WASHINGTON - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is calling for Congress to conduct a full investigation of the Justice Department's immigrant registration program that has resulted in hundreds of arrests of mainly Muslims and Arabs around the country on minor immigration infractions or following botched official procedures.
The ACLU and dozens of other civil liberties, church, human rights, immigration, and Muslim- and Arab-American groups have also called on President George W. Bush to immediately end the program, which they said runs counter to the basic principles on which the United States was founded.
"This registration program is an extended vacation from common sense," said Dalia Hashad, ACLU's Arab, Muslim and South Asian Advocate. "Not only does it undercut core American conceptions of law and basic decency - it reduces security by alienating the very communities whose cooperation is essential in the fight against terrorism."
The program, which is being carried out in three stages, requires all male, U.S.-based non-citizens aged between 16 and 45 and hailing from 20 countries deemed potential sponsors or sources of terrorism to report to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to be fingerprinted and photographed and to present all visa documents for inspection.
By December 16, immigrants from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria, were supposed to register. By last Friday, immigrants from 13 more countries--Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Eritrea, Lebanon, Morocco, North Korea, Oman, Qatar, Somalia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Yemen--were to have registered. Citizens of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan will be required to register by February 21.
When thousands of men presented themselves as required in December, the INS was largely unprepared to handle their registration, according to media reports published at the time. In some INS offices, only one official was available to register thousands of people, while in others INS officials refused to permit attorneys to accompany their clients.
INS officers in southern California detained hundreds of men and boys at overcrowded centers and local jails for up to three days on suspicion of minor visa violations, even though many of them were awaiting decisions on applications for permanent residency status. Others were detained due to lack of staff at INS centers following Justice Department instructions that processing should be completed before those being registered could leave.
In anticipation of a similar fiasco last Friday, the ACLU and other civil rights groups posted monitors at various processing centers last week. Still, scores were reported arrested in various INS offices around the country. All 10 clients of one attorney in the Washington, D.C. area, were arrested at a Virginia INS office Friday, according to the Washington Post which reported that all of them were in the process of applying for work permits, but that neither the INS nor the Labor Department, which process the applications, had completed the paperwork.
"This whole thing is a round-up," said Timothy Edgar, an ACLU legislative counsel. "Attorney General [John] Ashcroft is using the immigrant registration program as a pretense to lock people up whose only offense was having their green card application get lost in the bureaucratic morass that is the INS."
On December 24, Ashcroft and the INS were sued by a coalition of Arab and Muslim groups--including the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), the Alliance of Iranian Americans, and the National Council of Pakistani Americans--to halt the program on the grounds that it violates basic due-process rights and that mass arrests will inhibit compliance with any voluntary registration program.
As an anti-terrorist tool, the program is counterproductive because "no undocumented terrorist will come forward" to register, noted Peter Schey, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law who is leading a team of lawyers representing the plaintiffs.
"Special registration is a false solution to a real problem," according to the letter to Bush sent last Thursday by the ACLU and dozens of other groups, including the ADC, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights.
"We urge you to implement initiatives that address our security concerns, but also are effective and effectively implemented," the groups wrote. "These initiatives should target terrorists, not innocent immigrants, so as not to alienate communities whose cooperation is needed."
Copyright 2003 OneWorld.net