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Consumer Reports

U.S. detains hundreds of Muslim aliens: ACLU, others not happy | (UPI) -- The Immigration and Naturalization Service said Friday that it has detained about 400 Muslim foreigners nationwide who had approached the agency for registration.

Advocacy groups say the numbers are much higher than that.

"A large number of them were out of status," Justice Department Spokesman Jorge Martinez told United Press International of the men detained. "It is the duty and the responsibility of the INS to temporarily detain those who are found out of status."

Those detained were reporting under a program which requires non immigrant visa holding men over 16 years of age who are nationals of 18 mainly Muslim countries to be photographed, fingerprinted and interviewed.

Previously, Justice Department officials had said that the majority of those detained were held because the INS could not process unexpectedly large numbers of registrants quickly enough.

The detentions brought a wave of criticism and protest from Muslim and civil rights organizations, especially in southern California, where the majority of detentions took place. Advocates warned that the detentions might scare visitors away from registering, leaving them open to deportation.

On the first anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the U.S. government launched the National Security Entry Exit Registration System, targeting all adult male visitors from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria and Sudan. An additional 13 countries were added to the list in October.

More than 3,000 men from the five countries needed to register by Monday evening, to have their identities compared with listings in a database of terrorist connections. Those who do not register can be deported.

Another group of more than 7,000 males from 13 other nations -- Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen and North Korea -- are required to register by Jan. 10.

Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were added to the list earlier this week. Citizens of both nations visiting the United States must register with the INS between Jan. 13 and Feb. 21.

Martinez said the INS will continue to hold out-of-status aliens for national security checks and "unless the check turns up anything negative, we have and will continue to release them (on bail)as well."

He described the situation in southern California as "unique, not seen anywhere else in the country."

"Lots of people waited till the last minute, the last date, Dec. 16, although they had 30 days to register," said Martinez.

Most of those detained were of Iranian origin. Southern California is home to more than 600,000 Iranian exiles and their families.

Martinez said a large number of those who came for registration on the last day were out of status. "And everyone who is out of status has to appear before a judge." He said those who do not have papers but are eligible to become legal residents could be accommodated but "this has to be decided by an immigration judge on the case-to-case basis."

But a Muslim advocacy group -- the Council on American-Islamic Relations -- said it was "dismayed and shocked" at the "arrests, detentions and treatment" of Muslims in Texas and California.

Quoting immigration lawyers, the Washington-based Muslim group said throughout the country people are "being asked questions about mosque attendance, their political views and other personal information."

"Some are being strip-searched, shackled and given inadequate clothing."

INS officials reject these charges.

In a recent statement the American Civil Liberties Union questioned the effectiveness of the registration program.

"The INS is wasting an incredible amount of government resources in rounding up these men," said Dalia Hashad, the ACLU's Arab, Muslim and South Asian advocate.

"It seems unlikely that a hardened terrorist is going to voluntarily register with the government," she added. "What is more likely is that law-abiding people who were planning to register will now be afraid to come in because of the arrests, and the INS will use that as an excuse to deport them."

The ACLU and some Muslim groups also dispute the INS figures about the numbers detained.

"We received hundreds of complaints during the last three days," says Aslam Abdullah, member of the executive board of the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

The American Civil Liberties Union says 700 were arrested in California alone, "while it remains unclear how many others have been detained across the country."

ACLU said that "a full one-quarter of all those who complied with the program were arrested in Los Angeles."

Iranians appear to be the most affected, followed by Arabs and Afghans.

In Los Angeles, the arrests sparked a demonstration by hundreds of Iranians outside an immigration office on Wednesday.

The protesters carried banners saying, "What's next? Concentration camps?" and "What happened to liberty and justice?"

Hussein Ibish, communications director for the American-Arab Anti-Defamation Committee, who has been working in Southern California with aliens attempting to register, said the situation in "California is particularly bad."

"Los Angles and Orange County are a disaster area," he said. "It's a combination of long lines, and the INS zeal. It's clear that the INS is applying the rules and laws with a strictness that is uncommon is other parts of the country."

He said minor violations that would otherwise be excused or ignored were leading to arrests and threats of deportations.

ACLU said the INS arrested men who were "simply waiting for approval of their green card applications, or those with minor visa problems caused by incompetence in the agency itself, which has been plagued by an inept bureaucracy for years."

Officials at the U.S. Justice Department in Washington confirmed that "otherwise legal and law abiding residents" have been detained for minor violations. But one official said the action was needed to prevent future terrorist attacks.

"Since the aliens in question were from countries that were considered by the United States to be state sponsors of terrorism, no chances would be taken," he said.

"We don't want to detain guys with minor violations for 90 days and see them deported," he said. "But after the Sept. 11 attacks -- which were done by legal aliens -- we cannot take a chance of anyone we had in custody being released and then committing some act. That can never happen again."

Nihal Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said all major Muslim organizations in the United States had been "urging the INS to extend the deadline but they refused to listen."

An INS spokesman, Jorge Martinez, also confirmed that the department had received requests for extension but said: "We are giving no extensions. Individuals cases are being accommodated on medical and other grounds but no extensions."

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