprehended.
“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.”
Past midnight, seventy-two hours after he was first arrested, Behrooz Arshadi was released with a group of other detainees at a train station some 40 miles north of Los Angeles. He remembers: “The officer who took us to the station asked, ‘Are you citizens of the United States?’ We laughed and we said, ‘No.'”
“The officer said, ‘Then why don’t you go back to your fucking country.'”
Arshadi adds, “I didn’t tell my daughter where I was that week. I don’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.”
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Wikipedia Commons.