FORT WORTH, Texas -- - People seeking asylum in the United States after fleeing Iraq, Iran and other countries known to harbor terrorism will be held in government custody as part of new security measures announced on Tuesday.
The asylum measure was mentioned in a description of Operation Liberty Shield released by the Department of Homeland Security this week and discussed by Secretary Tom Ridge on Tuesday.
The government describes the effort as a "reasonable and prudent temporary action" that allows U.S. authorities to keep in touch with people seeking asylum during their processing period while their claims are reviewed.
On Tuesday, the measure evolved into an area of deep concern for civil rights and Muslim groups.
"You can't assume a person seeking asylum from those countries is going to be more of a threat," said Carol Khawly, a legal adviser for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C.
An asylum applicant is typically a person who has been persecuted in his or her homeland. The applicant is already in the United States when seeking asylum, having entered the country either on a temporary visa or illegally.
These immigrants often wait several months for a court to decide whether they will be granted asylum, said Aimed Aquino, director of refugee services for Catholic Charities Diocese of Fort Worth Inc.
"Before these people are granted asylum, they are without any rights in this country," he said, noting that a long detention during this process is a human rights issue.
One national group - the Lawyers Committee for Human Right's Asylum program - said the latest effort makes a mockery of shielding liberty.
"The human consequence of this detention plan will be severe," said Eleanor Aver, director of the committee. "Asylum seekers from the countries that are singled out will be jailed for months, and in some cases years."
Earlier news that the FBI, working with the State Department and immigration officials, had identified thousands of Iraq-born people in the United States to be interviewed had already raised concerns among civil libertarians.
"We are on high alert for people's civil liberties," said Annette Lamoreaux, East Texas Regional director of the ACLU. "The best weapon against it is to be vigilant and to speak out."
Local FBI agents say they are closely watching people who they suspect may be sympathetic to Saddam Hussein, but that no one is "mobilized" for a large "roundup" of Iraqis in the Fort Worth-Dallas area.
However, the agents, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they may use available immigration laws to detain people considered to be a potential threat to the area.
In the Fort Worth-Dallas area, one agent said, "we have a very large population of people who potentially could be supportive of Islamic radical ideology and activities."
Lori Bailey, spokeswoman for the FBI's regional offices in Dallas, said no one will be harassed by agents looking for signs of terrorism.
"We're not going to be knee-jerking and racing out (to arrest local Islamics) when the bombs start dropping." Bailey said.
If and when the war begins, the FBI will open a 24-hour command post in Dallas in anticipation of handling a "deluge" of calls from people with information about terrorism and hate crimes on the local front, Bailey said.
Agents at the command post will coordinate their "intelligence gathering" with the FBI's Washington headquarters, and with federal bureaus across the country, she said.
"We're going to be talking to anybody and everybody who may assist us in our efforts to prevent acts of terrorism," Bailey said.
Many of those who are questioned will likely be Muslims, though none will be forced to talk, she said. "It's a voluntary discussion. Nobody has to talk to us."
Lamoreaux, who has attended government interviews in the past with ACLU clients, said many times these types of interviews are confusing for immigrants, who are juggling news of the war, special registration requirements and fear of hate crimes.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, interviewees were asked to give names of other people in the Muslim community. Soon, the government was getting five names here and five names there, Lamoreaux said.
"Suddenly you are interviewing the entire Muslim community," Lamoreaux said.
© 2003, Fort Worth Star-Telegram.