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More Facts and Details About the INS Roundups

By Laila Weir and Joe Rogers

SAN FRANCISCO‹Terri Algammal had no idea her husband Salem would be arrested when he complied with a government call for aliens from certain Middle Eastern and African countries to register at immigration offices.

Salem Algammal, who has lived in the U.S. since 1996, who has no criminal background and who has a pending green card, spent the week before Christmas in jail because he overstayed his visa before marrying Terri, an American born citizen.

³I couldnıt say too much because I was crying and the words wouldnıt come out,² said Algammal, remembering her husbandıs arrest at the Fresno office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. ³My mind was going 90 miles an hour. Whatıs the fate of my husband? Itıs a scary thing.²

Salem Algammalıs story is not unique. On the final day for the first phase of the recently announced special INS registration, at least 10 to 12 men were detained in San Francisco and 12 to 14 in San Jose, according to immigration lawyers who saw the detentions happen.

After several days in local jails, they were shackled and loaded onto military planes. The planes picked up additional prisoners in various states before winding up in Southern California more than 24 hours later, lawyers reported.

Many of the men were then held for several days in over-crowded detention centers in southern California, seven to a cell with no beds, before being released on an average of $5,000 bail after one week.

Many had just t-shirts to shield them from 50 degree temperatures as they slept on the floor, according to legal assistant Farhan Memon. Memon works for a lawyer representing 25 men arrested in the Bay Area.

The men could buy long-sleeved shirts, he said, but only after three daysı incarceration and only if they had enough money with them. Memon also reported each cell had just one toilet, and each man was issued just two pieces of toilet paper. The men have now been released, but must return in January for court proceedings against them, which may be held in secret.

Men scheduled to register in the next two phases of the special registration are nervous about showing up for fear they will face the same fate.

³People are going to be afraid to go in, afraid, with good reason, that theyıll be detained,² said Robin Goldfaden, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrantsı Rights Project in Oakland.

Under new U.S. immigration rules, men 16 and over from 20 designated countries must register with the government for fingerprinting, photographing, a background check by the FBI and other special tracking measures.

Nationals of the first five countries‹Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Sudan‹had to report by Dec. 16. Men from 13 more countries must register by Jan. 10 and those from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the most recent countries added to the list, must register by Jan. 13.

When the first round of registrants went to INS offices, many were arrested without bail, some for visa violations and others, whose visas were in order, for undisclosed reasons.

³Weıve been seeing people going in and not coming out,² said Goldfaden.

An INS spokesperson said the men detained were ³primarily overstays,² meaning their visas had expired but they continued to live in the U.S., in some cases for several years.

But immigration lawyers tell a different story. Legal assistant Memon described one Iranian client who is in the U.S. legally, working for a Silicon Valley company, and has a pending green card. Even though his work visa is in status, the INS held the man for a week without bail or a court date because he came to register two days after the deadline.

³He didnıt know,² said a friend of the man, explaining why he registered late. ³He just found out about it through the Internet and then he hauled butt down to the INS office.²

The man, a Christian, returned home just a day before Christmas. Though he has not violated his visa, he still had to post $5,000 bail and must return for a court date early in the new year.

In an interview, an INS spokesman maintained that no one would be detained for longer than necessary for the FBI to complete a background check. He called reports of eight-day detentions ³highly exaggerated,² insisting that the average detention time was less than two days.

Though some detainees said they had impeccable records, others did overstay their visas. Most of those had applied for green cards, or legal permanent residency, long before the INS announced special registration in November, and many have wives, children or parents who are American citizens, lawyers said.

More registrants were detained in the Los Angeles Area, but for a shorter period of time than the Bay Area men. Immigration lawyers estimate that at least 500 registrants were detained in or around Los Angeles. The INS put the number at 400. But the Los Angeles INS district supervisor reportedly began freeing detainees on bail after a protest outside the district office soon after the deadline.

In contrast, the San Francisco INS apparently did not set bail for northern California detainees for over a week.

³The San Francisco INS director is exercising his discretion unfavorably, not releasing people on bonds,² said San Francisco lawyer Nancy Hormachea.

A number of the Bay Area detainees were imprisoned in Otay Mesa outside of San Diego. Memon said that family members and lawyers of those men were denied visiting rights for two days, until network news cameras accompanied them to the holding facility.

The INS originally told lawyers the men would not get hearings before Jan. 9 because two of the three immigration judges in the San Diego district are on vacation. After a hastily organized protest outside the San Francisco INS a week after the detentions, however, the agency released most of the men.

At first, when attorneys contacted the INS about their detained clients, its database did not have a record of their detention, according to Memon.

³None of these people were in the INS computer system, so the INS response was, what detainees? We donıt have any detainees,² Memon told the San Francisco protesters. ³Theyıre not even in the INS computer system to start their legal process.²

The special registration is authorized under a previously unused provision of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. In August, Attorney General John Ashcroft issued rules to implement the provision and in November, the INS announced that registration would apply only to nationals of countries it deemed threats to national security.

Those countries are Libya, Syria, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Registrants are fingerprinted, photographed, and interviewed under oath, often by FBI agents as well as INS caseworkers. Several lawyers around the country reported that investigators also took their clientsı credit card, video rental and library card numbers.

³Under the Total Information Awareness Act, I think theyıre going to use this to track people, what books they read, what movies they rent,² said attorney Amy Peck of Omaha, Neb., in a telephone interview. She said investigators asked her clients to empty their wallets.

Other attorneys reported similar incidents on an American Immigration Lawyers Association email list.

Peck said that the INS also required her clients to provide the names and contact information of other people living in the U.S. who come from the same country of origin.

³Weıre back to McCarthyism,² she asserted. ³Give me the names of other people who are Communists like you. They make them sit there until they tell them.²

The ACLUıs Goldfaden challenged the legality of applying special registration to certain people based on national origin.

³It is difficult to bring profiling charges in the immigration world, but that doesnıt mean this particular exercise in profiling is legal,² she said. ³The fact that the government has moved so quickly that people havenıt been able to bring legal challenges doesnıt mean itıs legal.²

Special registration has been used once before when the government tracked Iranian students during and after the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. Then, registrants with visa problems were served with a court date rather than being jailed. (Lamis ­ our info on this is pretty second-hand. We need to confirm that this is true.)

Goldfaden also questioned the ethics behind special registration.

³There are significant morality problems with singling out people based on race, based on national origin, based on religion for different treatment without individualized suspicion,² she said. ³This isnıt doing much to foster lines of communication or a sense of trust.²

Critics also charge that special registration is not an effective way to combat terrorism. ³We think that anyone whoıs a terrorist wonıt participate in this program,² said Sara Campos, an attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. ³I think itıs not effective.²

³Thereıs no individualized suspicion,² said Goldfaden. ³Itıs just if youıre in this group, thatıs all the government cares about. The governmentıs been looking for a needle in a haystack and what theyıre doing here is just piling on more hay.

³Theyıve been bringing in thousands of people for fingerprinting, photographing and interviewing. I donıt know what theyıre going to do with this information; I donıt even know that the INS has the infrastructure to deal with all this information.²

Apparently, the INS was not prepared for the large volume of registrants. Lawyers and representatives of registrants reported that some men had reported to INS offices only to be turned away by officials who said they could not process them.

³They didnıt have enough officers,² said San Jose immigration attorney Saeed Ghaffari, who saw two of his own clients detained during phase one. ³They werenıt prepared for this many people.²

A spokesman for the national INS said the agency was not prepared for how many people waited until the deadline to register. Nevertheless, he said that the INS will not schedule extra staff to handle phases two and three, during which nationals of the other 15 countries will register.

Though the spokesman maintained the agency is ready to handle the high numbers of registrants who will appear in early January, Campos was doubtful.

Many immigration attorneys are predicting a low turnout for the phase two and three registrations. They think the fear of long detention without bail will keep most nonimmigrant aliens away from the INS office.

³I would think the government is doing a real disservice in terms of detaining people, in terms of sending a message to people, you might be detained if not everything is correct in your record,² said Campos.

³I think the government is shooting itself in the foot, discouraging people and frightening them. The way the government is going about it is not encouraging compliance.²

People from the 20 designated countries who fail to register for any reason, whether their visas are in order or not, will be subject to arrest, detention, fines and deportation, according to the rules promulgated by the INS.