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Muslim men register warily under U.S. requirement as terror precaution

Sunday, March 16, 2003

By Lillian Thomas, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In Room 314 of the federal building Downtown, Muslim men wait in rows of gray chairs each day to be fingerprinted, photographed and questioned under oath about their immigration status, their families and their finances.

Saleh Waziruddin, 25, a Pakistani who is a citizen of Canada and a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, has spoken up against the Special Registration program, helped organize a protest against the policy and is working with the effort to get legal assistance for all who have to register. (Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette)

"You sign in, you get a number, then are called to a window," said a Saudi graduate student who recently went through what's called Special Registration, a program aimed at registering men -- no women -- in the United States who are citizens or nationals of 25 countries identified by the Justice Department as bases for terrorist groups.

Friday is the deadline for the third group required to register, men from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

"An agent takes your passport," said the 31-year-old, who asked that his name not be used but who described the process in detail: After waiting and watching for a door at the rear of the room to open, he was escorted to an area of cubicles where his documents were reviewed.

Next, he was asked where he was born, the names and addresses of his parents, as well as their birth dates. In addition, he was asked for credit card and bank account numbers. Although officials sometimes ask questions about "national security or law enforcement nature," the Saudi wasn't asked.

Finally, he was fingerprinted, photographed and given a registration stamp.

The men found to have violated the terms of their visas (by overstaying the time limit or not carrying the number of classes required for a student visa, for example) are usually taken for further questioning. Those found to be "out of status" are detained and either held in jail or let out on bond to await deportation proceedings.

The Special Registration program was announced by the Justice Department late last year with so little fanfare that many in the first group required to register didn't learn about it until their deadline had passed.

In December, Immigration and Naturalization Service officials in California detained more than 400 men who were attempting to register, handcuffing them and herding them into the Los Angeles federal building's basement lockup. That instantly spread the word about the program throughout communities of aliens from the 25 countries on the list which, with the exception of North Korea, are predominantly Muslim.

"If you were called down -- you, a European-American who's a citizen -- if you got a call to come down to some government office, you'd be a little bit nervous," said Vic Walczak, legal director of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Americans Civil Liberties Union. "But many of the registrants come from countries where responding to a call from the government could be your last volitional act. In many places, people are called to the police station and never emerge, or come out missing limbs. There is a real distrust and fear of government."

When he and immigration attorney Robert Whitehill gave a presentation on Special Registration in December, they ran right into that fear.

"I'm looking out on an audience of 150 people, the vast majority of them Arab-looking males, and the stress and anxiety on their faces was palpable," said Walczak.

 
 
Registration deadlines: Two to go

Special registration started with male aliens (nonimmigrant visitors to the United States) over the age of 16 who are citizens or nationals of five countries: Iraq, Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya.

The second group of countries includes Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Deadlines for both these groups have passed.

Group III, with a registration deadline of Friday, consists of aliens from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Group IV countries are Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Jordan and Kuwait. The deadline is April 25.

Men from the affected countries who are just coming to the United States will be registered in the ports where they arrive. Those already here must appear at Bureau of Citizenship and Immigrant Services (formerly Immigration and Naturalization Service) offices to be photographed, fingerprinted and interrogated.

Those who register are required to return each year for an interview; to report changes of address, employment and school; and to depart and enter the country from only designated ports.

Information required at the interviews includes documentation showing that the person is legally in the country, personal data, information on the person's parents (including their dates of birth and addresses and phone numbers), credit card and bank account numbers. Registrants are permitted to bring a lawyer and a translator if necessary.

If his immigration status is in order, the person will be given a registration number and have his documentation stamped, indicating he is registered. If he is in violation of immigration rules, he will be detained, and either held in jail or released on bond to await deportation proceedings.

"For the purpose of the interview, it is in your favor to think creatively and to bring as much documentation as possible," reads a portion of the BCIS Web page on Special Registration. "You may also be asked additional questions of a national security or law enforcement nature."

Those who do not follow these procedures "may be subject to arrest, detention, fines and/or removal from the United States," according to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. "Any future application for an immigration benefit from the United States may be adversely impacted."

   
 

Members of the Muslim community, the ACLU and immigration attorneys quickly organized to explain the process, get the word out among those required to register and recruit lawyers to work with them. About 70 lawyers have volunteered to offer their services free as part of the program organized by the ACLU and the Pittsburgh Regional Immigrant Assistance Center, a division of Jewish Family and Children's Services in Squirrel Hill.

Last Sunday, lawyers who volunteered went to the Islamic Center in Oakland for a training session on Special Registration. Afterward, eight lawyers met with men who have not yet registered to advise them and make plans to accompany them to their interviews in the federal building.

Won't disclose local data

The Justice Department announced Special Registration as a component of the effort to identify potential terrorists. Under criticism that the program amounted to profiling -- singling people out based on race, religion or national identity-- spokesman Jorge E. Martinez said in January that the countries were chosen because intelligence information indicated a presence of al-Qaida or other terrorist organizations there.

The INS ceased to exist March 1 and its employees and services were put under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The newly created Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services is handling Special Registration.

As of last week, 88,989 people had registered, about half in ports of entry, the other half at INS (or BCIS) offices, according to BCIS spokesperson Amy Otten. Officials have detained 1,745 of them for not being in compliance with immigration regulations, and issued 4,825 notices to appear before immigration authorities for immigration rule violations.

The program has resulted in the arrest of 46 people on criminal charges. Asked if any of those arrests were terrorism-related, Otten said: "Not that I'm aware of. That's not provided." She said she could not provide numbers of people registered or detained for local BCIS offices. George Hess, the agent in charge of the Pittsburgh BCIS, said he was not permitted to give out local data.

Officials now seem to be de-emphasizing the terror component, instead characterizing the program as the first step in keeping track of all nonimmigrant visitors to the United States.

"The purpose actually is to register people who are here legally to make sure they get into the system so we can make sure they leave, or if they don't leave, we know about it," said Otten. "By 2005, we will end up with a complete entry-exit system.

That does not mean, however, that the estimated 35 million nonimmigrants who enter the country each year will have to register in the same way. "The system is not necessarily going to be universal. I don't think we necessarily know what it will look like," said Otten.

But critics ask that if this program isn't about fighting terrorism, then why are some groups being singled out for attention. For example, why isn't the government tracking women, or how were the first 25 countries chosen for inclusion. Otten said the Justice Department made those decisions and she could not comment.

During their interviews, registrants must provide names, birth dates, addresses and phone numbers for their parents. That would seem to suggest the U.S. government wants the means to track visitors after they return home.

Registrants also must give bank account numbers and credit card numbers as well as any other "identifying numbers."

Gina Godfrey of the Pittsburgh Regional Immigrant Assistance Center said she had never been given a rationale for that requirement.

"I don't know if they're checking to see if the person is buying bomb-making equipment," she said.

Critics say it's a clumsy way to try to snare terrorists.

"If you're a terrorist, either you'll be sure your papers are in order and they're not going to find anything, or if there's something suspicious about your background, you won't go in to register," said the ACLU's Walczak.

'Picking on one group'

Otten said the agency was not relying exclusively on people voluntarily coming forward. "We have our agents out on the street, we get information from a variety of sources," said Otten. "If people [who have not registered] come to our attention, we'll visit them."

Though there have been complaints of heavy-handedness in other cities, those who have registered in Pittsburgh say agents here are professional and that it is more a bureaucratic hassle than anything.

Immigration lawyer Robert Whitehill says Special Registration is transforming an already bureaucratic system into one "that is intimidating, is humiliating." But, he said, there are no clear legal grounds for challenging Special Registration.

"While for many purposes an alien in the U.S. is entitled to the rights of a citizen, fundamentally, requiring registration has withstood the test of time," he said. Iranian students had to go into INS offices to answer questions during the hostage crisis of 1979-81, for example.

Nevertheless, he said, "It offends my sense of what it means to be American. Whatever they say, of course it's picking on one group. The arguments that it's just part of a program that's eventually going to include more groups may hold legal water, but the consequences are going to take years and years to repair."

Those effects could include deterioration of international relations, people deciding against coming to the United States, and distrust and anxiety among immigrant communities.

All but one of the dozen men interviewed for this article asked that their names not be used, including some involved in organizing last week's seminar. They said some of their fellow students declined to attend the seminar, asking to meet one-on-one with an attorney rather than going to a public gathering.

Saleh Waziruddin, 25, a Pakistani who is a citizen of Canada and a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, has spoken up against Special Registration, helped organize a protest against the policy and is working with the effort to get legal assistance for all who have to register. But he didn't want to be public about his efforts at first, he said, and understood why others are reluctant.

"I did have qualms about it. And others have the same qualms."

"A threat to humanity"

A Saudi graduate student studying at the University of Pittsburgh recalled his registration experience. He had to register at JFK Airport after a recent visit home.

"After a flight of 15 hours from Saudi Arabia, we were directed to a room with about 50 seats in it. There were about 250 people in the room from my flight," said the 27-year-old. "There was no place to get anything to eat, except a vending machine that was broken." He, his wife and his children, ages 2 and 4, waited from 9 a.m. until 4:30 p.m., missing their flight to Pittsburgh.

He was anxious, he said, but his parents -- awaiting his call confirming his arrival -- were frantic. Though Special Registration has received little attention in the United States, in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and many other countries, it is front-page news. During his visit, he said, "I had spent many hours trying to convince my parents it was OK to go back."

When he finally arrived in Pittsburgh and called his parents, "The first words from my father were, 'You told me I didn't have to worry.' "

Saudi students said friends who had scholarships and were choosing where to attend graduate school were switching from schools in the United States to England, Canada and Australia.

Some students in Pittsburgh said they were considering returning home or transferring.

Another Saudi, a 30-year-old, electrical-engineering graduate student at Pitt, said he wanted to visit his father, who has been ill. But he's been putting it off. "Believe me, I'm afraid I won't be able to come back." Students fear that if they've increased their number of work-study hours beyond what's allowed or dropped a course or gotten a parking ticket, they could be found to be "out-of-status" and deported, he said.

"I understand that the situation is tough," he said. "There is a threat to the U.S. I think it's a threat to humanity. If there is reason to interview someone because of suspicious behavior, that's fine. But I don't think it's right, I don't think it's fair, to interview everyone."

Whitehill echoed the feelings of others who remembered that other ugly episodes of discrimination and worse started with such measures. There was a registration program for people of Japanese descent before internment began during World War II, for example.

"And that's the way it started in Germany," said Whitehill. "I'm Jewish. That resonates."


Lillian Thomas can be reached at lthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3566.

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